My father used to routinely ask my mother what was for dinner. Her favorite name for leftovers was “Clean Out the Fridge”. If she said this to a child likely to turn up her nose, it was “goulash”. Where she got the idea that goulash was throw everything into a pot, I will likely never know.
One day, my father asked: What do you call that?
When he received the usual answer, he chided: Can’t you call it anything more appealing?
That was met by a roll of the eyes. And followed by a wink towards me. From the next several days my mother and I would wait to hear the question: What do you call that? so that we could respond with the most outrageous thing we could think of.
One harried day, when Mom was in no mood to play, my father offered his usual query.
Whatever you want to call it! she said tersely. It’s ham. Cheese. Some leftover veggies. It’s one of a kind. If you want everything to have a name, give it one!
But I’m not creative! my father pleaded.
Ham au gratin, my mother said. It’s not a masterpiece. It’s dinner.
But everything you serve is a masterpiece to me. You’re an artist!, he replied, trying to lighten the mood.
I had to add to the conversation: If it’s a masterpiece, name it! It’s abstract. Call it Etude #27. Or Nude Descending the Staircase. Like something you’d see in a museum.
My father, wisely, retreated without a word as my mother and I burst into laughter.
My mom was a great home cook, but she rarely did anything fancy. I know I must have some memories mixed up, because it seemed like we had eggs for breakfast nearly every day. Yet, I know that she would only buy three dozen to feed 9 for the week. While Mom did her everyday magic at the stove, I was fascinated by shows like The Galloping Gourmet or Julia Childs. They seemed so far removed from our kitchen table that it didn’t seem like it was even in the same realm.
Today marks the 100th birthday of the inimitable Julia Childs. As I watched this clip from the 1980’s — it’s so Julia; so Letterman — I remembered Etude #27. Just like my Mom, Julia could think on her feet and figure out how to make chicken salad out of something else.
h/t to Open Culture for leading me to the YouTube link! (Open Culture is great. Be warned: you’ll spend time there — and not regret a thing!) Be sure to watch to see what Julia says she does with food that doesn’t turn out right.
By any other name, when faced with malfunctioning equipment, a hamburger can be Steak Tartare Au Gratin. That is if you are a chef like Julia Childs, or you have an ebullient, joyous personality and know that a good part of cooking, like so much in life, is confidence peppered with a great sense of humor.