Happy Mother’s Day to those who cook, and those who don’t

Photo of cucumber and radish sandwiches


Any time you are with friends enjoying a meal, bring up the topic of “was your mom a good cook?”, and get ready for a range of responses.  Each of us has food memories from childhood even though few are likely as memorable as those recounted by the wonderful food writer, Ruth Reichl in Tender at the Bone.  Unlike the mothers we’ve heard about (and experienced), not many are referred to as “the notorious food-poisoner known as the Queen of Mold”.

We all seem to survive growing up no matter how much expertise the person in the kitchen had during those formative years, but few stories can top one that was shared with us recently.  Gary (whose last name will not be shared in order to protect him from his mother’s possible wrath) was kind enough to put this down for us and it is an amazing example of someone who managed to grow up and eventually enjoy food despite the things that appeared on the family table during his youth.

“I come from white trash origins, and after years of therapy and experimental diet drugs I now can admit this with pride. As a result of my background, I have had several of moments of enlightenment in my life. One of these was discovering food (which explains my weight).  Yes, I did have access to food growing up, but I didn’t get it.  I simply found eating a waste of time and longed for the days when food would be simply marshmallow-sized bits of primary colors like they ate on Star Trek. Food at home to me was like taking medicine.  My mother was not a good cook, and to her credit she never claimed to be good at it or like it, but she did it.  She mostly cooked by color. She would get a recipe and make it but if the ingredients were exotic (like calling for tomato paste) she would have to improvise.  This meant finding, from the 101 varieties of Campbell’s soups that stocked our pantry, the one she felt was the most suitable substitute, i.e., the one closet in color. Thus, Campbell’s tomato soup would be good substituted for spaghetti sauce since they were both in the red pallet.

At the school cafeteria, every third Thursday of the month they served lasagna.  This was my favorite and I would rave about it to my mother.  One day as I was headed off for school Mom grabbed me by the arm and with a smile said, “Gary, I’m going to have lasagna for you when you come home; I know it’s your favorite.

I was so excited and couldn’t wait for school to be over.  When I got home, Mom was in the kitchen cooking and told me that dinner would be ready at 6:00 so to go out and play until she called me.  My brother and I played until Dad came home and 6:00 PM finally rolled around. I sat at the table and excitedly awaited for my Mom to emerge from the kitchen with lasagna.  She came out carrying her rectangular glass Pyrex baking dish filled with something bubbling but it didn’t look like school lasagna.

Mom’s version of lasagna consisted of Tomato soup mixed with Kraft’s macaroni and cheese and some hamburger helper. I was so disappointed and told her that lasagna has big flat noodles with ruffled edges and cottage cheese! As far as my mother was concerned, she had mixed, white, yellow, red, and brown together and put in a rectangular dish so it was lasagna.  Based upon several experiences like this, I didn’t like food and was extremely thin for the first half of my life.

Although no one can imagine it now (not even myself), when I began my post doc, I wore 28 inch waist jeans but then I met Tyler and his love of foods and my eyes and belt were opened forever.”

Of course, some of us have experienced slightly different takes on this theme. There was the visit to the parent’s friends during the Christmas holidays (5 days after the holidays in fact) when a trip into the kitchen presented the holiday turkey that was still sitting on the cutting board – and was to be a part of lunch. Or there was the time that we learned from our former spouse about a special family delicacy which consisted of Wonder bread, topped with grape jelly and a piece of Velveeta cheese. Once assembled, it was run under the broiler and served for dinner. And who can forget barbequed spam?

AvocadoCabbageWhile we don’t believe we inflicted anything quite this astounding on our children when they were young and impressionable, they probably have their own stories to share.  Fortunately, we haven’t heard any of them.

And a couple of easy recipes that require no cooking at all for you to enjoy with your mom, or in memory of her. The first is the result of some of the new produce showing up at the Dupont Farmer’s Market – French radishes and Persian cucumbers (Top Photo). The second is a recent addiction from the New York Times food section, thinly sliced cabbage mixed with avocado.