Giving Thanks for My Mom

2020 has been, in many ways, a cruel year. Not being able to share Thanksgiving with all of my family has me thinking about the loved ones I have lost, like my mom. I wrote this essay right after her death in 2015, but I still give thanks for her strong support and love every day.

This is what I remember. Brown cabinets with a peninsula countertop where we prepped food. A large wooden family table in the adjoining kitchen dining area with our dog Misty hanging out quietly under the table, hoping to get a scrap of food. A deacon’s bench on one side of the table that my sister and I shared for family dinners, meaning pretty much every night. The white stand mixer that lifted up to remove the bowl of batter, and the inevitable fighting over who got to lick the beaters. An olive green, square, electric frying pan with a Teflon lining and a removable plug for safe cleaning. My Easy Bake Oven. Silver cookware with stumpy black knobs for handles. The counter next to the deep sink where we would lay on our backs for my mom to wash our hair in the sink. And every plastic container and lid my mom ever came across, saved for reuse, and packed haphazardly into a cabinet making it nearly impossible to ever match a lid to its container.

I grew up in a small town in northern Indiana during that time people refer to as “the formative years”, from the age of four to fourteen. Although for some of that time my mom worked outside of the home, for much of it she stayed home and did what moms in the ‘60s did. She cooked, cleaned, did laundry, shopped, sewed, and shuttled kids around. But my mom did something else too, something far more important I’ve come to understand: she taught me how to cook. I just assumed everyone’s mom did this, but I learned that’s not true. In fact, I’ve heard many stories about moms that were so intent on just getting dinner on the table before dad arrived home from work, that inevitably they ended up shooing the kids out of the kitchen because they were just slowing down the process. I get that, I do. Making dinner isn’t always fun, and with everything else going on can seem like a chore. But still, I’ll be forever grateful to my own mom for taking the time to teach me.

A generation prior, I am guessing that everyone learned to cook alongside their moms or grandmothers, generally using real, whole foods, or they wouldn’t have known how to feed themselves. But the business of food in the US in the ‘50s and ‘60s was rapidly changing. Fast food restaurants, TV dinners, and all sorts of pre-packaged and processed foods were being introduced in what many now regard as a misguided effort to make life easier for the American mom. And as more and more women began to join the workforce, the traditional stay-at-home mom who might have made food from scratch every day was quickly disappearing in our society.

During grade school my siblings and friends and I walked the four short blocks home for lunch. Amazingly, my mom actually made lunch for us every day, even if that lunch did include some short cuts based on the conveniences offered at the time: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Campbell’s soup (but only chicken noodle, tomato, or cream of mushroom), canned fruit cocktail (we’d fight over the cherries), Fritos, and milk. It’s always struck me as odd that she would serve us Fritos, as she never bought any other junk food like pretzels or potato chips. She also never bought us a soda. In fact, I didn’t have my first potato chip or Coke until I went to a junior high school party at the age of 13. But you can tell from our lunch menu that the prepared foods industry was already creeping into our house.

Still, my mom cooked regularly. Each month she would sit down with a steno pad and draw out a grid for the month so that there was one small square for each day. My older brother and younger sister and I would sit around with her and call out our favorites for the menu planning. Spaghetti and meatballs. Fried chicken. Chinese steak with rice. Meatloaf with baked potatoes. Shepherd’s pie. Texas Hash. Yankee Doodle Macaroni. She’d add things like halibut, in support of the Catholic church’s rules of no-meat Fridays, but we had a big voice in determining the lineup.

If you don’t recognize some of these recipes, just pull out the original Betty Crocker cookbook and you’ll find them. Texas Hash was a Tex-Mex sort of rice and ground beef casserole, although it called for very few spices, used no chiles at all, and nobody today would even think it comes close to anything you’d get in Mexico. Yankee Doodle Macaroni was a simple macaroni dish with a sauce of ground beef, canned tomatoes, some dried onions, and dried parsley. It called for no garlic, no other fresh vegetables, and honestly, it was about as Italian as some of the dishes at The Olive Garden, yet I still love this simple recipe today, replacing only the dried onions with fresh.

But the world was already becoming more global, and cuisines were starting to spread around the world, probably in large part thanks to Julia Child’s famous cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My mom was no different, and she tried to stretch our tastes by introducing things like frog’s legs, which none of us would touch, adding pickles and hardboiled eggs to the center of our meatloaf (someone please enlighten me as to what cuisine that came from as it just seemed weird to us), and Chinese Steak, which became a family favorite that I still make today: a simple stir fry using soy and garlic marinated strips of beef with snow peas, green onions, and tomatoes, sauced with a soy-rice wine vinegar-cornstarch sauce served over plain white rice. I’m not sure it’s even really close to an authentic Chinese recipe, but for years this is what we made when we craved Chinese food.

