Posted September 14, 2010 by
Read a response to the Yahoo! grieving article here.
My relationship with food is inextricably linked to my mother. She's
the one who taught me to cook and she's the one who taught me to love
food. Pretty much every fond memory I have of her takes place in the
kitchen. I don't really know who taught her to cook, her mother I
guess, but I know that my mother's culinary skills were so far elevated
from those of her mother and sisters that I can't help but surmise that
she must have done a little self-teaching.
My mother was an
artist. She was out-spoken and loud and messy. And she was passionate
about food. She came of her cooking age in the wonderful
Julia Child era
of food. My mother moved to Manhattan after graduating from art school
and, as most NY artists did, she worked as a waitress. Eventually, she
forayed into a career as a food stylist calling her little freelance
business Sal's Eats and using her culinary talents to create
appetizing-looking food for
commercials and advertisements. I wish I could ask her now how this
happened, but I can't. I can only picture my mother, bending over a
jello-mold on a commercial set in a Mad Men-ish type setting, tucking a
strand of long blond hair behind her ear as she adjusts some parsley.
she died, cooking became a way for me to connect to her, to keep her in
my life. And just as I could never have imagined my life without a
mother, I can no longer imagine my life without a kitchen.
I'm going to start a new feature here on Life in Chicago, one that I
hope you'll like. It involves food, and recipes, and my kitchen, and all
the things I think and feel about food. It won't be all the time. At
the most, I'll post a recipe or cooking story once a week, but I'm
pretty excited about it and hopefully you will be too. At the very
least, it will be a break from all things BABY.
Before I start
with the recipes and whatnot, I want to tell you a bit more about my
relationship with food and I want to introduce you to my kitchen.
I grew up hanging around in my mother's kitchen with her while she
worked. When she and my father got married he allowed her to design her
dream kitchen. In 1981 it was featured in Better Homes and Gardens. When
they met in 1975, my mother was still living paycheck to paycheck in an
old walk-up near Murray Hill in Manhattan. He courted her, proposed to
her and whisked her away to Atlanta with him. My father was quite
wealthy at the time and he lavished gifts upon my mother. He bought her a
little cream-colored Alfa Romeo, opened credit cards for her at Saks
and Macy's, and he took her to Europe and the Caribbean. But I think
that, aside from me, my mother's favorite thing was easily this kitchen.
As a surprise my father had the pictured neon sign made up as a last
you look closely you can see the same pepper mill in both kitchen
When I was 12 my mother opened a restaurant. Naturally,
she named it Sal's Eats, the name becoming a funny throwback to all
those old NY delis named after some Sal or another. We were living in
Florida at the time, and every day after school I would get off the bus
at a stop near the restaurant and spend my afternoons in my father's
office that was off the kitchen, working on math problems and slambooks.
At first the restaurant was just a gourmet take-out shop out of
which my mother ran a catering business. She made her own pates, flew to
New York with my father to buy wines and specialty items like little
imported pots of pesto and tubes of garlic paste, and she tried her
hardest to make foodies out of the hesitant locals. This was 1990, so
you can only imagine what a novelty something like foie gras seemed to
the residents of this small Florida town.
Probably because of
that, the restaurant only lasted for about 5 years. My parents decided
to close up shop, not when they began losing money, but whey they found
out they both had cancer, the literal nail in the coffin. We moved back
to Atlanta shortly after that and I started high school.
though I never really cooked much myself, I spent an inordinate amount
of time hanging around in the kitchen with my mother while she did. I
was her sous chef, chopping onions, stirring sauces and adjusting oven
settings. My mother came alive when she was cooking. I have such vivid
memories of her swirling about the kitchen, her hands fluttering over a
pot as she scattered pinches of herbs into the bubbling goodness below.
