(by Barbara Ballinger)
When I was a child, my mother regularly shooed me out of the kitchen in our suburban New York home. She was the majordomo, firmly in charge of all choices and preparations. She had no interest in teaching me how to cook, even her favorite recipes like chicken (cacciatore or with peaches) and buttery rugelach with apricot jam. 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 demonstrate measuring ingredients properly or cutting dough into tidy even triangles.
When I got married, I took a crash course on my own, having new celebrity cook-authors as excellent guides. Julia Child showed me how to make gooey onion soup, boeuf bourguignon that simmered for hours, and the best apple tart. The Silver Palate offered sophisticated departures from the dishes of my youth—who would have thought to pair chicken with prunes? My mother was duly impressed, even asking me to take over preparations for family gatherings and bragging about my skills as an easy-going hostess who could entertain without stress. I asked for her recipes, like her tiny pecan tarts, and she wrote them out on file cards in her neat script.
Food became a substantial, comforting, and, I thought, enduring connection between my mother and me. Food brought us close. We talked favorite restaurants, new cookbooks, and the latest vegetable stars. (Beets! Kale! Cauliflower!) We weighed the merits of cream-cheese versus all-butter pastry. We agreed on the importance of nuts in 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. Our bonding over food was both sweet and savory, like a cookie that combines sugar with black pepper. I was happy to share recipes with my mother but disliked when she would change ingredients because of the cost. Sweetness usually won out…until recently.
Now just shy of her 100th birthday, my mother’s physical and emotional well-being is deteriorating, and our food connection is collateral damage. It is painful to watch this slowly sinking elegant cruise liner. I wonder if it’s not too late to rescue it, just as we might have saved a recipe from disaster by adding more salt, pepper, or herbs. Along the way, we were first-rate food detectives. But how do you re-jigger a relationship when one person’s filter goes awry?
When she started to have trouble grocery shopping and standing at the stove, she was happy for me to take charge, yet still delighted in trying to help. She’d often sit to peel apples, break up nuts, or polish silverware and candlesticks. But then she became downright unkind, with no hesitation in expressing displeasure. My haricots verts were deemed “raw,” and she said that my weekly delivery of homemade cookies was unnecessary. “You can buy cookies at a grocery store,” she said. “I like Oreos, and you won’t be bothered.”
As a trained dietician, my mother had always prided herself on balanced meals. One day when I presented her a meal of a blueberry muffin and fruit, she was annoyed, stipulating that she wanted “a substantial meal” the next day. But most days she just wanted sweets, and told me that I was “mean” when I didn’t comply with her sugar cravings.
Friends urge me not to take everything personally, but that’s easier said than done. Others advise walking away when things get testy. I’m saddened by these changes, grieving for the bond we built slowly and lovingly. I try to view food as a metaphor for our relationship, now not so delicious as it once was. I try to focus on shared memories, with the knowledge that I am still lucky to have her. The memories are still sweet, unspoiled by age.
Tiny Pecan Tarts
3 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. unsalted butter, plus 1 T. butter or margarine, softened
1 c. sifted flour
3/4 c. brown sugar, dark or light
1 t. vanilla extract
dash of salt
2/3 c. chopped pecans, plus nice halves for decoration
Blend softened cream cheese and 1/2 c. softened butter.
Stir in flour, form into a ball, and wrap in plastic.
Chill 1/2 – 1 hour, then let soften slightly before forming balls.
Shape into 2 dozen 1-inch balls and press into mini-tart pans that have been greased or sprayed with vegetable spray.
Beat together egg, brown sugar, butter or margarine, 1 T. butter or margarine, vanilla, and salt.
Stir in pecans.
Fill tart shells about 3/4 full, and top each with a pecan half.
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Bake for 20 - 30 minutes, or until set to the touch.