We had salad every single night, and it was always the same: iceberg lettuce, long before we heard about e-coli outbreaks, tomatoes, celery, and carrots with Italian salad dressing made from the Good Seasonings packet in that shaker bottle with the lines on it to tell you how much water, oil, and vinegar to add. The ingredients in the salad never changed, and the dressing never changed until years later when my mom ditched the packet in favor of her own mix of spices for the vinaigrette, something that seemed completely radical to me at the time.

Having spent nearly the last decade in a food and wine career, I’m often asked how I learned to cook and when I began cooking in earnest. I struggle to answer, largely because I just remember cooking, not how I started cooking or how I was taught to cook. I got an Easy Bake Oven when I was about five and I made every little cake packet that came with that thing. When I ran out of mixes, my younger sister and I would create our own concoctions of peanut butter, sugar, butter, flour and whatever else our childish brains thought would taste great stirred into a cake. These were usually huge flops, and we’d resort to mixing butter and sugar together and spreading it onto a piece of white bread to eat instead. If you haven’t ever tried this treat, you simply must.

I had another partner in the kitchen, my best friend and next-door neighbor Cindy Herring. We would spend the night at each other’s house pretty much every Friday and Saturday night all through grade school, so we always had the chance to make breakfast together. I remember making huge stacks of French toast…and then eating the entire thing together until our bellies ached. Afterwards, we would lie lethargically out in the playhouse in her back yard, trying to avoid the daddy long legs spiders, until we recovered. The Herrings also had Captain Crunch cereal, something my mother never bought, opting instead for Wheaties and Shredded Wheat. Yes, I snuck over to Cindy’s to get some of that Captain Crunch whenever I could.

Although I distinctly remember my mom teaching me how to sew (my first project was a strapless turquoise ball gown for my Barbie doll) and how to dance (to “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells), I don’t have a single memory of my mom actually teaching me how to cook. I just remember being there, in the kitchen with her and cooking, starting with that Good Seasonings salad dressing. We used the cruet that came with the seasoning packets and we made it just like the cruet advised: oil to the first line, vinegar to the next line, and water to the next, add the spice packet, shake well, and serve. I tore the lettuce and diced up the vegetables for the salad. This was the perfect task for a youngster in the kitchen, and years later I discovered it was also perfect for my beloved Nana who was suffering from dementia, but could still sit at the kitchen table and do her chore.

I remember making all of those early dishes that inevitably filled in the menu slots on my mom’s monthly steno plan from which she created her monthly shopping list. Fried chicken: flour went into a Baggie (before Ziplocs), we added seasoned salt, shook the chicken in the seasoned flour, and fried it at 350 degrees in the olive green electric frying pan. I can vividly see myself shaking a little extra seasoned flour into the pan to fry into crisp little bits, one of my earliest culinary innovations, and I can actually taste those little bits that I would sneak out of the pan as I turned the chicken legs to brown on the other side.

In fact, I am pretty sure I helped with all of our dinners. I blended in the seasonings and breadcrumbs to make meatballs and simmered them in my mom’s sauce. I stirred together ingredients and shaped the meatloaf. I scrubbed russet potatoes and rubbed them with cooking oil before baking them in the oven. I spread the mashed potatoes over the top of the corn and ground beef mixture for the shepherd’s pie. I measured the cornstarch into the water to thicken the sauce for the Chinese steak. I thawed and heated up the packages of frozen chopped spinach, corn, or other vegetables for dinner. We were somehow, as I recall, relegated to only frozen vegetables in our kitchen – we never used canned and I have no memories at all of cooking fresh vegetables for our dinners. That might have been because when my mom made the monthly menu plan, she would also shop for the month, and frozen was certainly easier to store.

Perhaps my favorite thing to make was a strange casserole my mom would let us have when they were going out for the evening and she needed to feed us before the babysitter arrived. We would cut up hot dogs, brown them in the electric skillet, then add a can of tomato soup, dried macaroni, and some water and simmer it until the macaroni was cooked. The whole thing would be served with the grated cheese-like mixture from “the green can” sprinkled over the top. It’s hardly gourmet, probably not very good for you, and loaded with too much sodium, but if you offered me this right now, I’d happily sit down to dinner and dig in with enthusiasm.

