Every bite of food at my mom’s house tastes delicious. Soup or stew; deli sandwiches on rye with a crispy pickle; bright crunchy salads; moist chicken or pork or beef. I’m drooling as I arrive, eager to settle in at the table and eat. Soon I’m cooing like The Galloping Gourmet, my mouth too full to speak. Mom uses fresh ingredients and skilled technique, seasoned skillets and vintage pans with copper bottoms. But her secret ingredient is memory.
The meals conjure up my childhood where I would perch on a stool to chop vegetables, then help sauté them in butter or oil. After a few minutes, Mom would take the wooden spoon from me to “feel” whatever was in the pan and decide if it was proceeding correctly. I learned to mix, knead, poach, and bake. Usually stirring by hand, but pulling out the huge stand mixer if we were whipping egg whites into meringue. Sometimes Mom’s mom was visiting and she’d occupy my stool in the kitchen. Grandma would shave impossibly thin slices of cabbage for slaw, or cut corn off the cob. Corn fritters, noodle soup, slaw – all dishes Grandma loved and probably made for my mom growing up.
When I cook, I’m channeling my mom, trying to recreate not only the taste, but the moment in time. A plate of corn fritters, fried apples, pork sausages, and sliced tomatoes is a muggy summer evening; I’m cooling down with a tall glass of iced tea while the butter melts on the fritters. My family likes this meal, but the side dish of flashback may be lost on them.
My daughter and I visited mom last week. Using a small pink bowl, mom transformed an egg and a cup of flour into delicious noodles. Stirring, kneading, and rolling out the dough until it was the right thickness. Letting the dough rest, then rolling and slicing. These lovely noodles were the base of a wonderful beef stew, and they were the star. I hope my daughter was paying attention so she can carry this tradition into a fourth generation. So, no pressure.
Not all memorable food has a long pedigree. A favorite birthday pie, or simple dish from a magazine can become enshrined if you make it again and again. My kids sometimes ask for the recipe of a dish they grew up with: chili over spaghetti, linguini with clam sauce, carrot cake. I’m happy to share and wonder if they too read the subtext between the ingredients.