My mother’s love
Smells like onions
And tastes like vinegar
She puts onions in everything
She loves them
They make her cry
As much as they make her laugh
“Hoo, doggie!” she’d blearily giggle
Astounded at their power
She appreciates small things with great reach
She finds the humor in running mascara
There’s nothing like her salad
You’d barely know there was lettuce
People always ask me
How I can use so much vinegar
On so many foods
And I tell them
“It tastes like love.”
---Brittni Barger is an actor whose website is www.brittnibarger.com/.
If you are what you eat, I should be clucking and covered in pale yellow plumage. That’s because when I was growing up, meals consisted mostly of chicken, chicken, and more chicken.
Perhaps it was because of my mother’s Midwestern roots and two uncles who owned a farm, or maybe because she was a child of the Depression. Beef would have been too extravagant, and fresh fish was rarely available in her Indianapolis youth.
My mother served chicken so often that I can barely look at anything fowl without thinking of the homonym foul. I do give her credit for her ingenuity in concocting so many iterations of the same bird. There was nothing routine about her chicken dishes, and a great sense of ritual in her choices. On most Friday evenings for Shabbat, she roasted a whole chicken with a bread/celery/onion stuffing. That was considered a proper Jewish meal when we weren’t eating brisket.
When she wanted a dish that she could extend for several nights—too many in my view—she made chicken cacciatore, with Hunt’s tomato sauce straight from the can. For a twist, she prepared cut-up chicken parts in a sweet sauce, each piece topped with a canned peach half. Maybe it represented something Polynesian (at the time, Trader Vic’s restaurant with its Tiki bar was considered quite exotic). I never asked about the inspiration, although I requested she not make it once I got up the nerve to speak up about family recipes.
Come summer, she marinated parts in Wishbone salad dressing, and on the rare occasion of a school picnic, she might fry chicken. But there was no reprieve from cluck, cluck, and more cluck, even when she and my father had an evening out. On those occasions, my dinner was a defrosted chicken pot pie.
These days, when my mother and I eat out, I always encourage her to avoid chicken. “Treat yourself to something else,” I’ll urge. “Aren’t you sick of chicken by now?” She considers something different, I think to please me. Then I watch her zoom in on the chicken options like a plant toward sunlight.
---Barbara Ballinger is a writer in the Hudson River Valley of New York and co-author of Suddenly Single After 50.
Mom leaned over the bowl, looking at the mysterious goo sloshing around inside. "Can we eat this?" she asked neutrally.
"Not yet." We both grinned.
I consider myself a food scientist, experimenting with the properties, textures, colors, tastes, and other factors of food to craft tasty edibles I share with those I love. It's something I've done since childhood and something I come by honestly: My mother is an actual scientist in medical research. But both of us would roll up our sleeves in the kitchen, her "supervising" with a glass of wine, and me poking around the pots and jars and bottles in the fridge and seeing what MacGyver Torhagen could do with proverbial paperclips and a bottle of soy sauce.
Cooking with Mom taught me many lessons I'm realizing only now that I learned: the wonder of just jumping in and seeing what happens. Taking it slow, enjoying the process, and marveling at the result. Or not. There's always a good laugh buried in failure (sometimes, the answer to "Can we eat this?" is a simple "no"), followed by the opportunity to try out a new restaurant one or the other of us saw around town. But sometimes that answer is "yes”—no matter the number of unexpected permutations of paperclips and peanut butter might happen.
Thanks, Mom. I've learned so much from you. And I can say, with utmost certainty, I gained a cast-iron stomach.
As a six-year-old in Pakistan, I considered my mother my alarm clock. She was a schoolteacher and professional pianist whose morning chores mainly leaned toward keeping the house clean. In the communal culture of Pakistan, one can expect neighbors or guests to arrive at any time, unannounced. She would wake me at 5 a.m. every morning to help, reading her Bible and saying prayers before stepping into the kitchen to prepare breakfast. It was because of my mother that I developed a balanced routine of sleeping, waking, and eating on time, which, later as a student of theology, I understood as the Rule of Life.
