Just over 30 years ago, the author and minister Robert Fulghum published his bestseller “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”, in which he lists such life rules as “Share everything”, “Say you’re sorry when you hurt someone” and “Flush”.
I am the Robert Fulghum of the duodenum. Pretty much everything I really need to know I learned when I was young eating with my parents.
We grew up like a big family. Nine children, no twins. Growing up, I nicknamed my mother’s oven “Noah’s Ark”. Everything she cooked there was put in pairs: two hams, two pies, two stews. Our family ate three loaves of bread, two gallons of milk, and a jar of peanut butter a day.
The dining room was clearly the most important room in our house. Not the family room and its TV. Not our own rooms and their privacy cozies. The dining room.
One night at dinner, when I was in my mid-teens (and Number Nine was in diapers), my dad told us he had “a big surprise” for dessert.
That’s a carrot, mate, to get your kids to behave nicely at the table and finish their plates. And it worked, but it also boiled the waters of suspense.
When the time came, my dad pulled out a Snickers bar—a Snickers bar—and split it with a knife into nine equal pieces and passed them around, each nugget on its own little plate.
Then he said, “I want you children to know that in my eyes, each of you is equal. That’s all.”
I stormed out of the dining room, furious. How dare he? I deserved a bigger share than the others. I was the oldest, the tallest, the hungriest.
Someone ate my piece.
It was a long time before I understood what my father did at dinner time. In all the vicissitudes of our family, in all the follies that we children have done to our parents, my father has not moved from this division of his love for his children.
What I remember most about my mother, culinary-wise, is how she graduated as a cook. At first, it consisted of slices of frozen halibut tossed like horseshoes onto the baking sheet and topped with a mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup. She based her spaghetti sauce on Heinz Tomato Soup.
She had so many mouths to fill.
Later, when most of us were in our late teens and twenties, she blossomed, like the roses she adored. She cut drawers full of recipes from food magazines, attended culinary schools in Europe, cooked ever more delicious meals for all of us.
Of us nine, three are homosexual. This development appeared more difficult for mum than for dad, perhaps because of his past. She had been brought up in a small village in Belgium, by fairly conservative Catholic parents, so the stranger from here was superimposed on the stranger from there. His past had given him no tools to talk about his homosexuality. And she didn’t talk about it.
While visiting San Francisco in the late 1980s to visit one of her three gay children, she noticed a cookbook in my sister’s kitchen that had been published as a fundraiser. by Project Open Hand, a Bay Area organization my sister had volunteered for. delivered what he called “meals with love” to people living with HIV/AIDS.
My mom moved back to Denver and unassumingly started working on her own cookbook, eventually called “Friends for Dinner,” which grossed $150,000 (nearly $350,000 in 2022 dollars) in Denver coffers Volunteers of America Meals on Wheels for people with AIDS.
She and my father self-published the book, in a third printing, and took no cents against its production costs or recipe testing. My mother boosted sales of this book by setting up a card table on weekends outside the Tattered Cover Bookstore, handing out homemade chocolate truffles if you bought a copy.
“Friends for Dinner” was my mother’s way of talking about her gay children.
It was noisy.
I have learned so much about life – especially caring and kindness – from my mother’s cooking, the thousands of meals she cooked for her family, friends and guests, this book, the hundreds of classes she taught at La Bonne Cuisine, a cooking school of her own design that she ran from her home kitchen.
The recipe here comes from La Bonne Cuisine and a session my mother called, using a word from her native French, “Un salut au Printemps”. She liked to cook salmon.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Poached Salmon with White Raspberry Butter
By Madeleine St. John, La Bonne Cuisine, Denver. For 6 persons.
4 cups dry white wine
2 cups of water
1 cup sliced celery
4 small onions, sliced
4 small carrots, sliced
2 medium sprigs of parsley
1 large bay leaf
1/4 tsp salt
1 whole fresh salmon, 9 to 12 pounds, cleaned and patted dry
Watercress, lemon and lime slices, fresh raspberries, for garnish
For the raspberry white butter:
1/2 cup raspberry vinegar
1/4 shallot, chopped
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) whipping cream, warmed
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
2 tablespoons of raspberry jam, filtered from its “seeds”
Combine the first 9 ingredients in a large stockpot or fish poacher and bring to a slow boil over moderate (or medium) heat. Add the salmon and poach for 45 minutes to 1 hour. DO NOT LET POACHING LIQUID BOIL.
Transfer the poached salmon to a work surface to drain and firm up. Remove head and discard. Using a sharp knife, gently peel the skin off the salmon starting with the head, then peel it off by hand working your way up to the tail. Remove the thin layer of dark flesh. Transfer the salmon to a dish. (Salmon can be made several hours ahead and refrigerated; bring to room temperature before serving.)
Prepare the raspberry beurre blanc: Mix the vinegar and the shallot in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until the vinegar is reduced to 2 tbsp. Add the cream and continue cooking until the liquid is reduced to 2 tablespoons. Remove from heat Stir in 2 or 3 pieces of butter, 1 piece at a time.
Return the pan to low heat and cook, whisking in the remaining butter, until the mixture has the consistency of light mayonnaise. Whisk strained raspberry jam.
To serve, top the poached salmon with watercress, lemon and lime slices and fresh raspberries. Serve with the sauce.
Contact Bill St John at [email protected]