Archive for March, 2011

Grandma Smothers, my Mom’s mother, grew up in a German suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Her neighborhood was comprised mostly of German relatives and other German families who had migrated to the area in the early 1900s. Even though she was born in Missouri, her birth certificate was German, dubbing her Anna Fredricka Schmeer. Fredricka! Sounds like a Russian Comic Strip Heroine. Of course her last name … umm, I believe they named that crazy tackle football game after her family. Talk about crazy last names, every single one of Grandma’s relatives or neighbors had a last name that started with “Sch.” Her family was the Schmeers, her grandparents were the Scheers, the cousins were the Schumackers and the Schneiders, the neighbors were the Schultzes, and so on. One time Grandma even told me, “Oh yes, we even had a family in the neighborhood named the Schitts.” ‘Hey honey, let’s invite the Schitts over for dinner!! Break out the good prune juice!’

I remember eating Chicken Cacciatore at Grandma and Grandpa Smothers place in Oroville, California. They lived in a nice Senior Park in a single-wide trailer with one bathroom sporting a silly putty-colored porcelain tub with toilet and sink to match. My Grandpa was always poised in front of the TV, withholding the lemon drops or mints from us kids and recalling tales of playing the RKO circuit in the ‘20s. Grandpa mastered the violin and ukulele in the Vaudeville Days under the stage name “Clare Viollinaire.” One night while he and his band “Reverend Dave and the Deacons” were at a hotel in New York, the stock market crashed. Unable to receive their pay for the night, and therefore unable to pay the rent, Grandpa and his band mates put on every stitch of clothing they had with them, including their suits, and lowered their instruments, and then themselves, out of their fourth-story hotel window using bed sheets they tied together.

I’m sure in those days Grandpa would’ve been thrilled to eat anything for dinner — even Chicken Cacciatore. For some reason, I can only remember two distinct dishes my Grandma made for dinner, this one and Calabasitas. Both Mexican. Or Italian. But definitely not German. I don’t even really know what German food is; that’s probably a good thing. Oh wait, of course – beer. I do remember beer for dinner.

Chicken Cacciatore Ingredients:

• 1 pound chicken, cut up
• 1 cup chopped onion
• 1 cup chopped bell peppers
• 1 can stewed tomatoes
• 1-1/2 cups wine
• 2 teaspoons oregano
• 1 bay leaf

• 1/2 cup flour
• 2 teaspoons salt
• ½ teaspoon pepper


(My Grandma didn’t make it the following way, but this is how I’d cope if I had to make this dish today. Canned stewed tomatoes, soggy bell peppers and bay leaves … I’d rather stick hot pokers in my eyes.)

Pour ½ cup of the wine into a glass and guzzle some down. Dump the flour, salt, pepper and chicken into a plastic bag and shake it all up good. Heat some oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Brown the chicken pieces in the oil, about 10 minutes. Remove the chicken and set on a plate with some paper towels to drain. Pour another 1/2 cup of the wine into your glass and polish some more off. Add the onion and green pepper to the skillet and sauté for about 5 minutes. Stir in the stewed tomatoes, the last half cup of wine (if it survived), the oregano and the bay leaf. Add chicken and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the liquid evaporates and the coating oozes off the chicken — which is now stiff and dry. Discard the bay leaf, or hey, leave it in as a surprise for one of the grandkids to gag on.


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I don’t care what my sisters say, Shepherd’s Pie is Christ in a bowl. On each of our birthdays, Mom would ask us what we wanted her to fix for dinner. My sisters would usually respond with Pizza, Tacos or Cheeseburgers. My request was Shepherd’s Pie. This probably explains why my sisters always wanted to beat the crap out of me (and why on Shepherd’s Pie afternoons, I would find my youngest sister Melissa eating roly polys out of the garden).

After hearing the word’s “Shepherd’s Pie,” Tracy would chase me into our bedroom where I would fling myself onto my bed face up in what I like to call the “Younger Sibling Survival Maneuver” … kicking my legs frantically into the air to try to block the left and right hooks being delivered by my older sister. But I could take a pop or two on behalf of my Birthday Dinner, and in knowing that a Donny Osmond album was possibly among the wrapped gifts waiting for me.

When I was nine, I knew I would marry Donny Osmond. He was so dreamy and nice that I knew my parents would approve. My Mom and Dad actually took me and Tracy to Lake Tahoe to see the Osmonds in concert. It was my first concert ever, and I couldn’t believe how amazing my parents were. (Just think how thrilling it must’ve been for them … and think how hard it must’ve been to plan. No i-Phone, no internet— just a phone book!)

The thought of actually seeing Donny Osmond was like a dream come true. I remember pulling in to the casino parking lot that evening and seeing a stretch limo parked on the side and just imagining the Donald sitting in it. (Yeah, that’s right Donald Trump … you weren’t the first “Donald” … take a number.)

