There is something substantial, comforting and, I thought, enduring about the sweet side of the food connection between my mother and me.
For decades, food has occupied a place in our collective memories: We talked favorite restaurants, new cookbooks, best new food authors, latest vegetable stars—beets! kale! cauliflower! We weighed the merits of cream-cheese versus all-butter dough as well as the importance of nuts in cookies and brownies, and then went deeper to decide if they should be pecans or walnuts. Little that related to food missed our culinary dissection—both criticism and praise.
And through the years, the symbiosis between us over food was both sweet and at times savory, much like a cookie that combines sugar with black pepper, the tartness of lemon zest and pungency of cumin. Sweetness always won out as our food relationship evolved…until recently.
In our latest stage, the laser focus on food has lost much of its joy, and I now fear the bond we slowly and lovingly built around food is being torn apart as my mother—just shy of her 100th year--emotionally and physically begins to slowly sink like an elegant cruise ship. I wonder if it’s not too late to find a way to rescue it, just as we might have saved a recipe from being an utter failure by adding more salt, pepper or herbs. Along the way, we were first-rate food detectives.
But how do you rejigger a relationship when one person’s filter goes awry, and her taste buds wilt like lettuce that has lost its crispness?
When I was a child, food was rarely the topic du jour. In fact, my mother regularly shooed me out of the kitchen in our suburban home. She was the majordomo, firmly in charge of all choices and preparations. She had no interest in teaching me how to cook, even to prepare her favorite recipes for roast chicken, caccatiore or with peaches, rugelach with apricot jam and pecans, brownies with chopped walnuts and charoset for Passover with chopped apples, sweet wine, walnuts and cinnamon. I think the prime reason was that she always prided herself on being highly efficient. To teach me would have required time away from the task at hand, whether it was to show how measure and sift dry ingredients properly, melt chocolate in a double boiler so it wouldn’t burn (this was before microwaves) and roll out and cut rugelach dough into tidy even triangles, then roll them up without the filling overflowing.
When I married in 1971, I took a crash course on my own having the new-found celebrity cook-authors as excellent guides. Julia Child showed me how to make wonderful quiches, gooey onion soup, boeuf bourguignonne that simmered for hours and the best apple tart with homemade crust. The Silver Palate cookbook authors offered a delightful departure from the chicken dishes of my youth to more sophisticated chicken Marbella with prunes. Maida Heatter’s desserts also offered new ways of ending meals with her flourless chocolate Queen Mother’s cake, towering black and white marble-style pound cake and mint or cream cheese brownies—no nuts in either.
That’s when our food connection solidified. My mother was duly impressed and asked for recipes. She even asked me at times to take over preparations for gatherings. I remember baking a coconut cake with apricot jam between the layers for one of her dinner parties with raves from every corner of the dining room table. And she proudly talked about my skills as an easy-going host who could pull together a dinner for a handful or many without experiencing much stress.
I also sought her advice on the recipes she had made that I loved most, from her tiny pecan-style pies to her rugelach, sour cream coffee cake from a close friend and hand-grated miniature latkes. She wrote them out on file cards in her neat script penmanship.
When she first began to slow down and had trouble grocery shopping and standing to cook, she delighted in my taking over or at least sitting and handling a task or two. Then, the aging process became more pronounced and began to spoil our food connection as the lack of a filter kicked in. She became downright unkind at times. One morning I overheard her say to a physical therapist who came weekly after a fall that she was a far better cook than I was. I remained silent. To comment in front of a stranger would have been rude.
She stopped praising my weekly cookie and brownie deliveries. “You can buy cookies at a grocery store. I like Oreos and you won’t be bothered at all,” she told me to my face. She ate the fresh salmon I prepared one night, which used to be a favorite, but then the next day informed me through one of her aides, that she no longer liked salmon. Her taste buds were changing. My haricots verts were deemed “raw” by her standards. I tried to explain if I cooked them more, she would say they were mushy, not the preferred al dente way. I wondered if I were a better cook, I might reverse this downward spiral. Intellectually, I knew otherwise, but this wasn’t about intellect, just gut-wrenching emotion.
As a trained dietician, my mother had always prided herself on balanced meals. When I presented her one night at dinner a meal of the leftover blueberry muffin and some fruit from a big lunch she had had, she looked at me annoyed and explained, “I want a substantial meal tomorrow,” emphasizing the word substantial. “What does substantial mean to you?” I asked defensively, as I explained my devoted trips to the supermarket and intensive food preparations. “I want chicken!” she said in an angry tone. I took the request seriously and thought good, she wants to eat healthy. So, I bought chicken for the next day. After she ate all on her plate, she told the aide, she hadn’t liked the chicken.
But such requests for substantial foods became fewer and farther between. What she began to want most days were cookies, Jell-O and ice cream, namely sugar in all kinds of variations like the rats in the documentary movie, Food Inc. It didn’t matter if it was for breakfast, lunch, dinner or in between. I was surprised. And I—along with the aides—became more hardened when she told us more often that we were mean when we didn’t comply with her sugar cravings.
All the changes greatly sadden me. I try to focus on shared pleasant memories—the preparations and results for her 95th birthday at my home which she loved, the decadent chocolate cake with rich chocolate frosting I baked for her 98th birthday from Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis’ The Southern Cookbook, and my former cookie deliveries with repertoire varied from chocolate chip that incorporated the best chocolate, a trick I learned from my writing partner Margaret, to oatmeal with raisins, walnuts and cinnamon, and coconut macaroons, her favorite.
I now try to fill the hole in my heart that represents the absence of our shared food connection with the knowledge that I am still lucky to have her. The memories will have to remain a sweet lingering taste.