When I was little, my mother was Martha Stewart before there was one. She was Betty Crocker, Emily Post, Jackie Kennedy and Cher all rolled into one. She made Betty Draper (pictured) look like a hillbilly. She actually had Williams-Sonoma-type kitchen gadgets while most people were mastering the can opener. She knew what a chinois was for. At Christmas she brought out her Christmas linen and a special “cookie tree” – a multi-tiered tree-shaped-platter-thingy meant to hold cookies. She would buy glass cookie jars and fill them with a dozen different homemade varieties. And she did it all with style, grace, and a lot of bitching.
And this is why I write about food. Because when I stood in the lunch line in 5th grade talking about the Baked Alaska we had for dessert on Saturday night, my friends would give me blank stares as they chomped on their graham crackers. What? Didn’t everyone dine by candlelight while listening to Sinatra’s Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back on the turntable? Wasn’t everyone eating sukiyaki with lemon raspberry tart for dessert on a Thursday night?
I guess not. I’d sit there in our lunchroom munching on a dry, crumbly apple brown betty, or at least something that resembled as much, and try to enjoy it. While at the same time trying to engage my friends in conversations on the joys of using brownies and mint chocoloate chip ice cream in your Baked Alaska instead of the usual yellow cake and vanilla. But they had had Oreos for dessert, hot dogs for dinner, and didn’t understand in a gosh darn minute what the heck I was talking about.
SIDE NOTE FOR THE UNINITIATED – Baked Alaska is a dessert – so fashionable in the 1960’s – where you pile ice cream on top of a cake, then meringue on top of that, then bake the whole thing in an oven for a few minutes. The ice cream does not melt, and the dish is out of this world good. Especially with mint chocolate chip ice cream. And a brownie.
This is why I write about food. Because my mother made me love it. I learned to grease and flour a cake pan when I was four. I was baking cakes with her by the time I was seven. And Momma was a caked crusader. She had ones for every occasion. Valentine’s Day called for a heart-shaped 4-layer yellow cake with pink frosting and tiny heart-shaped red hots all over it. Easter called for a white cake with vanila frosting and coconut smothering it. With jelly bean eyes and paper ears sticking out of its head. It was my job to color and cut out the ears. And never with white paper either. Yep, we were the only bunny cake in town with a white body and purple ears.
I used to love doing this, putting the finishing touches on the cake, but I remember the older I got, the more I grew to resent it. I grew to resent Easter. I HATED making the ears after a while. I’d grit my teeth and cringe – here it comes – she’s going to ask me to cut out the ears I just know it – holding my breath…
“Would you please make some ears for the bunny cake?”
Grrrr…. and I would trudge along to my fate grudgingly, as only a resentful teenager can do. Not only did I see it as yet another chore, eventually it came to represent everything I wasn’t allowed to do when it came to cooking. I could flour a pan with the best of ’em, but when it came to baking, the only thing I was qualified for was cutting out the bunny ears. Or maybe putting on the frosting if I was having a good week. With all other cooking I was assigned to less than prep work. Of course they say hindsight is 20-20 and memory is much less so, but I do recall being relegated to a class lower than dishwasher when it came to helping my Momma cook. She was willing to show me how, every way and every time, but not always willing to let me try.
I think my current hesitance to cook comes from this. I can write about food until the cows come home, but actually cook? Nah. I’m too afraid of failure. And at cooking, my Momma never failed. I don’t remember her burning ANYTHING and really don’t remember any massive culinary failures (okay, the way she baked flounder with no seasoning on a roasting pan wasn’t the greatest, but it was edible). Seriously though, all of her cooking was perfect. Beautiful, flavorful. Perfect.
So, as a young woman, I’d end up standing at the kitchen counter trying and trying to cook and be frozen scared stiff to a standstill. I couldn’t even get started because I believed by then that meals were events. EVERY meal was an event. And this event had to be a showstopper. It had to be perfect. My Momma, without even knowing, had set the bar pretty damn high.
It was even worse when cooking for someone else, like family or a boyfriend. Forget it! It’s quite all right to overcook the pasta when you’re alone, fine, just eat it mushy. But to burn the quail you’re serving for the first time to your family to impress them with your new-found independent zeal? Unheard of. Unthinkable. Cooking for me became episodes of psychotic breakdowns, violent outbursts, shaking fists at the sky. A crying, blubbering mess. I remember the first time my husband and I made Thanksgiving dinner for both sides of the family. I actually had a freak out breakdown because we didn’t have potato rolls on the table. “But Nana ALWAYS had potato rolls!” I wailed. Hubby rolled his eyes and went to the store.
It’s like Momma had trained me all those years to be understudy, but once I was called upon to perform, I froze. You know, I started this entry thinking it would be why I write about food, but now I think I should’ve entitled it, “Why I Hate to Cook”. But I sure as hell can WRITE about food. And I do as often as I can. And I don’t worry if it’s perfect or not. It’s just me. Loving food. Writing about food. I write about food and sometimes it helps me remember. And sometimes it helps me grieve. I actually started this entry because of a cookie. Not a Baked Alaska, but a cookie.
I remember one particular episode in 2001 – my mother had died that March, the same year I started teaching high school. I remember that year as chaotic, full of high highs and low lows. I got married that year, and it was the most magical event of my life. We moved to Pittsburgh a mere two months after my mother’s death. By moving so far away I left behind memories. I left behind grief. I poured myself into my teaching and tried to forget how sad I was. And one day I stopped at a Barnes and Noble to grade papers. Purchased a latte and a Reese’s peanut butter cup cookie simply because it sounded delicious.
And it was. I bit into the chewy nutty cookie and the flavors of chocolate and peanut butter flooded my taste buds. And I started to cry. Because my mother used to make this kind of cookie for Christmas, only she would take the peanut butter cookie dough and mold it around a Hershey’s kiss. So the cookie ended up shaped like a kiss. I bit into this Barnes & Noble cookie and I couldn’t hold back my tears because it tasted just like hers. EXACTLY like it.
I remembered my Momma, and I remembered Christmas, and I remembered her showing me how to bake cookies, and flour cake pans, and whisk eggs, and make vinaigrette, all those basic things you need in order to build a cooking repertoire. She was teaching me the basics, so I could take it from there. And I didn’t have to be perfect. I just had to try.
I bit into the cookie and I grieved. I really grieved for our loss and for myself and all the lessons learned and all the things that went unsaid. Because of a cookie I grieved for my Momma for the very first time ever. People surrounding me probably thought I was crazy, sitting there buried in English essays, crunching away and crying. I didn’t care. I ate. I grieved. I allowed myself to feel sad.
I hadn’t made this cookie. She hadn’t made it either. But the cookie reminded me of the woman who had made it first. A long time ago. And she made it perfectly.