In the world of cooking and gustatory pleasure, the sensation of taste can be categorized into five basic categories: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. The latter is a Japanese term for a savory, stimulating sensation that is meaty but not in the "red meat" meaning of the word. Umami fills your mouth with pleasure. I like to experience all five senses when I eat and I hope to convey them as I improve my cooking ability.
But I think I have identified a sixth sense. It's why homemade dishes you remember as a child tasted so good and why I can't seem to replicate the same pleasurable sensation when I prepare the dish in my home. I call it UMommy. It's that nostagic and comforting feeling that makes you dream about a dish and its aroma long after you packed your bags and headed to your new home and makes you want to recreate and share the flavor memory in your own kitchen. Everything tasted better when your mother or grandmother made it because it was made and served with love.
An example is one of my childhood favorites, squash pudding. This dish has been served at every family occasion since I can recall. Both my maternal grandmother, Rose (Mimi), and my mother made it as did the women who helped them in the kitchen. I can't recall a visit to my hometown, Chattanooga, for any holiday where a warm squash pudding wasn't waiting for me.
Recently I was talking up my family's squash pudding to a woman I met at a dinner who asked me for the recipe. Many years ago my mother typed up all the signature recipes from the women on her side of the family and gave them to me. I've kept them in a safe file box with other "important papers." There's Aunt Rachel's Cheesecake, Aunt Bertha's Cornbread Muffins, Mimi's Noodle Kugel, Birdie's Brisket and, of course, Sonia's Squash Pudding. I dug out the recipe file and typed up "Sonia's Squash Pudding" to email it to the woman. With squash abundant in the farmers markets now I decided to give it a try.
The dish was a disaster. My squash pudding was dry and lackluster. One reason is that I didn't follow the recipe exactly and slap-dashed my own version together lamely using leftover grilled yellow squash, green zucchini and onions from a prior dinner. Then, I crushed plain crackers for the top crust instead of using cornflakes or bread crumbs because that's all I could find in the cupboard. I probably didn't measure anything correctly either because the entire dish was flat, and both my visual and gustatory memory of squash pudding conjured a moist plump filling of squash, cheese and corn.
Now why was this? First, I cut corners. Second, I made the dish in haste. Third, I prepared it as a task and not as a pleasure. I just wanted to get the dish made and see what happened. There was no passion or love in what I was doing. The dish lacked both intention and attention.
Cooking is like sex. If you do it perfunctorily like it's a chore, with no passion or love, there is less pleasure. If you go too fast and don't take your time, there is less enjoyment (for at least one person involved). You need a slow hand, a caring heart and dedicated concentration to make something delicious and pleasing.
I started over with fresh yellow crookneck squash, real bread crumbs and more attention and enjoyment in the preparation. The outcome was better. The dish was plump, moist, full of flavor and it filled me with pleasure.
UMommy is a sensation of another kind that lingers on your mental palate and lasts a lifetime in your heart. It's the special ingredient that made anything your mother or grandmother cooked for you taste better. Things always taste better when seasoned with love.
Rose Winer and Sonia Young's Squash Pudding
Squash pudding (or pie) is a southern tradition. I cannot remember a single family meal without having one at the table. This is our family recipe from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Boil 3 lbs. sliced yellow crookneck squash in water until soft (roughly 5 squash). Drain and mash. Add 1 raw egg, salt and pepper (to taste), 1 cup grated cheese (cheddar or mozzarella or a combination) and (optional) 1/2 cup grated onions. Mix all together.
Mix 2 TBSP melted butter with 1 cup of bread crumbs, corn flakes or Grape Nuts cereal. Sprinkle mixture on the bottom of a Pyrex pie plate. Add in the squash mixture. Sprinkle more bread crumbs, corn flakes (or Grape Nuts) on top of mixture. Lightly dot with butter.
Bake in 350 degree preheated oven for 30 minutes until top browns. You can make ahead and cook for 20 minutes and finish off the last 10 minutes just before serving.
Optional: Add one small can of drained corn or 1 cup fresh off the cob corn plus one more egg.
Do you have a family recipe to share?