Our mom, Karen McEuen Christenson, was the kind of cook who you assumed loved to cook. When she was cooking, a calmness rested on the kitchen. She didn't seem harried or frenzied.
One of my favorite Food Network chefs is a woman named Ina Garten. One of the reasons I love watching her is because she's so happy and relaxed when she's cooking. The love for her husband, Jeffrey, comes out in her cooking.
That's how I feel about my mom. She showed her love through her cooking.
Mom was a busy school teacher, but I remember more nights than not we had family dinner. She had a few worn, tried-and-true recipes that she would retrieve from an old, green tin recipe box, a box she probably received as a wedding shower gift.
But most of her weekly meals were from memory. Typical weeknight meals at our house weren't necessarily special, but they were all very tasty. Spaghetti, egg salad sandwiches, baked chicken, potato bar.
We especially loved her tacos, which we thought were southern-California authentic tacos. Mom was raised in Montebello, California, in East Los Angelas County. She would mix rice with hamburger, and she would fry corn tortillas in hot oil for a few seconds on each side. And we always had green taco sauce with them. I still prefer tacos cooked this way more than any other way.
Sunday dinners were legendary, in my mind. Somehow her timing was perfect and everything was ready to eat not more than a half hour after church.
Nearly every Sunday Mom left a pot roast cooking while we attended church. Then we'd come home and Dad would help make the mash potatoes. Mom would make gravy from the pot roast drippings, and I have yet to make gravy as well as she did.
She also always had Jello, keeping that Mormon stereotype alive in our home. I remember Kathy liking to help make the Jello.
For dessert, almost every single Sunday, we had chocolate cake. My dad's favorite food is probably chocolate cake. Mom made the frosting with real butter (a MUST for my dad) and Hershey's cocoa. I yearn for it even now. My dad liked to eat his cake in a bowl with milk over the top. Sometimes I would follow suit.
She knew the value of bringing our large family around the table. We didn't actually all fit around the table. At least two or three had to sit at the counter, but we all took turns setting the table and helping get dinner on the table.
Mom taught me at a young age how to properly set a table with the fork on the left side, the knife and spoon on the right side, and the glass above the knife.
A few dinners she made stick out in my mind as real highlights.
Some good friends of my parents, the Olavasons, were visiting from Menan, Idaho. Wayne Olavason was a good cook in his own right. I remember the first time I ever had steak was at the Olavason's house. Steak was usually reserved for the adults, but Wayne made sure to grill a lot of steak, and even the kids got to have some. I was in heaven.
Perhaps because of Wayne's generosity when we'd visit them in Menan, Mom decided she would have a nice meal when they visited us. So mom made barbecue ribs. It was the first time I'd ever had them, and I thought they were truly the best thing on earth.
Another time I remember was when Doug, our oldest brother, returned from his mission in Germany. He lived with us and attended the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls.
Mom decided to experiment with making some German dishes. Each night was a taste explosion in my mouth.
I specifically remember her making a dish called rouladine that was flank stank stuffed with bacon and onions and rolled up and cooked on a very low setting. I only remember her making that once, but I loved it so much.
She also made cabbage rolls, and I loved those as well. Really, there was almost nothing Mom did wrong.
Well, there was this one time I remember that Mom took my absolute favorite dish as a child, which was spaghetti, and turned it into Mexican spaghetti by adding cumin and other spices. I was heartbroken and refused to eat it. I was sent to bed hungry for my ingratitude. Today, I think I would like it. But at the time, I must have been a purist, especially when it came to my favorite dish.
In high school my friends and I formed a club where we would watch movies set around a theme. It was my turn to host the party, and the theme was all things British. We would be watching Monty Python movies.
Mom drove to Albertson's, her favorite grocery store, and bought some crumpets and tea to serve at my British party. Mom was always good to think of little details that would make parties special. I'm not sure I've had crumpets since that party. (Like most British food I've tasted, not all that impressed.)
Mom was especially known for her rolls, pies, and Christmas candies. She made divinity, caramels, and fudge every Christmas to give to neighbors, family, and friends. Her fudge recipe came from a woman who liked Mom and only shared the recipe after Mom swore she wouldn't share it with anyone else. (I'm pretty sure she'll share it with you if you ask.)
For all of our weddings, Mom made these cute little mints we all loved. And because I married a Hawaiian, Mom made some delicious pina colada drinks for my wedding reception that even my Hawaiian in-laws loved.
I wish I had more pictures of Mom cooking. Here is one I took from my sister-in-law Amanda's Facebook account.
This is long overdue, and I know I didn't show it nearly enough while growing up, but I am so grateful for mom instilling a love of food in me. There's few things better in life than sharing a good meal with people you love. Mom understood that value.
And it didn't hurt that it was a delicious lesson to learn.