Salmon In Basil Broth
Category: Main Dishes | Blog URL: http://madhousewifecellars.typepad.com/blog/the-mad-housewife-kitchen/
This recipe was entered in The Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook contest, a compilation of the world’s best food blogs which was published in Fall 2010.
Photo: Ruth Francisco
My mother was in love with Jackie Kennedy. She was convinced that Jackie was the not only the world’s most excellent hostess, but also its most accomplished chef, despite Jackie’s admission that she could not cook…at all. The widely publicized menus for the White House dinners no doubt gave Mom this impression. She was in awe. Jackie’s grace and glamor were quite extraordinary to most muddling housewives of the sixties, many of whom, like my mom, were raised during the depression. Four course meals with fancy French names were a real stretch.
In many ways, Jackie was ahead of her time. She aimed for simplicity, comfort, and unpretentious glamor. She tried to select foods that were in season. She streamlined menus to four courses, whereas previous White House dinners ran to five and six. (During the Grant administration, meals had as many as twenty-nine courses.) The four courses consisted of either a fish or soup course first, the main dish, salad, and dessert. She always wanted dinner time to be special, a respite for Jack. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, she planned an Italian Bistro lunch to distract the family.
Inspired by Jackie, Mom spent several weeks reading her first edition copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Then she set it on the shelf above the stove and never opened it again. She went back to her “special treats” of cherry Jell-O salads with marshmallows, tuna casseroles, canned pumpkin (again with marshmallows), fish sticks, and spam “crowned” with pineapple (no marshmallows, thank goodness).
Jackie’s exquisite luncheon menus remained part of my mother’s fantasy life. Yes, she would have loved to have an elegant place setting, a timbale with béchamel sauce served on vermeil china, gilt-edged place cards, a centerpiece of wildflowers, but “Who has time?” she said.
But my mother retained one element of Jackie’s elegant dinner table.
Every dinner of my childhood was lit by candlelight. My father was a pastor, and after the Sunday service he brought home the half-burned altar candles. My mother said she used the candles because it had the effect of quieting her rambunctious children. But I think it was more than that. In candlelight, she could let her imagination go—she was Jackie Kennedy, entertaining foreign ambassadors, eating exquisite dishes while Pablo Casals played cello in the background.
For me as a child candlelight at dinner was a revelation. It was the first time I realized that daily rituals such as eating could be beautiful, poetic, magical. I realized that slowing down, taking time to see, to observe, to taste, allowed one to feel the texture of life. In the crepuscular light, food, no matter how humble, became more significant and tasted better. It made me think about food. It made me grateful for food.
“Who has time?” my mother asked. “Who can afford not to make time?” I ask.
It isn’t so hard, Mother. You even showed me. Elegance and simplicity are compatible. All it takes is a little imagination, a little love.
Make dinner time special. Pour your Mad Housewife Chardonnay into the fancy wine glasses. Turn on the music. Light the candles.
Elegance is a state of mind. You too can be Jackie Kennedy.