At some point in every woman’s life, she has the sudden realization she has become her mother. Whether it’s choosing sensible shoes, or repeating a saying of Mom’s without thinking, it will happen eventually. Sometimes we are pleased to be modeling our mothers, and sometimes alarmed. For me, I remember informing my children that “the kitchen is closed, this is not a restaurant,” in my mom’s voice when they asked for their forty-seventh snack of the day. My mouth hung open and my eyes went wide as I understood that my transformation was complete. Honestly, there are worse things to become.
Recently, I’ve noticed that instead of becoming more like my mom, I’m skipping over her completely and becoming my grandmother. Grandma was always an enthusiastic cook and loved to share her knowledge with her grandkids. Her recipes were special and often featured international flavors — not your great-aunt’s ham spread, but instead kung pao chicken or homemade tamales. I cooked with her a few times a year until her eyesight made it difficult to read recipes, but she is still a lover of good food. I often wonder if she really loved the process of cooking elaborate meals, or if she was driven to make her masterpieces because she didn’t want to eat boring food.
I briefly thought I wanted to cook professionally, until I remembered the physical strength, stamina, and consistency that would require, and that I had an incurable illness that would greatly affect my ability to perform daily tasks as a chef or even culinary student. After I cook a nice meal for my family, I am exhausted and only make the effort to produce something special again once I am sick of the same boring food. So perhaps it’s not a chef’s toque I’m after, but a good meal.
When Mom was young, she wished she could just have macaroni and hot dogs for dinner like her friends, and didn’t appreciate my grandma’s ossobuco. For dinner last night, I made ricotta meatballs in a cumin, cinnamon, and harissa (just a tad) tomato gravy, with homemade nan-e barbari, and mixed greens with tahini and preserved lemon dressing. My kids were disappointed there wasn’t any pasta, and I was the only one who ate the salad (this is almost always the case, which is why I felt comfortable using tahini even though one of my kids is allergic to sesame — the one with the allergy has never eaten a leaf). The general consensus was that meatballs and bread are good but why didn’t you just make the regular ones and give us rigatoni? And can I still put cheese on this kind of meatball? When I try to make real macaroni and cheese, the kids all suggest I just use the box so the noodles are “more orange” which apparently makes them taste better. Familiar is preferable, I guess.
I am not a professional cook and I make mistakes all the time, so if they reject something I always take that into account. If the pork came out a little tough or the carrots need salt, I tell them they are right, this isn’t the best and I understand if they don’t love it, but I always praise them for trying something new. And, I make sure there is at least one thing on the table everyone likes so they’ll sit down long enough to try something else. While I do take vanity photos of meals I’m proud of, I really just dislike boring food. I know I could save time and energy by dumping a bunch of stuff into a slow cooker, but any recipe I’ve made from the slop pot is unanimously rejected, and I loathe it all. Why is everything the same color, texture, and flavor? Bleh. I only use the slow cooker a few times a year for one component, like pulled Mexican chicken for tacos, where the rest of the meal is fresh.
I definitely make typical kid-friendly food regularly, but often it’s a child-approved version of the meal I’m making for my husband and I. Like pasta with jarred marinara for the kids and spicy pasta alla vodka for us. Or spiced-rubbed pork roast for everyone, with a special sauce for the adults. With the exception of the tahini salad, I try to make everything safe for the kids to try in case they are feeling curious, and I put a bit of effort into the presentation to make our meals look inviting to skeptical kids. Honestly, the presentation is for me, too. I don’t want to eat a bowl of brown stew, I want some color!
Becoming my grandma is something I’ve worked toward. The women in my family are magnificent creatures and I’d be thrilled to be compared to any of them. Maybe I am just becoming my mom, who is becoming her mother, and I haven’t skipped over her at all. Either way, I’ll take it. Sharing food and making memories in the kitchen is so precious to me, and I’m really lucky my kids are into cooking, especially my daughter who will cry if I cook without her. When Grandma got rid of most of her cooking necessities to move in to a retirement home, I begged and pleaded for her beat up pot. I remember her lifting the lid with a meat fork because the knob had fallen off, but my grandpa eventually put a new handle on. The pot burns the shit out of anything you cook in it, unless you are my grandma who could work wonders with a less-than-ideal tool. It is an heirloom, passed down from her father-in-law, my great-grandfather who was a butcher. I don’t know if I’ll ever really cook with it because I like to imagine that deep in the molecules of the pot lie remnants of recipes my family has enjoyed for decades and I’d hate to accidentally wash that away.
Grandma can recall meals she’s had her whole life but not remember which of her kids played the recorder. I am the same way. Once on Mother’s Day before I had kids we got together with my sister and my mom and some fancy brunch place, and I don’t even know what state we were in, but the deviled eggs had dill in them and I tried lox for the first time. In the same way that the sounds of a baseball game transport me to my grandparents’ home, the smell of spaghetti and meatballs does the same. And every time I eat Whataburger (bless your heart if you don’t have access to the best drive through burgers in the world) I can see Grandma snatching the paper bag and insisting on dismantling the burgers to reheat and dress up the contents before serving them to her family. The first time I had a Whataburger that wasn’t in her home I was confused, because it wasn’t as good as the ones she served. I hope someday my grandkids miss spending time with me in the kitchen the way I miss spending time with Grandma, but many miles and pandemic keep us apart these days. So, cheers to you, Grandma. I hope you’re savoring something delicious today!