I only remember bits and pieces of that night … for all I know, I was passing out left and right at the thought of seeing Donny Osmond in the flesh. Our seats were in the second section. We had a fancy booth with a circular seat. I remember first seeing Jimmy Osmond for his first public appearance singing “Blue Suede Shoes” Yawn … where’s Donny … then Marie singing “Paper Roses” … c’mon people, enough with the siblings! Bring out the Big Guns! And then it happened. Donny came out singing “Puppy Love.” It was magical. He jumped off the stage and started walking down the aisle shaking girls’ hands. I was excited and freaked out all at the same time. I would’ve killed for Donny to come to our table and shake my hand, but at the same time, I was so nervous I drank three whole Shirley Temples.

Okay, back to my Birthday Dinner Meal and the fancy recipe. Even though both my Mom and Dad have lots of Irish ancestry, our Shepherd’s Pie wasn’t really the delicacy you find at Irish Pubs. I probably wouldn’t touch this version today, but spuds are a main ingredient here, and I love me some spuds.


• 1 pound of hamburger
• ¼ cup minced onions – or chop up an actual small onion to make it fancy
• 1 big can of peas and carrots
• 2 cups of prepared mashed potatoes*
• Gravy: I don’t know what my Mom used, or what she considered gravy for that matter, so you’ll need to improvise this ingredient. I liked whatever she used, but I’m fairly certain I don’t want to know what it was.
• 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
• Salt and pepper to taste


*Peel and cut up about 6 potatoes. Boil them until tender, about 20 minutes. Mash them up in a bowl with some butter (I mean margarine! Save yourself about 50 cents here!)

Fry up the hamburger and onions in a skillet. When almost done, add the canned peas and carrots. Add “gravy,” Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper.

Pour the beef and vegetable mixture into a 9×9-inch baking dish. Spread the mashed potatoes carefully over the top.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are golden brown.

Reward your efforts in the kitchen with a pint of Guinness. I mean, crack open an Oly. Serve up to your little leprechauns (the Shepherd’s pie, not the beer).

Watch one child devour the dish as if she lived in Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. Watch the other children either fill their cheeks like chipmunks with the entrée until they are excused to the bathroom, or sneakily push the contents under their plates, or “accidentally” drop spoonfuls onto the floor for the dog.

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This meal sounds very painful, and according to my Dad, it was. I must’ve blocked this dish from my mind. The only porcupine memory I have is when I was about five years old. My Grandma and Grandpa Coen took Tracy and me camping with them that summer. They had one of those old round pink and white travel trailers that was smaller than their Rambler Station Wagon. When we went on road trips with B.K. and Margaret (remember—nicknames people!), B.K. always made sure to bring along his binoculars. While B.K. and Margaret were enjoying their 8-track tape of Slim Whitman ballads in the front seat, Tracy and I were in the back seat, bored to tears, resorting to pretending to shave our faces with the seat belt straps. Once the “SHE’S TOUCHING ME” antics began, B.K. would break out the binoculars and put us to work with a very important job. We would have to turn around and hang over the back seat to watch for Highway Patrols. We’d take turns looking through those binoculars to keep the cops off our trail. You know a speeding ticket probably cost twenty whole dollars back then.

Anyway, on this particular camping trip—the one where my well-intentioned Grandma put rubbing alcohol directly on the open blisters on my ankles—we spotted us a real porcupine. It was way up in a pine tree and you’d have thought it was the Second Coming. All kinds of aunts, uncles and cousins watched that thing for hours instead of giving in to me begging for a motorcycle ride. When it was FINALLY my turn to look through B.K.’s binoculars, all I could see up in that tree was a big rat with long needle-things hanging off of it. Well, apparently it was a porcupine, but it looked like a big crazy rat. What a rip-off.

Now porcupine balls of the culinary form are basically just ‘souped-up’ meatballs (pardon the pun) and it’s quite possible my Mom stole the recipe from The Heinz Book of Meat Cookery®. Which reminds me — there was a remedy, although minor, for most of the thrifty treats my Mom created: Heinz Ketchup. It was a main ingredient in every meal, actually one of the basic food groups for my Dad. He was no dumby. Slap enough ketchup on any of Mom’s economy meals and it was suddenly a bit more palatable. Ketchup was a must-have on the dinner table … it had to be within Dad’s reach at all times, and it HAD to be Heinz. Even as a kid, my Dad would eat ketchup on just about everything. B.K. once dared Dad to put some ketchup on a chocolate cream pie. Two questions come to mind … did he actually do it? And secondly, my Grandpa actually bought a chocolate cream pie?? (Stay tuned for “Grandpa Coen’s Pickle Soup—subtitled “Cheeseburger, Chips and a Pickle — All For Two Bits.”) Well, Dad did eat ketchup on that chocolate cream pie, and I believe he mentioned he immediately puked afterward. Well, who can resist a dare? All of his life, everybody and their brother made fun of Dad and his ketchup. Relatives would buy a bottle of Heinz and wrap it up for his birthday. Ha, ha, stop, my sides hurt. Sometimes when we set the table for dinner, we’d put the bottle right on Dad’s plate, just for kicks. Well, who’s laughing now? With all those anticarcinogens and lycopene now known to be in ketchup, Dad’s about the healthiest guy we know.

