A little over 30 years ago, the author and minister Robert Fulghum published his runaway bestseller “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” in which he listed life rules such as “Share everything,” “Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody,” and “Flush.”
I am the Robert Fulghum of the duodenum. Pretty much all that I really need to know, I learned as a youngster eating in the company of my parents.
We grew up as a large family. Nine children, no twins. Growing up, I nicknamed my mother’s oven “Noah’s Ark.” Everything she cooked in there went in in pairs: two hams, two pies, two casseroles. Our family would go through three loaves of bread, two gallons of milk, and a jar of peanut butter—a day.
The dining room was clearly the most important room in our house. Not the family room and its come-hither TV. Not our own rooms and their cozies of privacy. The dining room.
One evening at dinner when I was in my mid-teens (and Number Nine was in diapers), my father told us that he had “a big surprise” for dessert.
Now that’s a carrot, pal, to get your children to behave at table and finish their plates. And it worked, but it also boiled the waters of suspense.
Came time, my dad pulled out a Snickers bar—one Snickers bar—and divided it with a knife into nine equal pieces and passed those around, each nugget on its own little plate.
Then he said: “I want you kids to know that, in my eyes, each of you is equal. That’s all.”
I stormed out of the dining room, enraged. How dare he? I deserved a bigger portion than the others. I was the oldest, the biggest, the hungriest.
Someone ate my piece.
A long time passed before I saw through to what my father did that dinnertime. In all the vicissitudes of our family, in all the crazy things that we kids did to our parents, my father did not blink away from that division of his love for his children.
What I remember most about my mother, foodwise, is how she graduated as a cook. In the beginning, it was frozen slabs of halibut thrown like horseshoes onto the baking sheet and topped with a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup. She based her spaghetti sauce in Heinz tomato soup.
She just had so many maws to fill.
Later, when most of us had grown into our late ‘teens and twenties, she blossomed, like the roses she adored. She clipped drawers-full of recipes from food mags, attended culinary schools in Europe, cooked ever more delicious meals for us all.
Of us nine, three are gay. This development appeared more difficult for Mom than for Dad, due perhaps to her background. She had been raised in a small village in Belgium, by fairly conservative Roman Catholic parents, thus the foreign from here was layered atop the foreign from there. Her past had not provided her any tools to talk about being gay. And she did not talk about it.
On a visit to San Francisco in the late 1980s to visit one of her three gay children, she noticed a cookbook in my sister’s kitchen that had been published as a fundraiser by Project Open Hand, a Bay Area organization for which my sister volunteered as it delivered what it called “meals with love” to people with HIV/AIDS.
My mother returned to Denver and unassumingly began work on her own cookbook, eventually called “Friends for Dinner” which brought $150,000 (close to $350,000 in 2022 dollars) to the Denver coffers of Volunteers of America’s Meals on Wheels for People with AIDS.
She and my father self-published the book, into a third printing, and took not a dime against any of its production or recipe testing costs. My mother flogged sales of that book by setting up a card table weekends outside the Tattered Cover bookstore, handing out homemade chocolate truffles if you bought a copy.
“Friends for Dinner” was how my mother talked about her gay children.
It was loud.
I have learned so much about life—especially about caring and kindness—from my mother’s cooking, from the thousands of meals that she cooked for her family, friends and guests, from that book, from the hundreds of classes that she taught at La Bonne Cuisine, a cooking school of her own devising that she ran out of her home kitchen.
The recipe here comes from La Bonne Cuisine and a session that my mother called, using a word from her native French, “A Salut to Spring.” She loved to cook salmon.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Poached Salmon with Raspberry Beurre Blanc
From Madeleine St. John, La Bonne Cuisine, Denver. Serves 6.
4 cups dry white wine
2 cups water
1 cup sliced celery
4 small onions, sliced
4 small carrots, sliced
2 medium parsley sprigs
1 large bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 9- to 12-pound whole fresh salmon, cleaned and patted dry
Watercress, lemon and lime slices, fresh raspberries, for garnish
For the raspberry beurre blanc:
1/2 cup raspberry vinegar
1/4 minced shallot
4 tablespoons (1/4 cups) whipping cream, warmed
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
2 tablespoons raspberry jam, strained of its “seeds”
Combine first 9 ingredients in large stockpot or fish poacher and bring to slow simmer over moderate (or medium) heat. Add salmon and poach 45 minutes to 1 hour. DO NOT ALLOW POACHING LIQUID TO BOIL.
Transfer poached salmon to work surface to drain and firm up. Remove head and discard. Using sharp knife, gently free salmon skin beginning at head, then peel off by hand, working toward tail. Remove thin layer of dark flesh. Transfer salmon to platter. (Salmon may be prepared several hours ahead and refrigerated; bring to room temperature before serving.)
Make the raspberry beurre blanc: Combine vinegar and shallot in small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until vinegar is reduced to 2 tablespoons. Add cream and continue cooking until liquid is reduced to 2 tablespoons. Remove from heat Whisk in 2 or 3 pieces of butter, 1 piece at a time.
Return saucepan to low heat and cook, whisking in remaining butter, until mixture is the consistency of light mayonnaise. Whisk in strained raspberry jam.
To serve, garnish poached salmon with watercress, lemon and lime slices and fresh raspberries. Serve with the sauce.
Reach Bill St John at email@example.com