Leather Chops and Chocolate Water

No one ever taught my Mama to cook – her own mama took over her husband’s job in a tannery when he died suddenly, then she worked in a defense factory during WWII. Consequently, when I was growing up, I never knew meat could be served any way other than Very Well Done. Round Steak and Pork Chops slid down my gullet with lots of ketchup lubrication. Looking back at the meals Mama created for Dad and 4 kids, I’m amazed that we had meat at every meal. Papa earned a very small salary at the country church he pastored. But I was blissfully ignorant that something could be called a meal if no meat was included – that was just a “snack”. I remember my amazement at the meal the single mother of one of my high school buddies served – she brought out green beans, rolls, iced tea, then macaroni & cheese… and I kept waiting for the meat. Nope! This single mom didn’t serve meat at every meal – apparently, that was possible - my 15-year-old world was rocked. As an adult, I now cook some vegetarian meals, especially during the 3-week fast my church holds every January. I happen to be enjoying vegan breakfast sausage, veggie pizza, and falafel for the next 2 weeks. But (mumble, mumble) years ago, the idea of a meatless meal was foreign to me (“Son, there are kids in China who would love to have an overcooked pork chop!”). I’ve also wondered for years about the Hot Chocolate my Mama made for youth gatherings when I was a kid, back in Illinois. It was vaguely “chocolatey”, a little sweet, but had the consistency of water. I’ve finally figured out why – because Mama added water to make it go further. The budget for feeding 20 hungry teens was approximately $0, but since Dad, as Pastor, was also Youth Minister, Children’s Pastor, Worship Leader, Missions Lead, Christian Education Director… we hosted lots of gatherings in our basement, and a warm drink was needed in 20- degree weather. Mama was an amazing cook because she stretched our food budget so far. That’s why hamburger patties shrank to half their original size, salmon patties and meatloaf (both made with lots of saltines) made lots of appearances at our table, and we ate fish that Dad (or one of our church members) had caught (see my article ‘The Fish Head is Staring at Me!’, in my 2nd book). We also had lots of fresh veggies, because our parishioners were mostly farmers. To this day, I remember eating amazing corn on the cob and fresh tomatoes every summer. I’ve cooked most of the meals I’ve eaten since I moved to East Texas, and I don’t often dry out pork chops or steak. But then, my food budgetis not nearly as tight as Mama’s was. I don’t use nearly as many crackers in my meat loaf as she did, and I’ve never made salmon patties. My burgers don’t shrink much on the grill, because I buy 83% lean ground beef. But then, I’m not stretching a tiny food budget to feed 6 people, either, or a horde of hungry teens. You did a great job, Mama!