To say that my mother was obsessed with food is
putting it mildly. She had every copy, like ever, of Gourmet magazine,
archived into hardbound binders in her office off the kitchen. She kept
a diary while on the three-week honeymoon she and my father took
through Europe, but the only entries she recorded on its pages were
descriptions of the meals they ate. She was fearless when it came to
food. Not only would she attempt even the most complicated recipe, but
she would eat anything. I remember once daring her to eat the
eyeball from a whole fish she'd been served at a restaurant in Nice,
France. She did so without hesitation, declaring it delightful, and
Although my mother had some of the most refined
food tastes of anyone I've ever met, her favorite foods were liverwurst,
bloody-rare steaks, and salty potato chips. The image of my mother
tipping a carving board to her lips so that she could drink the blood
from a just-carved roast, is one I'll never forget, and one I saw often.
Or the sight of her idly snacking on a bag of potato chips after
returning home from a 4 star restaurant was not uncommon.
died, when I was eighteen, food was the most obvious thing suddenly
missing in my life. My father and I were completely remiss as to what to
eat for dinner.
And so began my own culinary journey.
the beginning, I was a terrible cook, but I was determined. After the
second week in a row of ordering Chinese food, I decided to take over
the duty of providing dinner for myself and my father. I was ambitious
in my attempts, but I suppose the complicated recipes I was tackling
(think homemade pestos, pommes anna, and carbonara sauces) were just
dishes I was familiar with, and meals that I missed. Throughout much of
the first year I overcooked, undercooked, over-salted, under-seasoned
and generally failed to hit the mark with pretty much everything I
After the first year following my mother's death, my
father and I went our separate ways. He went to California and I went
back to Vermont, where I had been attending college. I lived with my
in a weird townhome a few miles from school. Tricia and I were both
depressed and I rarely saw her. I stayed up until 3, 4, sometimes 5am
most nights, unable to sleep, unable to figure out how to move forward
in the world without my mother.
Finally, I sought refuge in
cooking. I had kept only one of my mother's books out of the pile that
went into boxes for the storage unit, and it was The Joy of Cooking.
Maybe not the most amazing cookbook, but one that was certainly
accessible to a novice like myself. After my disastrous first year of
cooking, during which I hadn't made a very concerted effort to actually
follow recipes, I finally vowed to pay attention to the details.
a couple of times a week, on days when I didn't have too much homework,
I'd head to the local Price Chopper, armed with a carefully written out
list of ingredients, and I would fill my cart, wandering the aisles
slowly, savoring the anticipation of the meal I was about to prepare.
Because I was determined to follow each recipe verbatim, I bought and
cooked meals that served 4-6 on a regular basis. I made bolognese
sauces, souffles, breads, quiches, and cakes.
I would destroy the
kitchen in each attempt, learning the hard way, as I struggled to
quickly stir a scalding sauce while simultaneously attempting to remove
something from the oven, that the most challenging part of cooking is
getting the timing right. Finally, I would sit down to a meal for six,
all by self, the cast of Dawson's Creek on a grainy television set, my
only dinner company.
It's funny, those evenings were often such
lonely and sad ones for me, but I look back on them and the girl I was
then so fondly, that it breaks my heart just a little.
By the end
of the six months I spent in Vermont, I had given myself a solid
cooking foundation on which to move forward. Moving forward meant New
York City and a tiny 5 floor walk-up in the East Village where I truly
honed my culinary skills as I learned to maneuver around a kitchen the
size of a coat closet.
The four years I spent in New York made up
the era in which I learned to cook for two. And the six years I
spent in Los
Angeles, became the era of parties as I tried (and dare I say mastered)
my hand at cooking for a crowd. Now, here in Chicago, I focus on small
dinner parties, and on cooking for my little family (baby food is
I've now been cooking for 12 years, and I get better all
the time. I no longer follow recipes verbatim. I haven't for a long
time. I can usually recreate something I ate in a restaurant or at
someone else's home with little or no difficulty, and I have a
rebellious tendency to tweak every recipe I ever do attempt.
I've become a mother a lot of my friends have questioned my ability to
continue to put home-cooked meals on the table. I have to explain to
them that cooking is a religion for me. It's a way of soothing and
calming myself, a way of reconnecting with my absent family, and a way
of nurturing my existing family.
I'm excited to share this love
of mine with all of you.
Look for my first recipe on Friday:
Curried Butternut Squash Soup
Read a response to the Yahoo! grieving article here.