Growing up, my mom cooked most nights. She cooked much like her mother did: recipes forged in the fires of postwar frugality, molded by the modern convenience of easy-to-prepare packaged goods. By the 1980s, America–and my family–had embraced an astonishing array of foods that allowed one to “cook” while doing almost none of the actual cooking: Hamburger Helper, Toaster Strudel, Totino’s Pizza Rolls, Hot Pockets, Swanson Pot Pies, and something named, in a stroke of marketing genius, “Chicken Tonight.”
We were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants but not wealthy or pedigreed enough to be WASPs. We weren’t Italian or Irish. We were from the south, but my mom never made biscuits or fried chicken or pecan pie. We just ate like middle class white people, because that’s what we were.
My favorite dinner as a kid was spaghetti.
My mom would start by putting the smallest possible amount of Wesson canola oil in an electric skillet, then she’d add lean ground beef and absolutely no seasoning. Once the beef was fully browned–because she believed it was dangerous to cook raw meat and vegetables at the same time–she tossed in diced onions and green bell peppers. Once the vegetables had softened a bit, she would squeeze in about a half a bottle of Hunt’s tomato ketchup–(a chorus of gasps as we cut to the audience, their mouths agape)–then a much smaller squirt of store-brand yellow mustard and a small cup of tap water. She would let it simmer together while she boiled a box of Mueller’s angel hair pasta. We spooned the sweet sauce over sticky mounds of noodles and garnished each pasta pile with Kraft “parmesan” cheese, the green can rattling like a broken instrument as we shook it to break up the clumps.
We ate that for dinner once a week, and it never once crossed my mind that there was any other way to make spaghetti.
My mom cooked spaghetti this way because that’s the way her mother cooked it. I have some of my grandmother’s aprons, and I like to think about her wearing them as a young wife, proud to come home from her job as a factory bookkeeper and cook dinner for her husband while her young daughter–my mother–clung to her knees. A working woman.