Recipe for Porcupine Balls:


1 pound of ground beef
2 cups of cooked white rice
1 can of tomato soup
2 tablespoons of minced onion (or cut up a little bit of real onion to make it fancy)
Salt and pepper to taste


Fry up the ground beef. Cook the rice separately according to package directions. Add the rice to the hamburger, I mean ground beef, and throw in the tomato soup and onion. Dig your hands in and mix it together. Form the mixture into tennis-sized balls and put them on the rusty baking sheet (put some tin foil on the sheet for safety and no-muss cleaning later). Bake at 350 degrees until porcupine quills shoot out of the oven.

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This was some comfort food I used to love smelling as it was cooking in my Grandma and Grandpa Coen’s house. It usually meant an evening full of cousins sprawled on the living room floor watching “Creature Features” while the old folks played poker, smoked, cussed and drank Oly in the dining room. Oly is short for Olympia, which was apparently the best damn beer in a can you could get in the ‘70s … or more likely, the cheapest. “Creature Features,” if you don’t know about because you didn’t grow up in the Bay Area, was an awesome horror movie show that played on Saturday nights. There was a cool, somewhat weird, host named Bob Wilkins and he would talk about the scary movies they were playing that night. These were usually “B” movies (maybe “C”) that aspired to be as bad as movies like “War of the Gargantuas” or “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.” Bob had Buddy Holly glasses and smoked a big cigar, and in hindsight, I bet that thing was full of weed, because he was just way too mellow. And you had to love the funky ’70s intro song for the show:

Anyway, my sweet little Grandma Coen only stood about 5 feet tall, but she had a big presence. She was everyone’s favorite. My Dad said that when he and his brothers were teenagers they would get in some knock-down, drag-out fist fights, and little Grandma would jump in the center to try and break them up. They would stop pummeling each other long enough to pick up little Grandma and set her gently aside, and then go back to pounding each other. As adults, they still called her Mama. And Grandpa was Daddy. But to us kids, Grandpa was B.K. That’s short for Benjamin Kenneth. Remember, given names are just a bit too much for the Coen clan. Just educating you all for future blog posts.

Grandma and Grandpa knew the hardship of the Great Depression and could make a meal out of anything. While Grandma was no chef, she sure put a lot of love into her cooking. And she loved making elbow macaroni with red sauce. I loved eating dinner at her house, because, well, that meant I didn’t have to eat dinner at my house. The only thing that sucked at dinnertime was that there was a large dining room table that fit 10 people (the adult table), and a Formica dinette that seated four. I’ll be DAMNED if I ever moved my way up from the little kid table in the kitchen to the glorious, expansive dining room table. I was always stuck at the little one with the two youngins, my little sister, Pooh, and my little cousin, Robbie (usually still wearing the blue eye shadow we applied while trying to dress him up like a girl earlier in the evening). They were seven years younger than me. My oldest sister, Tracy, was always at the adult table, and my younger sister, Coleen, who outgrew me at age 9, even made it to the adult table before me. I did actually sit at the adult table once when I was about 29, but there was nobody there for me to show-off for. I’m not even sure Grandma remembered which grandkid I was by then.

Recipe For Elbow Macaroni with Red Sauce:


1 pound of ground beef
1 bag of elbow macaroni
4 cans of tomato sauce
2 cans of tomato paste
2 can-fulls of water (pick whichever can you want, the sauce or the paste, it’s a crap-shoot)
Salt and pepper to taste (you might want to taste a lot)

Pour sauce, paste and water into a large pot and simmer on low.

Fry the ground beef, and Lordy! Don’t drain the fat!! Pour it all into the pot that is heating up the sauce and water.

Boil the macaroni as directed. When the macaroni is done, pour that into the pot also, and then season with salt and pepper. And season again. Maybe again.

Don’t forget to serve this with some sliced white bread and a cube of butter. Make sure the butter is still cold enough to tear up the bread a little.

If you’re feeling ambitious, heat up some canned green beans on the stove.

And please open a can of black olives so the kids have something to put on their fingertips.

When everything is ready, signal to the well-behaved grandkid who won the right to ring the little dinner bell — the dinner bell attached to a tiny wooden plaque on the kitchen wall which reads, “Good Bread, Good Meat, Good Gosh, Let’s Eat!” Yeah, the bell was a real thing. It’s hanging in my Dad’s kitchen now:


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