Swiss Steak

Today is my Mom’s birthday. She would have been 93 – the same age as Queen Elizabeth.

The Queen and my Mom actually had a lot in common. Both were born under the sign of Taurus. Both ruled over their domains with unwavering hands and a fierce determination. Both strove to do what was right – even when it wasn’t popular. Both could light up a room just by entering it – and could turn someone into a blithering fool with a single glare.

My mom definitely had the glare down. And if you were foolish enough not to heed it, the voice tone came out. It was not pretty.

Mother of six, grandmother of thirteen, and wife of one.

Her early life wasn’t easy. She was born in Bakersfield and the following year moved to San Diego. They were there for a few years and then the stock market crash and Depression brought them back to Bakersfield, where my grandfather’s aunt lived. Auntie Sis was his mother’s sister and the woman who raised him and his brother after his mom died in 1896. It’s one of those strange family stories that was never actually explained, but the gist of it is his mother died when he was an infant, and her family took the two boys in. His father remarried and had another three kids. Grandpa and his brother were raised with his mother’s family name and the other three with his father’s name. There wasn’t a formal adoption, so, in theory, my mother’s maiden name should have been Fox. Phoebe Fox. It would have been a fitting name!

She had an older sister, Judy, who was a big band singer and married to a band leader. Judy was nine years older and Mom idolized her. Sadly, she died in 1943 of pneumonia. She never stopped missing her and would often tell me she wished I had known her – she was so full of life… I have a feeling she would have been the perfect bad influence.

Mom’s cooking was born of necessity but she had an affinity for food and flavor. There were, however, things she would not do. First and foremost, was canning. She had watched and helped her mom can things as a little kid – in a scortching hot kitchen in the middle of summer – and swore she would never do it, again. Her idea of making it – of becoming successful – was being able to afford to buy frozen vegetables. It’s interesting to see how events shape our values.

Another thing she did not do was waste anything. She could create a meal out of nothing and serve it as leftovers the next day.

With six kids to feed on a fireman’s salary, she knew how to stretch a pound of hamburger. What was fun growing up, were the inventive things we’d have for dinner. She always collected recipes and had a knack for being able to read one and then create a meal based on what she had in her kitchen, using flavors and ideas and concepts more than precise ingredients. It’s something I can definitely relate to, because that’s exactly how I have cooked most of my life.

Just like tonight…

I thought it would be fun to make something out of her cookbooks for dinner tonight as a bit of a homage to one of the best cooks I have ever known, so I headed over to the site and started looking through the recipes. I was first thinking a stew because it’s wet and rainy outside, but a recipe for Braised Swiss Steak caught my eye and I knew that was going to be it. It had all the earmarks of a mom-recipe – with plenty of room to change things around.

Braised Swiss Steak

In true Mom-Fashion, I switched things around, a bit. I used a small eye of round roast I cut into pieces and then pounded and floured.

I had fresh tomatoes, so I used them – and then added just a bit of tomato sauce. I also cooked it in a 325°F oven for about 90 minutes instead of cooking it on top of the stove.

Mom probably would have served it with wide egg noodles, but I sliced up a red potato and simmered it in the sauce.

All-in-all, a pretty good homage to a really inventive cook.

Swiss Steak

The pictures are a bit of a chronological story, starting in San Diego circa 1928 and finishing 70 years later at their 50th Anniversary in 1998.

The first few are in San Diego, including one with her sister, Judy. Real name, Gertrude. She went from Gertie to Trudy to Judy.

Then there’s 1936 San Francisco down at the piers. They were probably waiting for Aunt Phoebe to arrive from one of her voyages. She was a nurse on several steamship lines and travelled all over the world.

High School graduation in 1944, then San Francisco with her brother in 1948 – along with their 1948 wedding picture and the 1948 Engagement Announcement photo from the newspaper.

The bride is my Aunt Arlene. Actually, cousin. She was Judy’s daughter and raised by my grandmother after she died. Mom was Matron of Honor…

1950’s Bakersfield and then Mom with her mother and 2 aunts – the three youngest Hickey sisters – in 1956.

Easter, 1957 and then a fashion Show at St Gabriel’s about 1964. My mother made every one of those dresses.

A few pictures in the ’60s and then their 25th Anniversary in 1973. We threw them a surprise party- rented a hall, food, full bar, music – the whole shebang. I was stationed in Long Beach at the time and was in the city for three days helping to put everything together and they had no idea. It was a great time.

And then she became a Grandma…

Being a mother was a role she definitely was made for… Grandma was the icing on the cake.

We cruise from the ’70s into the ’80s – her newest niece, Erin, who was born on the day my father had his heart attack.

A driving trip they did cross-country, and seeing me in Boston – the first time they had ever stayed in a house I lived in. they never wanted to intrude…

And… my sister Arlene’s wedding – with Mom and her daughters showing off a bit of skin. That was a fun time!

Dancing with her eldest at his wedding, and celebrating their 40th – another surprise dinner…

and loving her newest nephew, Justin.

The best of it all, though, was their 50th.

Mom’s health was pretty bad at this point and she was having trouble getting around, her mind wasn’t too sharp… and she was only 72.

My sister, Judy, told her there was a party for her boyfriend’s parents, she really wanted them to be there… She wasn’t thrilled about going, but… she’d pretty much do anything for her kids.

They got her out, got her a new dress, the whole bit.

She sort of shuffled into the room and there was a huge “Surprise” and she realized it was a party for them. There was a physical transformation that was completely unbelievable. She went from being hunched over to standing straight as an arrow, shoulders back, head held high.

Vanity, thy name is Phoebe.

She danced, she sang, she laughed, she had the time of her life. And so did we. It was pretty much the last time the real mom was there… and she gave it her all.

So… Happy Birthday, Mom…

And thanks for the memories…