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|Mother's homemade noodles helped stave off family confrontations in one Aberdeen household.|
Words weren’t allowed in our Aberdeen household. Not harsh ones. Had they occurred between my two older brothers and/or myself, it would have killed my mother, or so she swore (not as in curse, she would never do that).
So "words" just didn't happen in the ready-made family I was born into when my mother was in her 40s and my father was just turning 50. They were losing their teenage sons to the outside world and had long since given up hope of having anything else in common. Therefore, they decided to give that over-the-counter wonder, Lydia Pinkham's Compound, a try and a year later I arrived, the promised "baby in every bottle."
I don't remember my brothers ever living with us and my life was a reasonably pleasant, largely-unsupervised jumble of library books and movie shows and best friends. I have since annoyed many of my adult friends (for whom life began in college) by recounting the great times I had at Central High School even though I was hardly cheerleader material. I've thoroughly disgusted others who dread family get-togethers by pulling a pollyanna about the joys of such reunions.
This so ticks them off and in turn tickles me, I don't always tell the whole truth and add that I'm not holiday-happy because of the world's strongest familial ties, or because I have Martha Stewart Syndrome (I hear this first manifests itself with a sudden midnight urge to get up out of bed and make hats out of empty milk cartons).
It has thus far remained a secret that my love of holidays comes largely from the ingredient that infused them with magic: my mother's homemade noodles.
Where other families longed for comfort foods like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, or pined for roast beasties, we whined for noodles. We always wanted noodles, every day if possible. Only we didn't get them because they required a lengthy process of mixing and cutting and, if my mother had been the type, occasional cursing when the dog (Trixie) snagged a particularly long noodle off the back of a kitchen chair where a batch was drying.
Then just the right old hen had to be purchased or snatched from what she had hoped was her retirement eggness. Said hen had to be simmered until a rich, artery-hardening broth ensued, and then roasted to a golden crisp as the Noodles From Heaven roiled in their glorious schmaltzy stock.
Since my mother had a job and a life and some sense of nutrition, this rich, labor-intensive cuisine was relegated to the status of Holiday Fare Only. This, of course, included every holiday we could slide onto the list, such as birthdays, Easter, and every other celebration except the Fourth of July. We celebrated that by feasting ourselves sodden upon other of my mother's culinary masterpieces: Her legendary fried chicken (homegrown, of course), her potato salad and her lemonade. Simple sounding enough, but somehow she could turn this ordinary fare into Godfood. My mother's spice cabinet was limited to salt, pepper and cinnamon and I don't think she'd ever even heard of garlic, but she was easily the best plain cook who ever lived.
All this considered, you can see why the near turkey-tiff took many years to almost happen. My brothers were both married with three young children each. Thanks to their wives' less opinionated culinary backgrounds, they had learned that turkey was not just something people were forced to eat on holidays if they hadn't behaved and therefore didn't deserve noodles.
Turkey was also pretty darn good, and a lot better for you. Additionally, turkey also provided great leftovers. Of course, noodles were no slouch, either. First we prayed some would be left over because they were even better the next day, were that possible. Then we prayed that if any rotten person got up in the middle of the night and polished off the noodles cold, right out of the fridge (they were fabulous that way, too) that rotten person would be us.
Whatever, it came to pass that on the Christmas in question, my brothers decided to give my mother a rest and cook a bird.
I doubt if my mother had any rest for several days prior to the event. She was already worrying about her stove. It was a no-nonsense black cookstove to put it kindly, but it gave out great gusts of hot air and delicious aromas and my mother could play it like a grand piano. She refused to trade it in on something new and shiny and gaseous. Besides, we needed a strong heat supply in that end of the house to keep South Dakota's chilly fingers from sneaking in and freezing the pipes solid.
My brothers had grown up around this stove and had learned, as had I, that when Mom wasn't home, the most complicated thing anyone should endeavor to cook was toast. However, that bright holiday mid-morning, surrounded by their merry wives and kids and a few noodle-opting cynics like myself, my confident brothers chopped, stuffed, cracked wise and had a fine time in general.
When tom was finally in the oven, my brothers left the kitchen for us to clean up and went off in search of a quiet beer and a nap.
Up until then, it was holiday business as usual, except we were doing the work and my mother had been banished to a comfortable chair where she sat nervously nibbling her cuticles. Also, a pretender to the throne was perched in our oven where the aforementioned "old hen" should have been reclining, having already given much of her all to the vat of noodles atop the stove.
The trouble that almost started didn't almost start until it was time to remove tom from his sauna. It was then discovered that while the diners and the rest of the dinner were table ready, tom was not. Nicely brown on the outside, inwardly he was un-pretty in pink.
So began a series of oven temperature risings and in due time, tempers showed signs of moving in a similar direction. At first, tom was pulled out of the oven, given a variety of gentle, though personal, tests for doneness, and slid back into the now-seething darkness. When nothing seemed to work , tom was soon being wrenched out of his quarters, roughly examined, sneered at and jammed back in.
By now, my mother's eyes looked like Orphan Annie's, great zeros of concern. But my brothers contained themselves beautifully, all things considered. Scowling did break out, coupled with a few traded glances that asked, "Whose damn fool idea was this anyway?" And they shooed both their wives out of the kitchen somewhat brusquely, stilling their helpful suggestions.
But "words" did not occur and once again, my mother's life was saved. So, finally, was Christmas dinner, sort of. We finally ate the breast meat of the turkey, along with all of the usual trimmings which had somehow weathered the wait.
After dinner, my Scandinavian sisters-in-law pounced immediately upon the dirty dishes, as usual, while I figured the odds on whether I should try to make it to the couch or just ease onto the carpet beside my chair. Later, when everyone was gone and our household of three was back to normal, my folks and I sat at the kitchen table, sharing a bottle of the preferred drink of the manor (Pepsi on ice).
Finally my mother turned to me and I knew what was coming. "You realize your brothers almost had ‘words,’" she said, her voice low and confidential. Then came the kicker. "If that ever happened," she added even more sotto voce, "it would kill me." My father's newspaper rattled ever so slightly.
I thought a moment. This was no time to tell my mother that words are okay sometimes, even necessary, in order for siblings and other strangers to really get to know each other.
"Let's avoid such a possibility by always having noodles from now on," I cooed, unselfishly thinking only of her.
She nodded and noodles we had, from that day forward. I remember those holidays with bliss. We had them down to a science. We were agreeable. We made nice, which wasn't very difficult since we had no visiting relatives to monkeywrench our well-thumbed scenario, and whatever we had to say to each other that wasn't positive was well buried. And when we had done all that was expected of us, we were rewarded.
Then we sat around that large table, wordlessly, joyfully savoring the plump, chewy, chickeny noodles as they dripped with the rich gravy they formed all by themselves. And all was right with the world.
Mother’s Noodles (Small Batch)
3 large eggs
Pinch of salt
1/2 eggshell water
Flour to make a stiff dough
Mix well, then roll out on a floured board and cut with a pasta or noodle cutter (the latter does exist) or very sharp knife. Allow to dry at least an hour. Cook covered for 25-30 minutes in freshly made chicken stock. (Canned will suffice if you absolutely must.)
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the July/August 1999 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.