After she left my father, my mother made valiant efforts to sit her four daughters down to dinner every night. We never ate before eight o’clock unless we were at someone else’s house. Agnes Donnelly Ryan Burke was very continental and thought it ignoble to eat before the evening news was over. Most of her recipes, clipped from the New York Times, required long simmering or baking times to suit her cocktail hour, which often lasted until nine o’clock. I didn’t mind eating late because I rode my bike around town with the neighborhood boys after their dinners and before mine. I did my homework while watching the late news and The Tonight Show with Agnes.
Agnes’ beef stew was extravagant. She would not permit anyone to call it Irish stew because, “Everyone knows the Irish have lousy taste and can’t cook.” Neither would she admit that it was really her version of the Times’ Boeuf Bourguignon. Her process would begin with a cast iron frying pan for searing the two-inch cubed sirloin pieces in hot bacon fat. She’d remove the meat and clean the frying pan to sauté the sliced onions, mushrooms and carrots in butter. The two most important ingredients, the hard-to-find dried bay laurel leaves and the bottle of red wine, were added to the meat and vegetables along with salt, pepper, thyme, allspice and garlic cloves. All of this simmered in the Revere Ware stock pot while Agnes sat in her favorite spot on the couch with her Scotch Old Fashioned to watch the news.
When the saucy aroma started permeating the house around seven o’clock she’d stir the pot, turn off the stove and return to the living room to visit with her boyfriend, Harry, and various teenage boys who’d stop in with their illegal six-packs of beer to impress us all with their funny stories. About half-past eight she’d skim the fat off the ragout, heat it up, add thickener and a few more ounces of wine, and we’d all sit down to dinner.
I can’t remember how old I was when Agnes started cooking with wine. It became fashionable in the 1950s long before Julia Child’s TV show–probably after the war. I overheard Agnes extolling the virtues of cooking with wine “rather than cheap cooking sherry” on long-distance telephone conversations with her sisters as they swapped recipes. She added wine to chile con carne, shrimp newburg, gravy, beef stroganoff and spaghetti sauce. As we got older, she added more and more wine. No one complained except the occasional guest who had not been as inculcated in fine dining as my sisters and I.
After I moved from Agnes’ home I used her recipes but had to resort to the economical “cheap cooking sherry” for my own family. The more I used, the better the food tasted. I gave up cooking with sherry when I joined Alcoholics Anonymous at age 29. Soon thereafter I gave up cooking altogether. I’ve been chasing after my mother’s cooking ever since.