(by Amanda Hirsch)
Among the collection of cookbooks I never use is a compilation of recipes that my mother curated, annotated, and bound in plastic sheathing for me when I was in college.
I routinely get rid of things I don’t use, so for a book to remain in the collection, it must either hold special meaning or represent a kind of rainy day aspiration, like Secrets of Indian Cooking (one day…). My mom’s cookbook moved with me from the dorm to my first off-campus apartment, and then to the ten homes I’ve lived in during the two decades since graduation. At one point, I must have actually cooked one of its recipes—ah, yes, the baked cheese balls with a dash of cayenne for a bit of a kick (good for a party)—because the corner of the cover got burned and warped when it got too close to the flame on the stove.
Most of the recipes in my mom’s book aren’t my style, like “Polynesian chicken,” something she cooked for my dad in their early marriage, using canned pineapple and chicken over white rice—a far cry from the whole grain, whole food, mostly vegetarian diet I embrace today. Or my grandmother’s tomato aspic, which holds tremendous nostalgic value, but which I hope never actually meets my lips ever again (sorry, Grandma).
The thing is, my favorite memories of my mom and food have nothing to do with the recipes she codified, meant to equip me with our family’s cooking lineage as I headed into adulthood. My favorite memories are about the making of the food, which she did every night, often still in her heels and suit from work. I think of the ritual and rhythm of her in the kitchen, preparing a meal for us, usually via recipes that included shortcuts—heavy microwaving, in particular—and were almost always low-fat, low-calorie, and vegetable-centric. “I just love vegetables,” she’d say, and I thought, How weird (but now I get it).
I remember the time when she left something cooking on the stove and told me not to bother her while she went downstairs and rode the exercise bike. I was sitting at the counter doing homework when I realized something was wrong. I went downstairs and said, "Mom, is there supposed to be a big flame?" By the time she leapt off the bike and sprinted upstairs, my dad had thrown water on the grease fire, and the rest of the night was spent wiping splattered food from the floor to the ceiling, even between the slats of the Venetian blinds.
When I became a mother myself, with a day job outside the home, I marveled at the memory of all the cooking she did, and I developed a new appreciation for what was a weekly ritual in our family by the time I was in high school: Chinese food from Seven Seas. Invariably we selected steamed vegetable dumplings, and in warm weather, we’d eat them on the back patio, with chili sauce on the side for my mom, who always liked things hot.
You were still feeding us, Mom. In fact, you still are.
Amanda Hirsch is a writer and mother on a mission to fill the world with women's stories. She can be found at amandahirsch.com.