Ah, the gastronomic pleasures my mom delivered. While she never attended a culinary school - she had only six years of formal education - Mom knew how to prepare meals any growing boy could savor.
Since my dad was the sole provider for our family of seven, Mom became the housekeeper extraordinaire. Her non-cooking diversions consisted of simple pleasures such as tuning in to soap operas (her shows - don't touch that dial!), watching Lawrence Welk or Queen for a Day, devouring the latest Reader's Digest, or motoring to the Dairy Queen for a Dilly Bar. Otherwise her focus was on food preparation - her forte.
Mom learned how to cook as a young girl living near Sauk Centre, Minn., site of Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street" - written while she lived there. Her job was to prepare abundant helpings of tasty food for hungry farm hands. That acquired skill was passed on to her usually hungry five children.
She took her cooking seriously, laughing only when my older brother Jerry teased her. As I grew up in Jamestown, N.D., I watched Mom's amazing performances, marked by flapping arms (she was heavy-set and her large arms created a small monsoon when she was on a roll) and the kind of intent focus usually associated with symphony orchestra directors, professional billiard champions or expert marble players.
Yet Mom rarely bothered with cookbooks or precise measurements. She had the knack. She insisted that we use real butter and real cream, and that we buy or grow our own fresh garden ingredients. For some reason, Mom wouldn't shop anywhere but the local Red Owl store, believing other stores provided inferior produce and meats.
Mom prepared game birds, fish, deer and whatever Dad the hunter brought home. I've never figured out what she did so splendidly to remove the wild taste from those pheasants, ducks, geese, and deer, but she used some mix of seasonings, cooking temperatures, and timing to create stupendous gastronomic delights.
Her meals were so tantalizing, I exercised no restraint at the table - especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. She'd prepare a gigantic bowl of delectable mashed potatoes with gravy - just for me - and another bowl for the others. Her Butterball turkey (the only kind she ever thought tasted "right") centered the huge table, surrounded by freshly baked pies and cakes, breads, homemade preserves, cranberries and other temptations.
Since Mom always canned her own jams and preserves, Dad would load us into the old Chevy every August to trundle off to pick berries. While I hated filling my bucket with chokecherries and plums, I enjoyed going to the basement during the winter to fetch Mason jars filled with Mom's goodies.
If I wasn't picking berries, I was helping Mom in her huge, well-designed garden. Sometimes I picked the onions, peas or carrots, especially when the dreaded garter snakes showed up to frighten her.
And when I wanted real, hand-cranked ice cream, Mom taught me how to make it. We'd drive to Aunt Katie's farm, bordering the Missouri River near Fort Rice, and follow Mom's simple procedure. I'd milk a cow, run the contents through the separator, pick fresh strawberries, mix lots of sugar, and mosey down to the icehouse.
Since Katie's farm didn't have electricity, she had no refrigerator and we had to retrieve ice from a small shack built into a hillside. That trip to the icehouse was sometimes scary, since rattlesnakes, escaping the summer heat, often frequented the building.
Never mind. Aunt Katie fetched a forked stick, calmly picked up the intruder, and delivered it safely to the rattlesnake mound area up the hill. She taught me how to catch and relocate rattlesnakes too.
Having gathered the necessary ingredients, we kids then loaded up the heavy metal machine and began cranking - and cranking - and cranking - until we produced an ice cream treat never matched by anything store-bought.
Yes, Mom was my guide and inspiration to gastronomic delights during my youth. Her food was so good, and I ate so much of it, I'm amazed to this day that I don't weigh 800 pounds. But when you're seven or eight years old, you don't really worry too much about being buried in a piano case.
Lesson learned? While my Mom didn't teach me much about history or geography, she did inspire me to value good-tasting food. Watching her concoct those marvelous treats, I became something of a decent cook, later in life. Nothing, of course, to rival her expertise.