She was not a great cook. She had studied at boarding schools, and when she began working as a teacher, she lived on the school campus, so she never developed a practice of or a desire for cooking. But I was intrigued by her skill with the rolling pin for making rotis—perfect and round flatbreads—or her special parathas: Two round balls of kneaded wheat dough were flattened with a rolling pin and spread with a few spoonfuls of spiced potatoes and onions, then pressed together with the fingers and cooked in a little oil.
She did try to pass on her singular skills. Sometimes the maternal standard is elusive. I have grown up. I cook for myself and my friends, including elaborate holiday meals of Pakistani cuisines. And I have my own alarm clock.
---Carmanie Bhatti is studying for a master's degree in theology in the United States. She can be found at www.carmaniebhatti.com.
My mother Lynn was pregnant with me at age 16 and had me two months after her 17th birthday. Consequently our relationship flowed like sisters as well as mother/daughter, with her constant encouragement for my creative path in life. She loved to cook. I mean, she LOVED to cook, and she loved to feed people. She had perfected the art of roasting a turkey with a tin-foil cap loosely covering the bird, the cavity crammed with her oyster dressing. She was the master of melt-in-your-mouth pie crust and taught me her secret of cutting frozen Crisco into the flour with two butter knives—a delicate and frustrating process that I have yet to master. She loved a pretty table—no plastic utensils allowed—with the food placed in one of her many artisanal bowls, and the china and silverware she won while being a Fashion 2/20 beauty consultant in the 1970s. I was fortunate to partake in the last feast she prepared before her final battle with breast cancer and her death five years ago.
---Diane Wasnak is a performer and workshop leader whose website is www.dianewasnak.com/.
When I was born in London—a whopping ten-pound-plus baby—my exhausted mother, who had obviously fed me, and herself, well for nine months, sent my father to the Registry Office to notify my arrival. She told him to spell my first name "Jeanne." He ignored that and wrote "Jean" on the form.
Much later, after they were divorced, she told me how annoyed she'd been. She wanted me to have the name "Jeanne" because it was Joan of Arc's spelling. I asked her if she was aware that the British had burned Joan of Arc at the stake, and she replied: "It's all right, darling, they don't allow that anymore."
---Jeanne Hunter's memoir is Where Has The Evening Gone.
When I was five or six years old, I had violent coughing fits when I went to bed at night; it was beyond my control and made me feel desperately ill. Eventually my pediatrician figured out that I was allergic to the goose down in my pillow. Once the pillows were changed, the incidence of coughing diminished, but didn’t stop entirely.
My mother’s remedy was what she called a guggle muggle. I don’t know the origin of the name or the recipe. Perhaps it came from her parents, who emigrated from Romania at the turn of the last century. When I woke up both of us with my coughing, my mother would go to the kitchen, measure out a cupful of milk (skim milk—I was a chubby child), add a bit of honey and butter, and heat the mixture in a saucepan until it was steaming. Then she’d bring the cup to my bedroom and insist that I drink it as hot as I could stand. Sitting on the side of my bed in her nightgown with just the light from streetlamps outside our first-floor apartment, she would feed me the guggle muggle from a spoon until the milk was cool enough for me to drink from the cup. She waited until I finished and then settled me back in bed with a kiss. The guggle muggle always stopped my cough. My mother told me that when I was grown up, I could add some brandy or Scotch.
To this day, when I get a cold, it goes to my chest, and about an hour after I go to bed, I start coughing. I slog into the kitchen, make the guggle muggle in the microwave (which my mother never owned), and add a generous splash of brandy. The remedy still works, but it lacks the comfort of my mother sitting beside me and putting me back to bed when the guggle muggle is done.
---Marsha Rehns is is a writer, editor, and actor, and a docent at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. She divides her time between Washington, DC, and New York City.
