The beginnings of a cook: Country-style spare ribs, Lemon cake pudding

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What’s for dinner? At 6:00 in our 1950s small-town, Midwestern kitchen, three girls and a Dad sat around the table ready to eat, as expected, with clean hands and combed hair. The “no books at the table” rule was in effect, the TV was off, elbows were tucked out of sight, polite conversation ruled and the food was not adventurous.

In the fifties, we ate rice only at a Chinese restaurant, we cooked outdoors only when we camped, sliced mushrooms and olives came  out of a can, frozen vegetables were the norm, milk showed up in bottles on the doorstep, “pasta” was called noodles or macaroni, polenta was cornmeal mush, liver and bacon appeared far too often on our dinner table and we always saved our spoon for dessert. Sure, it might be stewed prunes or lime Jello with raisins, but it also might be lemon pudding cake, Swanson’s cherry pie or vanilla custard. 

Cooking, for our mother anyways, was a necessity not a pleasure. She delivered a good turkey, a Thanksgiving Waldorf salad, lump-free mashed potatoes, a tender Sunday roast pork, beef, or chicken, edible ketchup-frosted meat loaf, and super-good, country-style pork spareribs but she never ventured into ethnic recipes, grain-based dishes, or seafood other than Mrs. Paul’s. Daddy was your basic meat and potatoes man; Muth was, in response, your basic meat and potatoes cook. The first time I ate real spaghetti was when I spent a weekend with my Italian college roommate. It was years before I realized the difference was in the fennel seed/chili flake-Italian sausage her mother used. 

Daddy hunted for pheasant in the fall and fished for perch and walleyed pike in the summer, so in September/October we were on the alert for teeth-cracking buckshot in birds simmered with cream of mushroom soup and in July/August we were wary of the threat posed by sharp, throat-sticking bones in the cornmeal-rolled fish fillets fried with Crisco. At least Daddy presented his catch to Muth gutted and cleaned—no bloody birds or flopping fish on the kitchen table, please.


On Mondays nights Daddy went to Rotary Club and we could experiment: neon-orange Chun King chicken chow mein on crunchy noodles, pizza from a box mix, Spaghettios, or on a really good night, Bisquick waffles with Mrs. Butterworth.

So if you’re deciding whether to make vegetarian lasagna, pork-fried rice, stuffed cabbage, or Pad Thai for dinner tonight, reconsider, pour yourself a glass of wine, watch the return of the Gilmore Girls and reach for that can of Chef Boyardee ravioli instead. 

Oven-baked country-style spare ribs 

  • 5 lbs. country-style ribs seasoned with salt, black pepper, cumin, and chili powder. Or use a good smoky, barbecuey rub, if you have one. 
  • 2 tbsp. oil

  • 1 diced onion
3 T. chopped garlic

  • 3 T. chopped ginger
1 T. dry Coleman’s mustard 
  • 1 tsp. cumin
1 Tbs. chili powder 
  • 1 can diced-in-juice tomatoes 
  • 1 can tomato sauce
1⁄2 c. catsup
3 T. Worcestershire sauce 
  • 1⁄2 c. soy sauce 
3 T. Dijon mustard
3 T. brown sugar
  • 1 T. chipotle pepper in sauce
2 c. chicken stock

Season ribs with salt, black pepper, cumin, chili powder. 

Sauté onion, garlic, ginger, dry mustard, cumin, and chili powder in hot oil. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, catsup, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, Dijon mustard, brown sugar, chipotle pepper, and chicken stock. Simmer for ten minutes. Blend with wand or standing blender. 

Simmer 15 minutes more, then pour over ribs. Sauce should cover ribs.

Bake in 400° oven for 15 minutes. Lower heat to 325°, bake for 2 hours. Check for tenderness and bake longer if necessary, but if they cook too long, they dry out and get tough. Meat should be falling-off-the bone tender with plenty of sauce left.

Lemon Pudding Cake 

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt 
  • 1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour 
  • 4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) butter, melted 
  • 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 
  • Grated peel of 1 lemon 
  • 3 eggs, separated 
  • 1 1⁄2 cups milk 
  • Heavy cream (optional) 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 11⁄2-quart baking dish or an 8-inch square baking pan. 

Mix 3⁄4 cup of the sugar, the salt, and the flour together in a bowl. Add the melted butter, lemon juice, lemon peel, egg yolks, and stir until thoroughly blended. Stir in the milk. 

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with the remaining 1⁄4 cup sugar until they are stiff but remain moist. Fold the beaten whites into the lemon mixture, then pour the batter into the prepared baking dish. 

Set the baking dish in a larger pan at least 2 inches deep and pour enough hot water into the larger pan to come halfway up the sides of the baking dish. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned. Serve warm or chilled, with heavy cream. 

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2 Responses to The beginnings of a cook: Country-style spare ribs, Lemon cake pudding

  1. Anonymous says:

    What about Fish Frys? Good old catfish in batter fried in a pan, Crisco? Anyways, the good old days of canned stuff like ravioli could not be easier, but please let’s not go back there. Sweetie’s cooking with fresh ingredients is fabulous and I love it and her. Lovely blog about the old days with family. What fun!!!

  2. Ginny says:

    Remember creamed chicken on toast ? Chicken a la King maybe? And why did we have to break our bread before spreading? Oh, here’s one more-remember how dismissive Mom would get when Daddy put jelly on the garlic bread?

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