I wasn’t planning to open a vein of nostalgia. Does anyone, really? I mean, aside from touring ’80s rock bands and that aunt with the photo albums at your family reunion. But that’s what happened when I found too many tomatoes on the kitchen counter and started fishing for mom’s zucchini casserole recipe.
Kids, here’s the truth: I was not a fan of that recipe as a kid myself. But it was OK, was loaded with veggies from dad’s garden and hey, has American cheese. The older I got, the better it tasted. Now that mom’s been gone for five years, well, wait, hold on while I wipe away these tears. (These aren’t literary tears — they’re real.)
The casserole is a double hit of nostalgia — dad in the garden that spanned the back of our lot, mom in the kitchen that processed those garden goods.
Dad was one of those suburban farmer gardeners who grew so much more than we could eat or preserve that summer was the season of vegetable giveaways in the neighborhood, at church and at the office. He found joy both in growing and giving it away.
Mom found joy in cooking for us and everyone else. Everyone. She ended up running the kitchens of the churches we attended. She had copies of recipes ready to give someone if they liked what she served for dinner. (This casserole recipe has a sticky note on it — “Master.”)
She had an extra seat at the table for someone dad brought home from work or one of our friends who lingered until dinner time. She always had a loaf of bread baking to give to someone.
As I leaf through a pile of mom’s recipes looking for the casserole, memories grow like zucchini on a plant that keeps producing edible green chunky baseball bats until you’re overwhelmed.
Mom having dinners at seven every night when Dad got home from work. Dad stripping off his suit and pulling on his jeans and a forlorn T-shirt to tend his plot. Mom’s kitchen — stay out of her way if you weren’t her “cut-up” that night — and the effortless way she prepared it all.
But it wasn’t effortless. It was the result of planning and procuring, of timing and practice. It just looked effortless to the three of us at the dinner table or the 50 people at a funeral dinner. Because Mom knew her stuff.
I find several photocopies of the recipe — “Something Special Zucchini.” Unlike her basil spaghetti sauce recipe (it starts “approx 1 bushel tomatoes”), this one is impressionistic. Its four main ingredients are listed with no amounts, but she does say how much butter and American cheese to use (and then I ignore those amounts — like mom like son?).
I slice zucchini , onions, green peppers and tomatoes and layer them in the “DEEP casserole bowl” I’m instructed to use. I add the cheese, butter, salt and pepper (it’s a simple recipe) and slide it in the oven.
Before long it starts smelling really good. An hour later, it tastes good, too.
The casserole does its job. We’re well fed, there are fewer tomatoes on the counter, and my afternoon and evening are pleasantly sprinkled with memories I haven’t recalled for a long time.
And now I’m having a hankering for some of Dad’s hot green beans.