(by Jess Maiuro)
“Mom” and “cooking” are not necessarily two words that go together for me, but laughter and patience are. My dad is the chef in the family—literally. He has a degree from New York City’s Le Cordon Bleu, and upon graduating, he worked at the famous River Café in Brooklyn. Eventually he returned home to help his parents, Grandpop Tony and Grandmom Ide (short for Italia), at their restaurant. It was in “the ‘Burg,” a largely Italian-American section of Trenton, New Jersey, in the 1980s that had a bustling food scene.
My mom worked at the restaurant as a waitress for the first six years of my life. There are stories of her running back and forth from our family’s then home to the restaurant when it was time to breastfeed me during a shift. My first birthday was celebrated there—our VHS video of the party reveals about 100 guests (I was popular for being new to this world). My hand was never without a cookie, and a hired clown sat at the bar the entire time. When I was older, I’d unwind from a hard day of first grade and do my homework with a soda from the tap behind the bar. Occasionally I’d “waitress” like my mom and carry out a house salad to a table or two. “Please be careful!” the waiters and waitresses would warn me. “Do not ever stand in front of the swinging kitchen doors. This door’s in, and that one’s out.”
Some of my fondest food memories as a child are from that restaurant, even though I was the poster child of fussy eaters. I wouldn’t eat chicken noodle soup unless all the parsley (“scary green dots”) was picked out. Bread and butter figured so prominently in my diet that Mom worried my school might think we were poor. The rest of my diet consisted mostly of fast-food kid's meals, tangerines, assorted nuts, and my grandmother’s store-bought graham crackers. My mom bought the same graham crackers once, and they sat in our snack cabinet for about a week before she asked why I hadn’t eaten any, to which I replied, “They only taste good at Gram’s.”
Not only was I picky, but I ate incredibly slowly. Now, as an adult, I can appreciate how much patience my mom had. We would sit at our dining room table for an hour or two—on one record night, I took three hours to clean my plate. Dad would finish his meal and retire to his recliner in the living room, but Mom would sit with me. Some nights, she’d clock out to clear the table and do the dishes, always coming back to me.
When I was in elementary school, I thought my mom was cool. She bought store-made cookies when my school needed parents to cater events, and she would make fun of the PTA. She had a subtle rebelliousness that I loved. Riding home after she picked me up from school often involved the drive-through at Burger King, and there was something so special and comforting about those times—just the two of us in the car, the radio turned to a local alt-rock station, playing music with lyrics I was too young to grasp but had memorized and sang along to.
During nights when my dad was working his typical 12-hour shifts at the restaurant, it was Mom’s turn to cook, and a special treat was her ooey-gooey cheese casserole with a crunchy walnut topping. One night she decided to be adventurous and, flipping through a magazine, found a recipe for quiche. After two hours in the oven, it was still not baked, and Mom’s response was to keep pouring in copious amounts of milk. We ended up laughing hysterically about this unintentional egg soup, and ordered pizza.
I take after my mom in a lot of ways, both in and outside of the kitchen. We’re both sensitive. We share the same sense of humor. I got my fashion sense and love of animals from her. I’m also known to have overly ambitious cooking moments, born out of blind confidence.
If only I could go back in time, I’d sit down at my family’s restaurant and order everything on the menu. Since I now run a food blog, love exploring new cuisines with my fiancé, and am willing to try almost anything, these stories truly sound like they’re about someone else. My mom no longer has to fish parsley out of my food, although any time I eat something green, she’s quick to remind me how far I’ve come.
Jessica Maiuro is a copwriter/editor at a kitchen appliance company, the founder of U, Me, Gluten-Free and a voiceover actress. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
Cheddar Broccoli Rice Casserole
2 c. brown rice
1 onion, chopped
1/2 t. minced garlic
1 T. butter
1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1 c. vegetable broth
2 c. broccoli florets
1/2 c. sour cream
1/2 c. milk
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1/4 c. bread crumbs, a few reserved for topping
1/2 c. chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a medium casserole or baking dish, combine all ingredients except walnuts.
Top with reserved bread crumbs.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until cheese is thoroughly melted.
Sprinkle with walnuts and extra shredded cheddar.