My parents met in 1953 at a dance. As a child I loved hearing about how my dad spotted my mother on the sidelines, was mesmerized by her beauty, and said to her the words that were later engraved on the inside of the gold bangle she always wore: If it wasn’t so crowded I’d ask you to dance.
Even then I knew what a close call I’d had to not being born. My dad was in the United States Air Force, stationed at an American base in Ruislip, on the edge of northwest London. My mom was an English girl, born and raised in London. Their chance meeting at the dance turned to romance, marriage, and a family. And a move via ocean liner, several years later, from London to New York City, with a toddler and infant in tow.
My dad, who had served as a cook with the Merchant Marines before his stint in the Air Force, was the family chef. He loved Europe and especially loved France, so our diet was heavily influenced by the foods he’d experienced in his travels. Apple tarts, chutneys, braised meats, whole grilled fish, chicken glazed in currant jelly were all part of his repertoire.
But our mother was an excellent cook too, though more understated. She paired cheeses and fruits, made salads from fresh farm beets thinly sliced and marinated in olive oil and red wine vinegar and herbs, and carved us thin ivory wedges from the hearts of cabbage that she salted and served to us as a snack. She made steamed artichokes, Frenched green beans with sliced almonds, fragrant savory stews, and my favorite dish…roast beef.
It wasn’t the roast beef I loved so much as the Yorkshire pudding that accompanied it. It was compelling and mystifying. Not a pudding like the others I knew, but a kind of puffy bread baked in a skillet, rising high almost like a cake — and when sliced, hollow inside! Pulled into pieces, it had a texture like nothing else, and its slightly eggy flavor was a perfect match for roast beef and gravy, probably because it is best made with the fatty drippings from a pan of roast beef.
More than anything else, Yorkshire pudding made me wonder about the country where I was born and the half of my family that still lived there. Familiar yet strange, rather like the British accent I was told I’d once had and that my mother still had, Yorkshire pudding was exotic yet something I could lay claim to.
My parents still cook, though not as often as they used to, and my mother hasn’t made Yorkshire pudding in many years. But my cousin in Southend-on-Sea, in England, makes a traditional recipe that will be an excellent match with roast beef anywhere on the globe.
First published February 2015