Once my mom had to be in the hospital for a minor ear surgery, and I just naturally assumed, even though I was probably still only in grade school, that I would make the dinner for the family. Usually my mom and I were the only ones to share the box of spinach (my dad had had a run-in with a nun over eating it at lunch as a 3rd grader), so I picked spinach for dinner, knowing, with a bit of shame since my mom was in the hospital after all, that I’d get the whole thing to myself.

As I grew up, my confidence in the kitchen grew. When I was 14, we moved to Pennsylvania, and despite being a rebellious teen at the time, I decided to do something special for my mom’s 40th birthday. I sent her out of the house with a friend for the day and took over her new kitchen to create an entire Chinese meal from scratch for her birthday dinner. I made homemade wonton soup, almond crusted bites of chicken that were deep-fried, and more, and by the time she returned, virtually every pot in her kitchen had been used and the house looked like a grocery store had exploded. I’m sure she just wished I had bought her some ugly cheap earrings like most kids would have done, but instead she applauded my efforts in the kitchen – and then I’m pretty sure she cleaned the whole mess up herself. Happy birthday, Mom!

I’ve wondered ever since how I actually knew how to cook like that at 14 years old all by myself. I can only guess that my mom must have shown me how to read and follow a recipe in a cookbook, and from there, my interest in cooking as well as my skills just blossomed and I was off and cooking.

I began collecting my own cookbooks as a teenager, I’m sure because of the collection I saw my mom amassing, knowing that I could make anything I wanted to if I could just follow the recipe. And for many years, I only cooked from recipes, not quite experienced enough yet to break out on my own. In a natural progression, when I went to college I began exchanging recipes with friends: apricot chicken from a roommate, apple pie from a friend’s sister, a bread recipe from my future sister-in-law, and pizza sauce from a sorority sister. And then I started cooking these new dishes for my mom.

While I might not recall my mom specifically teaching me how to cook, I’ll never forget the first time she asked me to share a recipe for something I had made, instilling in me a deep sense of pride. This began the phase of our culinary relationship that I like to think of as “the entertaining years”. My mom loved to throw a dinner party, whether it was a cookout for friends at their yacht club (they owned a small sailboat, not really a yacht), the family Thanksgiving dinner where the menu never varied, or an elaborate Twelfth Night Party that my mom threw in January every year for many, many years. She was always creating new menus and trying new things, often from clippings out of all the food magazines she subscribed to. This was the 1980s, and food was getting elaborate, and my mom, along with the rest of America, was having fun trying new things in the kitchen.

During this time, I was a young working professional and was newly married, discovering my own love of cooking for others as a form of entertainment. The first thing either of us would do the day after an event was to call the other person and regale them with the menu we had created, talking about what worked well, what we would have changed, and swapping the recipes. I still marinate beef tenderloin in the style my mom discovered for one of her dinner parties. My skills and confidence grew simply by my mom suggesting I try a new recipe and my appetite for cooking had become insatiable.

The last time I was in my mom’s kitchen was when I was packing it up to move her to assisted living after my dad passed away a couple of years ago. She had long since stopped cooking, her dementia getting in the way of those once simple tasks, yet her pantry still held so many things I recalled from my childhood. Her cookbook collection had become enormous, and with my own daughter in culinary school at the time, I knew those books would find a home with her. I also passed along some of the dishes, pots and pans, and other odds and ends to the young adults in our family, all building their own independent lives and in need of kitchen supplies.

Oddly, I couldn’t bring myself to take any of her things into my own kitchen. I told myself I just didn’t need any of that old stuff, but I suspect that subconsciously I thought that seeing those things on a daily basis would only cause me to mourn the loss of the mom I once knew, the one who was so confident in the kitchen, the one I grew up cooking with. And so the only thing I kept was her recipe box, which I found, much to my pleasure, also included recipe cards that my Nana had collected. I poured over those cards, recalling making our neighbor’s English Toffee every Christmas and marveling at finally finding the source for my mom’s Crab Louis recipe.

Amazingly, my mom continued to make her own salad dressing – clearly a long-term memory – almost until the day she died in 2015. It was heartbreaking to lose her, but not nearly as heartbreaking as it was to watch the dementia take hold and no longer be able to swap recipes and food stories and more with her. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. I still miss her terribly, but I am certain not a single day will pass when I don’t remember her kitchen and marvel that she not only allowed me in the kitchen with her, but that she also taught me to cook and shared her love of food with me. Thank you mom, I love you.

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