Some mothers cook with love, others out of a sense of duty, and still others cook with a shot of both. My mother harbored on the latter shoal. I'm not sure if she simply did not like cooking or because she was busy with a full-time job and four kids, she couldn't or wouldn't prioritize the task. I get it. What mother who also works (and p.s. my mom was getting her masters degree, too) can do it all without the help of a large staff? We didn't have a large staff.
Before my mother married my dad, my Italian aunts summoned her to their kitchens. Her mission: hover over their shoulders and learn to cook the dishes my father favored. To what end? They wouldn't bestow their blessings upon the marriage? She was a good soldier, though. The dishes she learned became bastions of my childhood. Among the highlights, ziti pasta with broccoli and garlic (before the dish claimed a regular spot on restaurant menus). Fritelle, Pugliese for frisbees of fried dough, slicked with pungent goat cheese and tomato sauce and flurried with Parmesan cheese and black pepper. Eggs with peppers and tomatoes served with crusty bread that ferried the mixture to our mouths.
Today I had a text conversation with my three sisters wherein we cast our votes for our favorite foods from our childhoods. Suffice to say the eggs with peppers and tomatoes, a dish composed of fried green peppers, garlic, tomato sauce, and lightly scrambled eggs, was not a crowd favorite. Not so fast. It was a win for me. I loved the flavor, the divergent textures, and even though it's not a pretty dish, the colors resonated with their brightness. Scrambled eggs with peppers and tomato is one dish I'm glad my mother taught me how to cook. It's a go-to when I'm tired or desire a comforting bite of nostalgia.
My mother mastered the aunts' dishes and I learned how to cook them, too, but there are three foods she taught me not to cook. Let's start with pot roast. New Englanders (I am one of them) like to gussy up this dish by anointing it Yankee Pot Roast. My childhood pot roast was a calamity of sallow, stringy boiled beef that borrowed its flavor from soft vegetables, the carrots leading the pack with their cloying sweetness and baby food texture. Gag worthy. 'Nuf said.
Next up: pork chops with applesauce. I know, I know. Cue the Brady Bunch theme. Pork chops pose a challenge for many cooks because they can cook quickly into a scourge of dry chew. The applesauce was the bigger culprit, though. My mom spiked the Mott's with cinnamon and lemon. Kudos to her for (unconsciously) lifting the sweetness with the acid. Still, I was not, and I am not a fan of fruit with pork.
And coming in third, the slime parading as tapioca. (My throat constricted as I wrote those words.) I've heard this horror of a food depicted as frogspawn. Wish I had coined that one because it is so spot on in so many ways. So, yeah, enjoy your frogspawn, oh I mean, Bubble Tea.
It may be a coincidence that the foods my mom cooked with mastery were Italian but I don't think so. She learned how to cook them out of love for my dad. These were the dishes that reverberated with flavor, color, and, cheesy as it sounds, love. These are the dishes I cook to this day and every time I do, I think of my mom and dad. And I cook the dishes with love, too.
My husband and son appreciate my cooking. My son has a particularly sharp palate that (he believes) gives him permission to comment on my cooking to the Nth degree. "Mom, maybe a bit more oregano and a tad less salt to highlight the herbal depth." "The pork chop is perfectly cooked in the center but then drops off to dryness too soon." "This needs more acid." "This needs more salt." On and on it goes in our personal episodes of Chopped. Food Network, you vex me, and at the same time, I am grateful that my son and I have this delicious bond. I am especially thankful that food connects us even during the dour teenage years. p.s. he can cook, too.
So here's to you, mom, for walking the kitchen line even when you were dreading it after a long day at work. Here's to you cooking eggs with peppers and tomatoes (and remembering to buy lots of bread) when you'd rather relax with a good book. And here's to the moms who get dinner on the table every night even when they order pizza or bring home Mexican. I feel you. Let's take a collective mom breath. Food, regardless of its provenance, connects a family, especially when its enjoyed together. Believe me, our kids remember the table talk.