As you must know by now, my mother was not what one would call a good cook. Not by a long shot. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Not by anybody’s measure.
To borrow from Red Skelton: “If I could say one good thing about my wife’s cooking, she sure broke that dog from begging at the table.” And to continue in that great stream of thought: “My wife’s cooking is so bad that the flies took up a collection to fix the screen door.”
Those pithy comments I lend to my late father. He loved great food and, unable to satisfy that love at home, we went out for dinner a lot. Some might have called it cheating. He called every dining experience a break for Mom; in all reality, it was a break for the rest of us from Mom’s attempts at dinner.
But Mom did have a couple of signature dishes that brought satisfied sighs as we ate them.
One of those was fried chicken. Hers was sublime, superb, succulent (although not necessarily in that order). For a few weeks every fall, she’d apply her fried chicken technique to pheasant. We knew about pheasant under glass, but we loved it fried, served with mashed potatoes and a rich, gamey gravy. Frequently there were peas or green beans.
Mom learned to cook fried chicken from her mother. MeMa’s repertoire was comprised of fried chicken and roast beef. She extrapolated from her chicken technique one that could apply to pheasant. My mother didn’t like roast beef, so she only learned to make fried chicken and pheasant from her mother.
Presumably, my grandmother’s chicken was fried in a cast iron skillet that was coated in years’ worth of crud—oils and fats that accumulated over many years. The pan had never seen soap and water.
How then, did Mom figure out how to fry chicken in an electric skillet? Or why did she?
The electric skillet, made of cast aluminum and coated in Teflon, was created in 1953 by Sunbeam Corporation, a Chicago-based company that had established itself as the Chicago Flexible Shaft Company by manufacturing mechanical horse clippers and sheep shearers. The Multi-Cooker Frypan, as it was called, came to be for reasons I can’t figure out.
I was unable to find a patent registration, but I could identify dozens of copy-cat models. By 1953, Americans were flocking to the suburbs, each settling into homes that had four-burner ranges. Perhaps Sunbeam’s R&D execs recognized that there was a need for what was simply another burner.
When my mother started to divest herself of various things, I got her electric skillet. After all, she wasn’t about to make fried chicken for one. And my sister’s lack of interest in cooking was well demonstrated when she got rid of her stove to make more room for her cats.
In my inherited electric skillet I have only ever made fried chicken, as well as the gravy for the mashed potatoes.
When we bought the pizzeria that I wanted to grow into a full-fledged restaurant, there was none of the equipment I would need other than the menacingly large ovens. I had to improvise by using a couple of free-standing burners and an electric skillet that was rectangular rather than square.
Though hardly the kitchen of my dreams, it worked pretty well. There were some things that I could not do in my “kitchen,” but I could make soups and sauces, pasta and lasagna if I was careful in my timing.
One afternoon I was busy at the skillet making a béchamel sauce for that evening’s dinner service. My cell phone, an old-fashioned flip phone, was on a shelf above the counter where the skillet was. An employee was going about her afternoon business of par-cooking three or four pastas. For reasons I don’t know, she reached across me for something and knocked my phone into the béchamel sauce.
I knew instinctively that my phone was ruined, but I never-the-less removed it from the white sauce and took it to the Verizon store across town.
After telling the service clerk my sad story, she asked “What’s a béchamel sauce?” I felt obliged to give her a quick cooking lesson. I had hoped it would have saved me from having to pay for a new phone.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
One of the “mother sauces” of French cuisine, béchamel sauce can be used as the base for many other sauces, such as Mornay, which is béchamel with cheese, or as is in dishes such as the Italian lasagne al forno or mac and cheese.
2 Tbs. butter
2 Tbs. flour
1¼ cups milk, heated
Freshly ground pepper
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit, but don’t let it brown — about 2 minutes. Add the hot milk, continuing to stir as the sauce thickens. Bring it to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste, and a few scrapings of nutmeg, lower the heat, and cook, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes more. Remove from heat.
To turn your white sauce into cheese sauce, stir in ½ cup grated cheese during the last 2 minutes of cooking, along with a pinch of cayenne pepper.