Saturday, August 7, 2010

My Mother Couldn't Cook

Jane Reidy, circa 1966
My mother couldn't cook.
Stupid Liddle Kiddle
When she tried -- which wasn't often -- she tried so hard. I remember the gleam of the old-fashioned silver meat grinder clamped onto the kitchen counter, strands of marbelized red & white raw hamburger squirting out of the holes as I stood looking up, fascinated by the meat hair which I imagined tying into a ponytail with bright yellow yarn and plastering on my stupid Liddle Kiddle doll's head-- but somehow in the end, food always failed her.
Deus Ex Meat-Grinder
Puddings would sink, cakes turn leaden, meats tasted both burnt and raw while sprouting rubbery white ventricles, fruits would strangely spoil even before she returned from the market.

One of my earliest home-cooked food memories:

I am three. My young parents and I are sitting at the black-lacquered card table in our tiny apartment on W. 110th Street and Amsterdam on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is 1966.
There is a peacock feather stuffed into a wine bottle, a Bette Midler poster, a framed Matisse print, records stacked against the wall --
I remember Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass cover with the naked woman and whipped cream peaks piled on her hidden body and breasts, her parted lips tasting that whip-cream-covered finger -- piles of books books books, and batik fabric stretched over a couch with busted springs.
A cockroach squeezes out from a black crevice between the wall and floorboard, and I shiver. I hate cockroaches. La cucaracha. That's what I hear the Spanish-speaking tenants say in their exploding and rapid tongue. My mother told me "cucaracha" is their word for these unkillable bugs. One time I saw a cockroach four inches long. Even though I was freaked out, I chased it around the creaky living room and clamped a glass over it so I could prove to my parents we were infested with monsters and they would do something. I don't remember what happened.
My mother, her crazy flyaway hair bound in a bright patterned scarf, walks in from the kitchen carrying a bowl of slick green spinach. She serves my father, then me, then her. She sits, though even when she sits she seems to be moving. My father and I both take a forkful at the same time. When I bite down, my teeth crunch a clump of grit. Right away I think of my mother's family's house on Cape Cod, and how sometimes when I eat sandwiches sitting on a hump of smelly dried seaweed on the beach, the wind blows sand into the ham & cheese. Slam. The table shakes so hard the peacock feather waves. I look up and my father's face is squinched, his eyes narrowed.

"Goddammit, Jane, don't tell me you can't even clean spinach!" he bellows.

Tears immediately pop from the corners of my mother's light blue eyes, and her hand, wrapped around the fork, trembles.

"You're a useless excuse for a woman. For a wife. Let alone a mother. Feeding us garbage."

When my father speaks it's like he's spitting the words out in chopped, wet bursts, and I think of the cartoon bubbles I see in his New York Times. I can't read them yet, but I like the fat striped cat who lounges while the talky people run in and out of the picture box.

"I never should have married you."

"Henry..." her voice breaks into a trillion pieces.

I sit very still. Out of the corner of my eye I see the cockroach make a break for it, and sprint across the well-lit wooden floor, right through a cloud of dust bunnies and into the kitchen. Maybe cockroaches like their spinach with grit. Maybe I do, too. I keep chewing, working on dissolving the dirt, thinking about how if you concentrate you can eat anything, and maybe this is a test of some sort, like in the Norse and Greek myths my mother reads to me. And if I get through this, there'll be a feast at the end with lots of happy people and flasks of mead, mountains of grapes, loaves of fresh bread, hunks of cheese, and lemon meringue pie, my favorite.
They're in the kitchen now. Dishes clatter shrilly against the sink. My father's yelling but I can't hear any words anymore, it's just a rising wall of sound, and my mother is sobbing and whimpering. They're so loud. They don't see the peacock feather waving in its bottle, or the cucarachas on the run, they can't hear Herb Alpert's smooth slippery notes or the sound the woman makes sucking delicious whipped cream from her pretty finger, but I can, and I swallow that spinach.

These days, these many decades later, spinach is one of my favorite greens. Is this a corrective gustatory experience? I saute spinach regularly. If I'm not sauteeing spinach, I'm sauteeing kale. The other day I craved a protein breakfast from Swingers. Wait. Why couldn't I make it myself? Save money. Feed myself. So I did. 
Home protein breakfast:  A sliced heirloom tomato splashed with (good -- I use Colavita) olive oil then sprinkled with fresh cut basil (bought a plant for $1.99 at Trader Joe's just use it up 'cuz it's an annual and won't last!); half a pan-fried (do it at high heat! That's what Chef Maili taught me for moister chicken -- also pound it out with a mallet and make a paillard which cuts the cooking time by half -- this has been one of the most useful tips ever from her) chicken breast marinated in olive oil, rosemary, kosher salt and garlic; one fried egg over medium; sauteed spinach (just olive oil and kosher salt); a toasted English muffin lightly smeared with a hint of butter and a suggestion of French apricot preserves, the other with fig spread. Voila!

Thank you for your support, and your patience. I am still finding my voice here in this blog. Still finding my angle in to the art of boiling water. Into the heart of eating, and cooking.

Into why, at 47 years old, I am basically a culinary virgin.

As I embark on this journey and face the many lost years where I didn't allow myself to embrace and enjoy cooking for myself and others, I can see that my history with food and cooking is going to bubble up in all kinds of unexpected ways. I promise you I will dig for the truth, painful as it may be, afraid as I may be -- just as I did in Love Junkie. Perhaps others of you who are non-cooks will identify -- if not with the specifics, then with the bad food associations, with lack of home cooking or my (dis)connections with the whole culinary experience. Perhaps reading about my childhood hunger, strong appetites and particular personal history will inspire you, too, to transcend your own cooking/eating legacy. And you will cook your childhood version of spinach and make it your own, too.

If I can cook, anyone can.



  1. Such a beautiful post. I don't cook (and alas, don't want to) but I will keep reading for the nourishment and beauty. Loved seeing the pictures of your mom - she's such a beautiful woman - photographs very much like you.

  2. Cooking is just one more way you can nurture yourself and others, a way to spread the love. Congratulations on finding your way into the kitchen and a new avenue for your creativity!

  3. Honesty and humor make perfect plate mates.

  4. I love that you have taken something so hurtful and made it into a dish you fly proud with. I look forward to seeing where you're going.

  5. D'Aulaire's Greek Gods and Goddesses and D'Aulaire's Norse Gods and Giants? We had those, I LOVED them. Especially the story about Frey and Gerd.

  6. My Mom doesn't cook. I grew up on cereal, hot dogs and tunafish. Her mother was a great cook. Mom told me growing up that cooking skips a generation. Mom also taught me not to let anyone know that I can cook that well and they won't expect it from me. Enjoy the sensations, the food and the clean up.

  7. RR, my mom couldn't cook either, bless her heart, and we didn't know we just thought food was boring until Jeno's pizza rolls and Salsbury Steak TV dinners came along...anyway, thanks to you and my friend Susanna I have actually learned how to cook a few things and have the willingness to learn why, fellow LJ, did I not pull any of my tricks out of my sleeves when I had a gentleman caller this weekend? I had a fridge full of yummy fresh ingredients and I came up with nada to entice him, it didn't really enter my head once he was in my house, no wonder he didn't rip my clothes off and when he came to say hello to me in my room (he was staying in Connor's) he saw what I wore to bed and asked...are those your pajamas? Needless to say, it wasn't a sexy negligee. What is wrong with my wiring? Where is the woman in me? A hike in the canyons? 2 1/2 hours straight up and straight down and yes, I kept pace, after all, what would a man do?

    Funny girls, we are. xoxo VW