My passion for food began where the majority of passions for food are born: home.
Home has always been wherever my mother lived, which up until March 3 was Brownwood, Texas. That’s the day Lila Cathey drew her last breath surrounded by loved ones. Home it remained the week that followed as our family descended on the ranch-style home in central Texas to say their goodbyes and ultimately lay our matriarch to rest. She was 79 when cancer took her life.
Because people gathered in my mother’s house, there was never any doubt food would be prepared. Thanks to my job description, it was my job to make sure there would be plenty.
In a small, brown wooden box with the word “Recipes” etched in black across the front, I found the inspiration for this last supper in honor of my mom. I thumbed through dozens of recipes — some typed, some handwritten — on index cards, finding familiar dishes drawn from magazines, boxes and friends from a bygone era.
Ambrosia salad, lemon jello cake, pecan pie, Southern cobbler, company casserole, fiesta chicken casserole, baked cream of mushroom soup chicken, chicken curry, party meatballs, chocolate blossom cookies, peanut butter cookies and party punch passed before my eyes.
Few of them inspired memories of culinary triumph, but all of them sparked memories of laughter and joy associated with a gaggle of dinner parties, pot lucks and fellowships my mother hosted or participated in over the four and half decades I’ve been alive.
My mother’s gifts were many, but few were more powerful than her ability to make people happy. Her recipe was simple: Listen to the problem, form a plan, take action. She took the adage about friends in need being friends indeed more seriously than most. She spent a lifetime seeking out those in need, helping them with whatever problem might be between them and happiness.
“Old She,” as she often referred to herself, recognized the healing power of food and laughter. She was wont to engage in all manner of practical jokes, and while she never loved to cook, she loved what cooking for others did.
One day about a decade ago, a gentleman named Gray leaned against a store counter looking life-whupped. Bad a time as Mr. Gray was having, his luck was on cusp of a full reversal because he happened to be at the same place at the same time as Lila Cathey, who could spot a downtrodden soul from three states away. She tapped Mr. Gray, who at that moment was a total stranger, and asked if anything was wrong.
“I lost my wife a couple of weeks ago,” Mr. Gray explained. Then he smiled and tried to lighten the mood by saying he missed his wife’s cooking. Instead of releasing this tenaciously upbeat stranger from further discourse, Mr. Gray got himself added to a list of seniors whom my mother fed regularly with a “meals on wheels” program of her own making. She fed Mr. Gray every week until he died. And her personal meals on wheels was one of the last of her self-generated charities she relinquished due to declining health.
Leafing through those recipes, I thought of Mr. Gray and the many others she fed as well as the scores of friends she entertained in her home. And I thought, of course, of holiday feasts, Sunday roasts, Monday stroganoff made from the leftovers of that Sunday roast, cookouts and the pivotal moment when my exasperated mother told me that if I liked tacos so much I should find a recipe and prepare it for the family.
Once I exhausted the box of recipes, I did as mother did when company was expected: I rallied help and cooked.
My mother was far from perfect. Living the life she aspired to instead of a life of leisure was a daily fight. Declining health made the fight more fierce but didn’t stop her from fighting to engage her better angels.
She left strict instructions for her funeral and wrote her own obituary. In that obituary, she wrote, “In lieu of flowers or money Lila asks that you commit random acts of kindness. Be quick with a smile and offer lots of hugs, it takes so little but means so much.”
I can’t cook for all of you who are reading this, but I can offer you a recipe for the company casserole she loved as much for its simplicity as for its preponderance of cheese. While you’re at it, make a second and find someone who could use a hot meal. It might just be the most memorable meal you ever prepare.
1 1/2 pounds ground chuck
1 8-ounce package egg noodles
16 ounces tomato sauce
1 cup cottage cheese
1 cup sour cream
1 cup cheddar cheese, divided
6 green onions chopped
1/2 green onion chopped small
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
1 teaspoon butter
•Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
•Cook the noodles according to package instructions, drain and set aside.
•Melt butter in a medium-sized skillet set at medium high and saute green bell pepper. Add meat, cook until brown and drain mixture in a colander.
•In a mixing bowl, combine meat-pepper mixture and add salt, pepper, garlic powder, tomato sauce, green onions, cottage cheese, 1/2 cup of cheddar, sour cream and noodles. Transfer mixture to a two-quart casserole
•Top with remaining cheddar and bake until cheese is melted, 15 to minutes.
Source: Lila Cathey’s recipe box