It was always difficult to get my mother to talk about herself. She was not inclined to introspection. Her profession was tending the needs of others, undertaken when she was barely out of her teen years. No doubt she had well apprenticed for the work growing up in a house with six siblings, two of whom she raised to adulthood while beginning her own family.
One technique that often evoked longer story-telling from her was to ask questions about food. What things did she like eating when she was young? How did she learn to cook this or that item? What things did she remember her mother making that she particularly liked?
In response to this last question, she once told me about her mother making "potatoes, peas and onions". She remembered it being so delicious. It was made with little green onions (scallions) from the garden in the spring. The memory of this dish would have been from the late 1930s or early 1940s. I later asked her to write down a recipe and send it to me. She said she'd have to talk to her sister Betty to make sure she got it right. This is what she sent me:
Potatoes, Peas, Green Onions
Cut potatoes in small pieces. Green onions in 1 inch strips.
Peas* --- frozen
Rinse in colander Shake water off
In black Iron Skillet
Olive oil - to cover bottom of skillet - may add a little if needed.
Mid high heat until potatoes start to become soft - stirring with egg turner - turn heat down and cover. Continue to stir to keep from sticking. May add a little water if too dry.
*Betty said don't use those tiny peas
When I got the recipe, I glanced at it quickly (it came with a long letter) and filed it away. I did not ask her any more questions about it. Because I am a fool.
At the farmer's market today I bought new potatoes, fresh English peas, scallions. I shall make this dish my mother spoke of with such fondness, I said. I pulled out the above recipe and pondered. I am quite certain her mother did not cook with olive oil. Lard, bacon grease, butter, margarine were most likely the fats available. Frozen foods first became popular in the 1930s but I have to wonder if they had "arrived" in the coal mining towns of southwestern PA so soon. I remember my mother using mostly canned vegetables in my own childhood.
Aside from the unlikely ingredient sourcing, the actual cooking instructions, such as they are, seem to revolve around the potatoes. But why would you add water to potatoes that are being fried? What does "green onions in one inch strips" mean? And then what? Presumably the peas are what get rinsed in colander and shaken off, but after that, it's anybody's guess what to do with them.
I can't call mom to ask about this, or anything, anymore so I googled a few recipes and consulted Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Then I just sort of winged it. My Iron Skillet needs to be re-seasoned so I used a non-stick pan (sorry, mom).
Potatoes, Peas, Green Onions a la Zuska
Cut potatoes in small pieces - four medium ones plus one smallish one. Four green onions (with fat-ish bulbs) sliced with some of the green parts - just use all the parts that look good. Try not to worry about 1 inch strips. Peas ---- not frozen, fresh, about 1 cup shelled. Rinse in colander. Shake water off.
In non-stick pan. Olive oil - three tablespoons. May add more if desired but that should be plenty. Grind some pepper in there. Mid high heat until potatoes start to soften and brown and get a little crispy - stirring with non-stick-pan-safe big spoon. Salt a little while cooking. Turn heat down and don't cover because you forgot. Continue to stir to keep from sticking. Potatoes are sticking to non-stick pan. Maybe non-stick pan is done for. Do not add water because potatoes are very nice right now.
In separate pan - add about 1 tablespoon butter. Okay, 2 tablespoons. Sauté scallions for about a minute or two. Add peas to skillet and stir for another minute or two till peas are bright green. Remove from heat, salt and pepper to taste.
Portion potatoes in two bowls. If you have nice fresh parsley from market or garden, and managed to get some chopped before all this is done, go ahead and sprinkle some over the potatoes. Divide the peas and onions over top of this. Run outside and pluck a few basil leaves from the herb garden, run back in to the kitchen and rinse them off and hurriedly tear them into shreds and sprinkle over the peas.
In this as in all things, defer to the wisdom of Aunt Betty, and do not use those tiny peas.