Whenever I use my mother’s big yellow Pyrex bowl (circa the late 1960s/1970s), I recall scenes of cozy kitchens and think of her everyday, practical must-haves. Featured in my memories is a box of Brillo pads. When my mother reigned over kitchens in Connecticut, Ohio, and Michigan, she seemed to constantly be scouring pans with a Brillo pad. And there was always one resting against the side of the sink, or near the faucet handle.
She’d use Brillo pads to the point where they were misshapen and had none of that pink soap left within their steel wool; her fingertips — and sometimes mine, too — would ache and split from scrubbing so hard against stubborn spots.
In her “office,” which was a little desk adjoining a counter, more necessities could be found, including a stack of plain white notepads. She’d constantly jot down lists: grocery items like coffee, scotch, butter, ice cream (and Brillo!); and to-do’s like cleaners, change hair appointment, call school, dance club, tennis with Lil? Sometimes you’d barely be able to make out her scratches, as they were written with a pencil that she might have sharpened not with a pencil sharpener, but with a knife. (If she couldn’t quickly find a sharpener, a knife would do. That knife was kept sharp with a nifty sharpening stone, kept in the jammed utility drawer.)
There were so many practicalities, important props that told her story, in those kitchens — several sizes and colors of the aforementioned Pyrex mixing bowls, favorite paring knives with worn-smooth wood handles, a no-fuss percolator-style coffee-maker, a tiny transistor radio for news and baseball games, a wheeled stool that she sat on to chop and dice, or spin around on and move from drawer to cupboard to refrigerator (this became a necessity with eight children and endless hours of cooking; it saved her feet). Beneath her feet were dog food and water bowls that she would frequently step on; we knew what had happened when we’d hear, “geezel!” — or something a little stronger. She’d then use her ultra-practical whisk broom to sweep up any dog food morsels that may have found their way onto the floor.
Perhaps the most critical prop of all was her private stash of candy bars, which she “hid” deep in a cupboard. At about 10:30 a.m. daily, Mom would be happily snapping a Kit Kat in half. Savoring two crispy chocolate sticks, her late-morning ritual included sitting down to finish off the daily paper’s crossword puzzle. If a bird dallied at a feeder outside the window, she’d take a long look while eating her candy bar, then grab her little bird guide and crossword-tips book, mumble to herself about birds and words, and dash off something like “black-capped chickadees and bright, beautiful goldfinches 10:40 a.m., early October” in the bird guide.
Pyrex bowls, Brillo pads, notepads, Kit Kat bars, whisk brooms — not chic, by any means, but definitely the simple ingredients she needed to captain her perfect kitchen.
Detroit Home contributing writer Carol Hopkins tells me that her mother’s main go-to kitchen item was an electric skillet — the kind with the big pronged cord and chunky dial. “She’d make fried fish, with a saltine cracker coating, in that huge skillet every Friday night,” Hopkins says with a laugh. “And she’d use it often throughout the week, as well.” Contributor Honey Murray says when she was growing up, her mom couldn’t live without her wooden spoons. “She’d stir everything with them: warm milk for the new babies, spaghetti sauce, brownie batter. She didn’t seem to need an electric mixer at all!”
And then there were the extras, or extravagances — not Brillo pads, but things Mom could maybe live without. In my mom’s last kitchen, an exotic wood cutting board with drip-collecting grooves awaited 22-pound turkeys and huge standing rib roasts. Also extravagant: a vast Waterford glassware collection inspired by trips to Ireland. We also had an indoor grill. Yes, built right into the back counter of the kitchen, next to the stove, was a huge grill on which you could cook up to 12 steaks at a time. Luxury, indeed.
Sometimes luxuries become essentials. Another of our writers, Patty LaNoue Stearns, delights in telling the story of her mom’s cherished Doufeu pot. The Doufeu, a French-made heavy pot, was a big splurge for this Allen Park mom of seven who purchased it while on vacation in southwest Michigan. Even though she considered the pot luxe, and although it was actually meant for braising, she “blissfully made her casseroles, scalloped potatoes, spaghetti, even oatmeal in the beloved Doufeu,” Stearns says. That pot, an indulgence, had become essential. Today, Stearns is the caretaker of the Doufeu.
So what’s the No. 1 necessity in my kitchen? That big yellow bowl. It’s a constant reminder of candy bars, songbirds, and crossword puzzles — and taking the time to enjoy them.