If it's Wednesday, it must be beef night, with the grease fire

February 02, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

AS A CHILD I rarely heard any deliberation about what would be on the table on a particular night of the week. My grandmother and her sister had a simple and effective system that determined the menu for each day of the week.

If it was a Saturday, the main course was either roast beef or spaghetti.

Wednesdays were invariably ground beef, steak or meat loaf.

Friday, without fail, meant seafood, a Baltimore smorgasbord of fried fish, crab or oysters in season, and always steamed shrimp.

I recall Thursday being pork night, either a loin roast, chops or smoked shoulder.

Monday was soup, chicken (homemade egg noodles dried over the radiator) or vegetable, probably made with Saturday night's beef bone and little dumplings.

Tuesday was roast chicken.

The system was not heavy on innovation. They didn't experiment with new recipes. They bought on a set financial budget. And I found it comforting to cross the front porch, open the vestibule door, step inside and know immediately what would be on the table that night. Each of their meals had an unmistakable scent, be it the cream gravy from the pork chops or the tomato sauce atop the meat loaf. I identified each day of the week by a signature kitchen scent.

There was a certain structural order to the routine. Marketing day was Wednesday, my father's day off. He deposited the three shoppers (my mother, her mother and sister) at the Gorsuch Avenue A&P. About an hour later, they filled his 1940 Buick, later a Hudson, then a couple of finned Dodges, with brown paper grocery bags.

On the days when my father or his car wasn't available, the three pushed one or two baby wagons (big wicker carriages that looked like junior versions of what rolled along the Atlantic City boardwalk) up the Vineyard Lane hill and along Old York Road to Gorsuch.

Wednesday, the marketing day, was also the night of the weekly grease fire. The cooks felt that beef was best the day it was bought. The children in the family all voted for hamburgers, maybe meat loaf. Great Aunt Cora would also make some delicious homemade French fries -- potatoes sliced and fried in grease that night.

We never had a deep-fat frier. That would have been too professional. Cora used a frying pan, and, more often than not, there was a flare-up. It made for a little drama, which she tamed with a heavy dose of salt. Guests often looked on in horror; family members were used to the momentary one-alarmers.

I'm guessing that pork followed the beef because the cooks didn't want this meat sitting around the ice box too long. The pork roast always included sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and apple sauce. The pork chops came with a cream gravy so scrumptious that it made you wish for Thursdays.

The overture to Friday's meals sounded Thursday afternoon with the ringing of the hall doorbell about 2: 30. If you answered the door, only a pair of brown paper bags would be standing there, filled to their tops with fresh seafood from the fish counter at the Cross Street Market. In the winter, the two bags might be accompanied by a wooden basket full of unshucked oysters.

No matter how many times this weekly event was repeated, I always assumed that it was some unexpected guest. In that era, company just dropped by. There was never a need to schedule an appointment. It was a real disappointment to find only the bagged steakfish.

There was an open dinner invitation for anyone who dropped by on Friday, especially if the guest were willing to shuck Chincoteagues or peel steamed shrimp. If you wanted fried oysters, it was best to arrive just as Aunt Cora was extinguishing her second grease fire of the week.

By Saturday afternoon, the odor of the cooking seafood had disappeared and was replaced by one of two distinct olfactory clues. If the first floor was filled with a heavy aroma of simmering spaghetti sauce, more than a few of my friends would make excuses to tarry and investigate whether the finished product was as beguiling as the advance promises.

The other end-of-the-week scent came from a fine standing rib roast of beef, cooked slowly and accompanied by baked potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and small peas.

Come Sunday, once their bountiful breakfast was out of the way, the sister chefs declared a day of rest. Well, sort of. After all, we had to eat.

I marveled at how they pulled a fine dinner out of the ice box, a repast of hot roast beef sandwiches (and deliciously salty gravy) or creamed chicken served over homemade baking-powder biscuits. Cora produced these light-as-air biscuits with an ease that mystified me. She never used a biscuit pan, only a flat baking sheet and an inverted tea cup.

As much as Wednesday meant meat loaf, there were some exceptions. The cooks played to their audience, and to the market. If lamb were plentiful, there would be chops or a lamb roast. And if there were enough requests for an oyster, chicken or kidney pot pie, that dish would appear.

I recall there was a similar interlocking dessert directorate. I know that the vegetable soup preceded homemade cinnamon cake, but I can't recall what came before the floating island, the bread pudding, the brandied peaches, the boiled vanilla custard, the hot gingerbread with lemon sauce or the strawberry Jell-O with butterfat-heavy whipped cream.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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