On my 10th birthday, my mother made pizza for dinner. I remember this for many reasons. Because it was my birthday, because I loved pizza, because my mother made very good pizza — long-rise yeasted dough — and because she did it all wheeling around our tiny Iowa kitchen on an office stool, as she’d just had major knee surgery.
By the time I’d turned 10, I’d realized that coaching field hockey was oddly dangerous — she came home with black eyes from field hockey sticks or balls more than a few times — and that my mother was a terrific baker but a lousy cook.
She made bread with whole grain flour, had a sourdough starter permanently in the back of the refrigerator — which reminded me of a jar of paper mache paste — and made bagels, boiled, with lye, from scratch. Yet dinner, mysteriously, tended to be uniformly dreadful.
I remember overcooked pasta with boiled vegetables and pork chops, also overcooked; even Spam or Scrapple. I remember dishes doused in Velveeta from large rectangluar boxes. I remember meatloaf and beef stroganoff. Tuna casserole. Jello salad. It was like a permanent, bad ‘70s pot luck.
My sister and I taught ourselves to cook as a kind of survival mechanism, as a way to fill in the relatively inedible gaps between breakfast and dessert.
My childhood was filled with the warm bread, loaves of oatmeal and rye and whole wheat, that my mother somehow extricated from a cheap electric oven. I remember the pizza, built on that fantastic crust. And I remember my birthday cakes, either plain vanilla or German chocolate, with great crumb and repeating layers.
I often think about the dichotomy of my mother’s life in the kitchen when I talk to pastry chefs, mostly women, who talk about gravitating toward baking because of their mothers’ love for it. And I think about her when I bake the cakes and cookies, the muffins and madeleines that my daughter prefers to cook to, well, dinner.
I never asked my mother why she liked to bake more than she liked the rest of it, but I’ve asked my younger daughter.
“I prefer sweet to savory,” she says, a true child of the Food Network. “Mixing’s more fun than roasting,” she continues, thinking about it. “And you get to decorate!” My mother would probably have agreed. I know I do.