When I think of my mom, I think of the kitchen. Rarely was she sitting on the couch, or having a glass of wine on the porch. What I remember most about my mom is her seemingly endless ability to be continuously cooking something. From rolling out pizza dough on Saturday nights to then taking the leftover dough and making “pizza frittes” (Italian fried dough) for breakfast Sunday morning, there was always something yummy to look forward to. I don’t know which I preferred more, the saucy pizza right out of the oven, or the Sunday morning treat, slathered with butter and sugar.
She also cooked during the week, somehow, amidst all of our activities. She and I have talked about this at length…how she found the time and energy to drive us around, correct her students’ papers, help us with homework, and then bake some chicken and throw in a vegetable and starch almost every week night.
And it’s not like she took a break on the weekends. I remember large Sunday spreads, roasted chickens, vegetables, chicken cacciatore, and sometimes, homemade meatballs and sauce. The sauce took over a day to simmer. She always said none of this was hard, but it all took time. You had to be home. I loved dinner. I used to ask her immediately upon returning home from school. “What’s for dinner?”
“Breaded chicken,” she might reply.
“And what else?” I’d ask.
“And what else?”
And we’d go on and on like this until she’d explained every aspect of the meal.
But there was one night when I was about ten years old that I’ll never forget. It was a weekend, about 4 in the afternoon, and my mom was in her room…very unlike her. She was tired. Maybe she was sick. But there was nothing started for dinner, nothing laid out on the counter to defrost. “Mom!” I shouted upstairs.
“What?” she yelled back.
“What’s for dinner?” The question I asked almost every day.
“I don’t care. Eat doughnuts. Doesn’t matter to me.”
I burst into tears.
It didn’t matter to me that she hadn’t cooked an elaborate meal. Some nights we had sandwiches or hot dogs or chicken pot pie. I think what got me, in that moment, was that she didn’t care what we ate. That we were on our own.
It’s funny the things that stick with you. The things you take for granted that your mother just always does. She doesn’t ever complain about it. She doesn’t ever talk about it. She just weaves it into the fabric of the family so intricately, that it becomes an expected, taken for granted cornerstone. She probably thought that for one day, she was going to take a break. She was probably exhausted. Maybe she just didn’t feel like cooking.
As a mom now, I totally get it. She’s allowed to be tired. I knew that as a ten year old too. So why the hysterics? Why was I so upset? She might’ve even thought we would love to have doughnuts for dinner! What kid wouldn’t?
But food, food cooked with warmth and love, this was a cornerstone of my family. A tradition that she’d created. A tradition that was more than just the meal on the table. It was a declaration of love, day after day after day.
Sometimes I think about my kids and food. I’m not as good at creating meals as she was. I cook all the time, but our meals are always rushed, our dinners sandwiched in between an activity, or homework, and the meltdown hour for the baby. Maybe it’s a generational difference. Maybe it’s the fact that I have three kids and they’re still so young. But I have a hard time sitting my whole family down at the table for a meal. Cooking is the easy part. It’s the sitting down, having a conversation, enjoying the meal..that’s the challenge.
Last week, I made a familiar dish of my mom’s: pork chops with Stove Top stuffing baked on top. As soon as I put them in the oven, I could smell it. The coziness. The warmth. My house immediately took on a happy aura, like everything was okay. Like nothing bad could happen; not when the house smelled like this. Not when there was this much love coming from the kitchen. And when I pulled it out 45 minutes later, it was exactly how I remembered it. Tender. Crispy on top. Exactly how it was supposed to be.
My kids didn’t eat it. I didn’t even care.