Growing up in New Jersey with Ukrainian-Slovak parents who were the first generation in America, there was really only one tradition that was carried on from the old country: kielbasy at Easter (and we never said kielbasa; we said kielbasy). A large ring of garlic-infused pork sausage was the centerpiece of the celebration, eaten cold because, in the old country, you took your kielbasy and the rest of the holiday food to the church, where it was blessed by the priest. We didn’t do that.
My mother, Mary, was obsessed with finding the best kielbasy. Each year we’d go to a different delicatessen, searching for the Holy Grail Of Kielbasy. We couldn’t go back to where we’d been the year before. Yes, the kielbasy from the last year was terrific, but my mom had heard there was a deli in another town that was better. (I now realize that the hunt was as important as the taste.) We went to Edison, down the street from the drive-in movie theater where my mom took my twin brother and me to see the Beatles movies, even though she was more a fan of Mitch Miller, the Ray Conniff Singers, and all polka music. (My folks were married in The Polish Home in South Plainfield; my wedding reception was in the Polish Falcon Hall in Middlesex, and I had a polka band. Fabulous music. Lotsa kielbasy.)
We went further, to Perth Amboy, where we were the only ones who didn’t speak Polish. Then one day, my Uncle Walt stopped by with kielbasy from a place in Passaic, over 25 miles away. It was delicious, and I knew where we’d be going next. My mom, my sister, and our kids drove to Passaic. We went to the deli. We talked to the butcher. We bought kielbasy. We went to the Polish bakery next door. We talked to the baker. We bought bread. Unable to wait for the Easter meal, we went to the nearby park, sat on a bench, and ate kielbasy sandwiches. It was the perfect day. And Easter/Schmeaster—kielbasy is good any day.
---Judy Nazemetz is a singer, songwriter, and actor who can be found at
After I moved away from home, my mother and I established a tradition: I would take the train from New York, and she would drive from Philadelphia, meeting halfway in Bucks County, which had charming antique shops, galleries, and (most importantly) cafes. A frequent stop was called Mother’s on Main Street in New Hope—a natural for Mother’s Day brunch, where her favorite artichokes and asparagus signaled that spring had truly arrived.
And meeting halfway was a good metaphor for our peaceful co-existence. Although we adored each other, we often had different ideas and pathways through life. Mom, a child of the Depression, liked safety; I preferred a bit of challenge. (When I learned to ride a two-wheeler at age five, she stood in the doorway of our house with her hands over her eyes. You can imagine her consternation when I decided to try scuba diving and rock-climbing.)
Mostly we agreed to tolerate one another’s anxieties and disparities, and we always agreed on a good meal, for which she eventually, grudgingly, let me pay. There is nothing like one’s mother letting her pick up the check to make one feel like a bonafide grownup.
---Aimee Lee Ball is a writer whose website is www.AimeeLeeBall.com.
When I was growing up in British Columbia, my mom let me make my own decisions most of the time. (Well, she didn't want me to get my ears or belly button pierced, although I did it anyway.) But I was never allowed junk food. Our family heritage is English, Chinese, Norwegian and, I recently learned, a tiny bit Spanish. Mom cooked delicious meals from all different cultures, but it was always healthy. I distinctly remember having the choice of shredded wheat or bran flakes for breakfast. I didn’t even know that putting sugar on cereal was a thing until I moved to the United States a few years ago.
Occasionally at school, I would throw away my nutritious packed lunch or trade it for a can of soda and a bag of chips. And upon moving out on my own, I learned the hard way, eating all the Cheez Whiz and Lucky Charms that I wasn’t allowed before. Free to make my own bad choices, I quickly saw the negative effects on my body, gaining a lot of weight and feeling depressed. I got my act together and developed a new passion for healthy food. Damn, Mom was right.
Now when I go home to visit, I request my favorite dishes, and sometimes we get creative in the kitchen together. Mom’s cooking genes were not passed down to me, but at least I have stopped burning the toast.
Who am I kidding? I still burn the toast.