My mother’s recipe book sits on top of the frig. I don’t use it much; the pages are stained and the book is very close to falling apart. When I flip thru the pages I can see mom’s check mark next to a particularly good recipe. Mom was very picky so the checks are few and far between.
It’s difficult not to cry even as I write this because of the emotions that book holds. I knew I had to have it when dad was getting rid of it yet I only open it occasionally. My mother took such pride in her cooking. It wasn’t just the making of a meal to her. I understand now that it was one of the few tangible ways that she showed she cared. While I may not have cared if she made fancy food or not, to her a difficult recipe that she mastered then shared with us was an offering. It was a statement about her that she would put in the time for dishes most mothers would never touch. I truly believe at this point that to her that effort was meant to convey the effort she thought she had put into loving us.
I always cringed when she took me grocery shopping for a special occasion meal. It was not unusual to have a $400 grocery bill of things we would only use once. Certain Sherries or vinegars, a particular kind of Caesar dressing for her broccoli salad. It all came together when mom took charge. I admit I resented, and still do, the way I was made to be her scullery maid. I don’t have fond memories of cooking with her. In fact, I dreaded the whole miserable experience. While the smell of sauteing onion and celery can make my mouth water with thoughts of foods I will never have again, that same smell triggers noxious fumes of anxiety that have the power to transport me back to my childhood.
Mom’s perfectionism came from her need to control an internal self that was in chaos. I know that now. Back then I only knew that special occasion dinners meant tears, threats, mom and dad fighting (again) about the way mom spent money, and an utter exhaustion that took a few days for my psyche to work thru. I’ve never known anyone since that cooks with the concentration yet artistry that mom does. I know it’s normal for kids to love their parents cooking but…….take my word on this-the woman is an artist. Her food wasn’t just good; you could taste her talent and her soul with every bite you took. She put her all into food not realizing that while the gesture was innocent on the surface beneath it her children were starving for a kind of food we would never get.
Eventually I got to be ok cooking with mom. After so many years I was used to the tenseness of the house as the day approached. Perfect, it had to be perfect. I knew the bombs would go off at some point and trying to prepare for it was just stupid. They always came from nowhere. The best you could do was admit that yes, you never listened, yes, you realized this was important and that you were screwing it all up for EVERYONE, and no, I didn’t think the world revolved around me. Sharp words said in an even sharper tone. Honestly, many times I wished she would just hit me and get it over with. But no, she would never be abusive like her father.
The look on mom’s face when it all came together almost made the tears she produced thru my eyes worth it all. Her smile of contentment, of satisfaction, was seen so rarely we tried to capture it so it would stay a bit longer. It always slipped thru our net and returned infrequently, like a butterfly that only comes out just before the rain. You can stay outside in the rain and try to catch it while getting drenched in the process or make your best effort then hightail it inside to wait for another chance.
More and more family members are asking me for mom’s special way of doing things-the special ingredient, the little known technique and so forth. They ask me. Me. I resisted it at first, lying and saying I didn’t know. Gradually I realized that while mom terrorized me on those occasions she also gave me such a gift. I admit to one thing tho-the techniques I keep just for me. I will make rosettes or other things but I will not share the recipe or how I get them to turn out just so. That is my gift from her that I choose to keep for myself. These small things are a piece of her that I had thought didn’t exist. Yes, she was abusive. Yes, she was an emotional terrorist yet she taught me thru the only means she had to take a chance (she thrived on new recipes, the more difficult the better), to not skimp on important things (spend the extra $$ to get the good cheese), to put your best foot forward (making her tried and true dishes when having people over for the first time), and that anything can be salvaged if you are willing to try (like a fallen dessert soufflé served under ice cream-my own creation!).
The book continues to sit on the frig, collecting dust. I continue on with a life of my own making, keeping in mind to make sure the gestures of love I extend are gestures that are understood and are appropriate for the person/occasion. For the most part I embrace the new recipes of life, although a few have not turned out. They have, however, forced me to creatively salvage them resulting in creations I never dreamed possible in my life.