Was your mom a good cook?
Who can remember? In the last five years of her life, as she moved from her late 80s into her early 90s, as her mobility and memory continued to decline, my mother strayed down a path of no return: retirement community meals, tinned tuna and crackers, tiny packages of leftovers multiplying in the freezer.
The contents of her refrigerator consisted of condiments, white sliced bread and lunch meat. When I came to visit with various family members in tow, we did a full grocery shop before pulling into her driveway. She resented the bags full of produce and meats and cheeses and rice that we carried into her little kitchen — more proof of her diminished circumstances.
When she was a little younger and slightly more mobile, she prepared for our visits with dishes like chicken tetrazzini and ham rolls (don’t ask), which prompted a great deal of eye-rolling when we thought she wouldn’t notice. She was puzzled when we tried to take her out to dinner or order takeout. Why waste good money when she had a freezer full of our “favorites.” We sighed and fantasized about our next meal at a small plates restaurant, giving little thought to her irritation.
Was she ever a good cook?
It’s sometimes easy to forget that she spent decades baking, assembling desserts from scratch, snorting with derision at women who used mixes. Pie crusts were a specialty. About the time I turned 6, she started giving me bits of leftover dough to flatten into one piece and bake with brown and white sugar, butter and cinnamon in a tiny baking pan. I was allowed to open the oven and place it inside myself — and trust me, that was a big deal. I once burned my forearm on that pie pan, the skin blistering in a line that was at least two inches long. She was horrified — but I wasn’t. I was baking.
During the Christmas holidays she prepared dozens upon dozens of cookies — sugar cookies with "paint" that she concocted from egg yolks, sugar and food coloring; brownies with frosting made from instant coffee and butter and powdered sugar; window pane cookies that used Lifesavers as the stained glass. She baked the sweets as gifts for her friends but had no problem with me plundering her supply. Sometimes I ate only her cookies for days on end.
Every March she made a cherry pie for my birthday, pies that became legendary among my friends. When I was in high school she’d make two or three of them —one for me and the others for the freeloaders. When I was single and in my 20s and came to visit, she’d make a cherry pie, freeze it and send it home with me on the plane ride. The crust was kind of a miracle—she used shortening and “coaxed it along” with a little butter. It is incomprehensible that I never learned how to make it.
She cooked for my family when my kids were born. I don't remember what she made but she was there and fed us and washed the dishes and slept on the futon in the living room. She cooked for my kids when they were little: pork loins and blueberry bars and salmon with dill. Steak. Even chicken tetrazzini. No one complained. For a time. And then we did complain — among ourselves. We were lost in our own little farm-to-table haze.
Last year my daughter bought a recipe box for a new kitchen in a new city. She called and asked me to write out, by hand, a series of recipes she grew up with. At the end of the conversation she said: Don't forget the chicken tetrazzini. (5 tbls. cooking oil, 3 tbls. flour, 1/4 tsp salt, 2 cups chicken broth, 1 4-ounce can mushrooms, 1/2 tsp garlic salt, 2 cups cooked chicken or turkey, 4 ounces thin spaghetti, 1 cup grated sharp cheddar.)
So was your mom a good cook?
Some people think so.