Here's my mom's cooking in a nutshell: My wife and I get home from a movie after my mother has been babysitting our daughter. Mom says she's cooked dinner for all of us — spaghetti. But then she nervously calls me into the kitchen. "Is there anything I can do with this?" she asks, using a carving fork to lift a giant, dripping clump of glued-together noodles molded to the exact size and shape of the cooking pot.
Most Mother's Day stories by food writers seem to be hymns to culinary lessons taught and great dishes remembered. This is not one of them.
Usually when I tell people that my mom was not a good cook, they gasp in horror that I would say such a thing.
But not all mothers are great cooks, and, in fact, sometimes there are far more important things for moms (and dads) to concentrate on than preparing memorable meals — like playing with babies, even if it means losing track of time when the spaghetti is cooking.
In my mom's universe, cooking fancy dinners was not much of a priority. Probably because she was busy raising four kids on a then-junior officer's salary in a military family that moved every year.
It's not that she couldn't cook or wouldn't. She fed us all every day, three times a day. But perhaps because she was usually doing a dozen things at once, she found little pleasure and a lot of frustration in the process.
Later in her life, when she was less encumbered, my mother got into bread baking. But even then cooking always seemed to be a source of devilment for her — recipes worked or didn't work according to their own mysterious whims.
There are still dishes of hers that I prepare ritually, usually around the holidays — my grandmother's Christmas cookies and the cranberry sauce and Scandinavian Yule loaf made from recipes my mother collected one place or another over the years. And when I do, I often find myself picking up a certain subliminal level of anxiety that I think somehow must have been transferred into that recipe's DNA. Will the cranberries jell? Will the julekake rise? I think this is one reason I find so much pleasure in geeky explorations of how cooking works.
For those of us who love to cook, being in the kitchen and preparing meals for our families and friends is both a joy and a way of expressing our affection. But I've been around enough great cooks to know that, despite a lot of well-meaning rhetoric, a lovingly prepared meal is no guarantee against any of the myriad dysfunctions to which families can fall prey.
On the other hand, I've known wonderfully happy families for which dinner was nearly an afterthought, but they played music, or camped out, or just laughed together.
There are many ways to build a family, and we each contribute what we can. Some of us bring food to the table. Others have different gifts that are just as important.
But then again, I'm prejudiced. Not only am I the child of a wonderful mother who didn't cook, I'm also married to a wonderful mother who doesn't cook. Which is a good thing, since I still have so many kitchen mysteries I want to explore.
Read more Mother's Day essays from the L.A. Times food staff:
Cookies, doughnuts and chocolate chips by Noelle Carter
The private bakery of my mother's kitchen by Jenn Harris
Sourdough bread and homemade pizzas by Amy Scattergood
Was your mom a good cook? by Alice Short