The route home from my new job takes me right by a Dairy Queen. I confess that a combination of nostalgia and relief sometimes causes me to turn into the drivethru. The relief comes from getting through another day at a new job. After being out of work for a few years and working for a friend and taking over a job from my daughter, which she did very well, I am finding this new job a little nerve wracking. Fun and exciting, but also a little difficult. There are lots of new things to learn and a new relationship to forge with an old friend, now my boss. I want so much for her business to do well both for her sake and my own. It is getting easier and orders are coming in. I only work for a few hours, two days a week. So I stop at the Dairy Queen. I usually order a chili dog. A messy choice, but I manage to polish it off at stop lights before I get home. The other day, though, I ordered the chicken strip basket. I had the idea I would share it with my husband when I got home but that didn't happen. I didn't even tell him what I did. I was too embarrassed.
The Dairy Queen nostalgia comes from my teenage years. My father died when I was fifteen. My mother had come home from work every day for many years and immediately started making supper. After my father died, she went on strike for about a year. On the days when she got her hair done after work, she would bring home burgers and fries from the Wide Awake Cafe. Since my father was the only driver in the family and I was a few months short of getting my driver's license, my mother would send a taxi to the nearby Dairy Queen for supper sometimes. Back before KFC and Pizza Hut, we got the chicken strip baskets for the whole family. I am sure the cab fare cost more than the food. It was blazingly hot when it arrived. Four big strips of crispy chicken fingers, thick Texas toast, and fries with a cup of white gravy. Ymmm!
After all these years and in a different part of the country, the flavor was still the same except for the toast which was just regular sliced bread. That got me thinking about how a dish can have a unique taste and texture when a certain restaurant (or person) makes it. A combination of specific ingredients and cooking techniques sometimes creates a one-of-a-kind flavor. That is what makes a special dish special I guess. Good cooks are often accused of holding out a secret ingredient in their special dishes, but I think it is more subconscious than that. Little habits and techniques that are so natural they are not spoken are what make the difference.
Take my mother's country style steak, for instance. I watched her pound flour and salt and pepper into a round steak with the edge of a saucer and then brown it and simmer it with water and onions until it fell apart and produced a rich brown gravy. I have never gotten the same results. My aunt Nellie's pineapple upside down cake was baked in a cast iron skillet and had crispy, sweet, caramelized edges. Mine is always a little soggy. My ex-mother-in-law's yeast biscuits, which I watched her whip together so many times, were baked on a blackened baking sheet coated with bacon grease. She would drag each biscuit briefly through the bacon grease and then flip it over to produce a crispy topped, chewy, but tender biscuit. I have never come close to creating those biscuits. The southern fast food chain of Bo Jangles had biscuits that resembled hers, but they closed the only one near me.
I ate the whole chicken strip basket on the way home. It tasted so good. I even tasted the hopeful excitement of a 15-year-old girl with all of life's possibilities ahead of her and a hot, tasty supper arriving in a paper bag delivered by a taxi driver. My mother eventually started cooking again when my brother and I begged her to. Mom, I miss you.