We’ll always have cabbage

This column appeared on page 64 of the October Taste Magazine

I’m the eater in the family. Three of my sisters own restaurants and make catering on a massive scale look easy. And my mom is a wonderful cook, who made dinner for our oversized family of six kids, two adults and assorted friends and pets, every night of my childhood. So I’m kind of the black sheep; while they can all cook, I can burn water.

My mom always made dinner from scratch. There were no ready-made meals or quick solutions back then, I don’t even think we had a microwave. We didn’t do takeout, and there were too many of us to afford restaurants. Or maybe we could now and again, but we just couldn’t all fit in one car, or in one restaurant.

My mom made classic family fare; spaghetti bolognese, chicken, mac and cheese, meatloaf, and this weird fish dish I remember, broiled in milk. That was my least favourite.

If I had to call out one family food memory, it would be my mom’s coleslaw. Although it’s less of a memory than a recollection, since I just had some last week.

Every meal was accompanied by it. My mom really knew how to stretch a roast chicken. Okay maybe not every meal, we didn’t have it for breakfast. Not every day anyway. And it was always (and still is) served in the same dish. A large, square, crystal-cut glass bowl. I’ve never seen it served in anything else. That bowl literally has one job. Should anything ever happen to it, I imagine we’d never eat coleslaw again.

My mom’s famous cabbage salad is a great side that gets even nicer after a couple of days, if it lasts that long It’s also a great accompaniment to just about anything, including toast with cheese (a personal favourite). The recipe is ridiculously simple, even for me; shredded cabbage, Crosse and Blackwell mayo (you can use other brands if you want, like I do when I’m living overseas, but disclaimer; then it doesn’t taste quite like my mom’s), rice vinegar, salt and pepper, and a teaspoon of sugar to cut the acid. No real measurements, just toss it all in till you get the right consistency. And that’s how we all still make it today. Our family recipe doesn’t have carrots or raisins or any of that nonsense. There was a phase where a couple of my sisters were doing that Asian coleslaw thing, with the dried noodles, but that didn’t last long.

Sometimes I use apple cider vinegar, but then it doesn’t taste quite like my mom’s recipe. Another thing makes mine not taste like my mom’s, and that’s because I don’t serve it in THE cabbage salad bowl.

That wasn’t the only cabbage dish regularly found in our fridge. There was also my gran’s infamous cabbage rolls. I’ve never tried one, or asked for the recipe, but I think it’s mince, cooked with (I kid you not) raisins and golden syrup (for some unfathomable reason), rolled in cabbage leaves and baked till they are slightly grey.

Family legend has it that before I was born, my parents went to my gran for dinner. Faced with a mountainous platter of cabbage rolls, my dad clocked my mother’s expression and joked that it was her favourite food. Unschooled in that particular dialect of sarcasm, my gran loaded up her plate and insisted on seconds. My mom, new to the family and still trying to impress, didn’t set the record straight, and from that day onwards Granny Annie always made an extra batch to bring home.

Does every family have a signature ingredient or dish, served year-in, year-out, on the same platter, either revered or ridiculed by all? If so, other families probably have more glamorous ingredients in theirs, like duck or caviar. At least we’ll always have cabbage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *