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Potage Champignons Grandma:

My mother did not teach me how to cook.

Ma was far too impatient with the feeble attempts of neophytes to take the trouble to teach me any more of any household task than was needed to follow orders. Consequently, when she died I could bake a potato, make a salad, and knew maybe half a dozen ways to cook ground beef and that was about it. Dad and I lived off of barbecue about three nights a week for the next couple of years. Dad was actually quite good at barbecue. (Finally! Something my Dad was actually good at! The pigs have all taken flight.) All in all, we probably ate about ten times better and more healthily than when Ma had been in charge of the kitchen. Even if at somewhat greater expense.

Consequently, once I got into college, whenever I had elective credits to fill in I would generally fill them at the Home Ec. Department, to at least learn something that would be of practical use.

The end result is that I ended up with some idea of what I was doing on the occasions that I would end up trying to actually cook something other than soup. I don’t suppose, judging from the results, that Ma ever took a formal cooking class during any part of her all too brief fling with the L.A. public school system.

I know that Gran didn’t.

Gran learned to cook the old-fashioned way, at her mother’s knee. From which I can only conclude that my great-grandmother couldn’t cook either. But, then, she was Irish. (Or, as she would have insisted, Scots-Irish.) About the only people in the world with a reputation for being worse cooks than the working-class Brits are the working-class Irish.

In any case, I was happily innocent of any first-hand knowledge of competent cookery until I had credits to fill in college, so as a child I had no particular criticism of Gran’s efforts (except when she tried to fill me up on bread).

But even at that there were a few things that struck me as just too strange to be believed. I don’t recall that she ever subjected me to the classic blue-collar British delicacy of cold pork and beans right out of the can served up on toast, but my cousins are probably correct in their attribution of the rare suppers that they got from Uncle Bronty on the occasions that Aunt Pisces was out, consisting of creamed corn on white bread as being one of Gran’s originals.

Gran also apparently had served him fried spaghetti when he was growing up. Aunt Pisces, being of German rather than British extraction, turned up her nose at this misuse of resources and served up her spaghetti with plain, unseasoned, canned tomato sauce. (To my certain knowledge she is not the only woman of German extraction to have done so. I do not know whether this is a regional specialty, or an ethnic weakness.) But the thing that sticks most clearly in my mind, however, was Gran’s practice of taking a tomato and slicing it up into a bowl and eating it with sugar and half-and-half as if it was strawberries.

Still, Gran’s efforts were for the most part fairly run of the mill. And, given that by the ’50s most blue-collar households’ diets on this side of the pond were pretty heavily dependent on processed foods, I doubt that our table was significantly worse off than the average.

I think the most exotic of Gran’s creations, however, was her mushroom soup, a specialty which she, perforce, enjoyed in solitary splendor. Or, at any rate, its creation seemed exotic to me. This was also something which one must suppose was very traditional. It certainly echoed back to a far less-complicated era than that represented by a suburban Southern California town in the 1950s.

On the fairly rare occasions that Gran took it into her head to make mushroom soup, she would take a stroll about the neighborhood and collect the mushrooms from peoples’ front lawns. She would sometimes take me along as she collected them, but I’ll have to admit that I never learned to recognize an edible mushy running feral among the diochondra (which in Southern California was considered a lawn, not a weed). When she got her prizes home she would make them into “soup”.

Or so she claimed. I’m sure La Belle Ecole de Cordon Bleu would not have agreed.

What she actually did was to sauté them in butter, pour in some milk and add some salt and pepper. That was about it.

I was still impressed.

Ma, however, was convinced that Gran was going to poison herself someday (which she never did), and would never let me even taste any of it.

Although considering the general level of culinary skills involved, I may not have missed much.

What I wonder now is how Gran — who grew up in Chicago — had learned to recognize edible mushrooms in the first place. For she unquestionably could. Then again, there is a lot of woodland around Chicago, and I don’t know what part of Chicago she grew up in, either.