Housecat with one of her portraits.
When I married my husband, a Boston Bean, his mother was part of the package. And what a package! The day we met, her banana-yellow hair was a fright and her tie-dyed Senegalese pajamas made me blink and look away. Yet there was something of Katharine Hepburn in this long, tall, dame who was mama to the man I loved. When I entered her pint-size garden on Beacon Hill for the first time, she was sitting at a circular patio table working three Princess phones, all of them a-jangle. Yet when she spotted me she slammed the phone down, extended a paint-streaked hand and said, in a whiskey voice, “Call me Housecat.”
Thus began my relationship with one of the most contrary and inspiring women I would ever meet, and the maker of the best sweet potatoes I would ever eat.
“House,” as she liked to be called, was the second daughter and third child of two distant parents. She often said that her father came from an Old Virginia family, and that, down South, he’d been more of a gentleman farmer than a successful one: “The turkeys all came down with dreadful diseases and the cows, they just drifted away . . .” After that, her father sold fancy automobiles to his fellow patricians in Boston, although not that many sales were made, apparently. Eventually her disillusioned parents decided to go west to San Francisco, where they had relatives. But their headstrong younger daughter insisted on staying behind. She’d gone to Boston’s Museum School and rented herself a tiny studio on Beacon Hill’s Lime Street, determined to become a portrait painter at a time when no woman was one.
Her one concession to her parents in those days was attending the Fannie Farmer Cooking School. They wanted her to be marriageable; this might be just the ticket. Ha! Had they only known how often this rebellious child of theirs would marry—five times in total, including two trips to the altar with Husband No. 4—they could have saved all that tuition money. But then, perish the thought, none of us would have had the pleasure of dining on Housecat’s most fabulous signature dish.
It was Housecat’s only signature dish, to be honest. When I first met Michael at a street fair on Charles Street, he began regaling me with funny stories about how his artist mother’s painting studio adjoined the family kitchen. “My school sandwiches always had stripes of paint on them,” he told me with a rueful laugh. And that wasn’t the only time when Housecat’s mind wandered while she was cooking. Soon after Michael and I married, I walked into her minuscule kitchen and found a huge black coat button rolling around the top of a bubbling pot of her spaghetti sauce. “House, did you see this?” I asked, pointing at the gigantic button. “Yeeeesssss,” she said vaguely, gesturing at a nearby jug of Chianti. “Have some wine, why don’t you?”
On Thanksgiving we never knew what to expect when the family gathered on Beacon Hill. One year Housecat forgot to turn the oven on; when she checked on the turkey close to mealtime, she discovered that it was still pink, with raw bacon strips that had yet to feel any heat. That Thanksgiving we ate London broil from DeLuca’s Market, Boston’s most venerable grocery store. The following year, not to be fooled twice, Housecat broiled the heck out of the turkey for two days straight, until there was nothing left of the torched bird but a few pathetic strips of meat dangling off its ribcage These measly strips were surgically removed with great skill and effort by Michael’s mild-mannered brother Peter, who had been called in to contain the crisis at his mother’s tearful behest. Housecat lived in fear of Michael and Peter’s older brother Richard, a corporate lawyer with a bite that matched his bark. But this time she needn’t have worried. When Richard tasted the strips of broiled turkey which Peter had so artfully arranged across a heaping helping of Stovetop Stuffing, he barked at his wife, “This is delicious! Pam, get the recipe!”
Hilarity was on the menu each and every Turkey Day. Housecat would be there with one or two of her ex-husbands, and so would Richard and Pam; Peter; Michael, me, and our apricot-haired Baby Jess. Nobody wanted to miss whatever was going to happen next. And always, always, we knew that there would be at least one classic holiday dish that we could all look forward to without holding our collective breaths. At Fannie Farmer’s Cooking School, Housecat had learned to make an absolutely lip-smacking Sweet Potato and Apple Scallop. This dish, the delight of children and grownups alike, contained only a few ingredients and could be slapped together in almost any order, and guaranteed to turn out irresistibly yummy. Even Housecat, who tended to make it on the fly in between her portrait sittings, always got it right. Her tribe savored every sweet morsel, right down to the caramelized brown sugar at the bottom of the baking dish.
As for the painting studio situated right next door to Housecat’s kitchen, consider what came out of all of those portrait sittings of hers. For 55 years, with no stopping for births or deaths or divorces or distress, Housecat painted Harvard professors and Beacon Hill debutantes, mayors and senators and cardinals and kings of industry. She painted Mayor Kevin White and Richard Cardinal Cushing and Senators Leverett Saltonstall and Henry Cabot Lodge. She painted humorist Art Buchwald and law professor Alan Dershowitz and two of the Roosevelts and at least one Kennedy. She probably had the most fun the day she did a charcoal-and-chalk sketch of author Gore Vidal while sharing the dais with him at the Boston Public Library. Carried away with her sketching, House tumbled off her chair into the greenery; the chivalrous Vidal retrieved her and chuckled as he dusted her off afterwards.
In a more dignified mode, she tracked down and painted Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School, soon after the eminent architect had fled Nazi Germany. Years later, when Gropius died, the Smithsonian conducted a nationwide search to discover the best likeness of him to hang in the National Portrait Gallery. And of all the portraits pulled in from around the nation, Housecat’s was deemed the best.
Housecat’s painting of Walter Gropius.
Housecat’s entire family headed en masse to see her painting of Professor Gropius ensconced in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. One wall over, as I remember, was a portrait of Mary Cassatt by Edgar Degas. My mother-in-law had envisioned herself as a portrait painter when there were no role models of her gender anywhere in sight, and now we could all clearly see that she ranked among the very best of them.
When you can paint as well as Housecat did, who cares if you can cook? Except that we, her family, still hoped that she would. And she did—that sweet potato dish. She’s been gone for decades now, but we, her descendants, continue to remember her victories, including her one great culinary triumph. Every Thanksgiving—and every Christmas, too—we make her Sweet Potato and Apple Scallop, and we smile and smile as we eat it.
Housecat’s Sweet Potato and Apple Scallop
2 cups thinly sliced boiled sweet potatoes or yams
1 ½ cups peeled, thinly sliced tart apples
½ cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 1 ½ quart baking dish. Put half the potatoes in the baking dish. Cover with half the apples, sprinkle with half the sugar, dot with half the butter, and sprinkle with salt. Repeat. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake about 30 minutes more, or until the apples are soft. Serves 4.