Food ≠ Love

This Mother’s Day I am remembering my mother for her many fine qualities, but not for her cooking. I mean this as no slight; she would take it as a compliment, in fact. While Mom was a highly proficient, if unadventurous, cook, food was not her medium for expressing love, and the kitchen was not her creative crucible.

Mom often said she wished someone would invent a pill that would satisfy everyone’s nutritional and caloric needs so she could dispense with cooking altogether. Yet as a housewife of the Mad Men era, she dutifully produced meals for my father and whatever configuration of us three children were home. College-educated and introverted, Mom took no particular pleasure or pride in fulfilling the catering and event planning responsibilities of her job description. Entertaining on any scale made her anxious. Where other mothers exchanged recipes and cooking tips, my mother was more interested in discussing books and ideas. She never developed a signature dish to share at neighborhood potlucks, but she left her mark with the depth of her intellect.

May 1967

Mom loved watching The French Chef – not for the cooking lessons, but because she had been a French major in college and remained an ardent Francophile. Later, mimicking Julia, Mom would exclaim, “Bon appétit!” as she served up All American convenience cuisine: Shake ’N Bake fried chicken, Ore-Ida instant mashed potatoes, Green Giant frozen peas, Pillsbury pop n fresh crescent rolls, and Betty Crocker cakes. When Dad was away on business, she gave herself a cook’s night off and heated up Swanson TV dinners, which in the pre-microwave era saved labor, but not time. For her generation local, slow food was a thing of the past. At breakfast the modern way to make orange juice – even for a family in Florida – was to open a can of Minute Maid frozen concentrate and add water. Eggo frozen waffles went from the toaster to the plate and were soaked in Aunt Jemima syrup. StarKist’s Charlie, the tuna with good taste, regularly showed up at lunchtime on Arnold’s white bread from the supermarket, naturally.

I don’t fault Mom one bit for refusing to become a kitchen goddess or a hostess with the most-est. It was a quiet form of rebellion, a token civil disobedience not to toe the line. In fact, one of the many things she and I have in common is neither of us will be remembered for our cooking. But what’s different now is that no one is judging me, I hope, by the originality of my casseroles and or the quality of my baked goods.

Literary side-note

One of the most poignant descriptions of the thwarted ambitions of the mid 20th-century cohort of smart women is Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. Reichl opens with a hilarious story of her mother (“Mim”) tossing together a last-minute snack for her Brownie troop that consisted of: moldy chocolate pudding, strawberry jam, prunes, pretzels, stale marshmallows, liver paté and canned peaches. Young Ruth was doubly mortified – first that her mother would serve such a concoction, and second that her friends were too two-faced to object.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was a worse cook,” writes Reichl.

In cataloguing her mother’s many deficiencies in the domestic arts, Reichl was not aiming for easy laughs, though there are a quite few. The book is a belated thank-you to her mother for not being a traditional female role model. In reading her mother’s letters Reichl learned that Mim had wanted to be a doctor, but was told by her own mother that she was “no beauty” and would have a better chance of finding a husband if she studied music, a discipline in which she had little interest or talent. Bored and frustrated most of her adult life, Mim desperately wanted her daughter to have the fulfilling career she had been denied. As Reichl writes:

Instead of holding herself up as a model to be emulated, she led by negative example, repeating “I am a failure” over and over, as if it were a mantra. “I am ridiculous. Don’t be like me.”

I can hardly imagine how excruciating that must have been. Parents yearn for their children’s respect; most of us want it more than anything else on earth. And yet my mother deliberately sabotaged my respect and emphasized her failings. She loved me enough to make me love her less. She wanted to make sure that I would not follow in her footsteps.

Mim got her wish, but the irony of her daughter’s growing up to become a famous restaurant critic could not have been lost on a woman of her intelligence.


3 Responses to “Food ≠ Love”

  1. 1 Rick Devereux May 8, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Jan – Thanks for capturing mom (Mimi) so perfectly on Mother’s Day, and for re-creating one of our standard dinner menus. I would think Globe readers would love your blog, something I don’t mean this a diss to you as a NYT reader (maybe their readers would like it as well).

    I only wish she was around to read this and others you’ve done.

    Your Younger Older Bro

  2. 2 Martha Johnson May 9, 2011 at 5:03 am

    My mother’s idea of ‘gourmet’ cooking was to throw a tablespoon of white rice into a bubbling mess of Dinty Moore’s Beef Stew as it overcooked on the stove! I confess that when I was first married (the first time..) one of my specialties was to fry a piece of sliced baloney in a large nob of butter! Now that’s cooking! While mother never got too far beyond a Hungry Man Jack Fried Chicken Dinner, I do modestly admit to being an avid cook these days, but far too late to impress my grown and gone children!

    • 3 jandev May 9, 2011 at 5:15 am

      I should have mentioned I was on a first name basis with O-S-C-A-R as a child. I ate a lot of baloney, cheese & mustard sandwiches, but never thought of a grilled version.

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