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The Clean-up Crew

(by Margaret Crane)

My siblings and I were not allowed in my mother's kitchen, except to clean up her messes. She carefully checked the progress of her “cleaning crew,” making sure we swept in all the corners, scrubbed the top of the stove, and used Twinkle Copper Cleaner on the bottom of the Revere Ware pans until they gleamed like an Army private’s belt buckle.

My mother wasn’t domestic. Cooking and cleaning were too prosaic. She dreamt of going to New York City to become an actress, but her parents put the kibosh on that idea, so she became a wife and mother, then in her 50s a highly successful real estate saleswoman. She poured her creativity into dressing herself, her kids, and her home stylishly in suburban Missouri.

Having guests for dinner was a rarity, and when she did cook, it was something thrown together like chops or steaks broiled to a deep mahogany brown, or some reddish concoction drowning in paprika that she called pot roast chicken—all unimaginatively accompanied by canned veggies or boxed macaroni and cheese. My siblings and I chewed, pretended to gulp down these disasters, and smiled graciously. Then each of us spit the food into our napkins.

When I was a junior in high school, we moved into an old home that my mother gutted and redecorated. It looked like a museum, complete with a state-of-the-art kitchen that included an indoor barbecue pit, a commercial refrigerator, and warming drawers. I never understood why. The fancy equipment didn’t improve her cooking skills at all. She and my father preferred to eat out, which was good for his wholesale liquor distributor business that sold to local restaurants. It was also good for my mother, who loved being waited on.

With no experience at the stove, when I married at 22, I had no idea how to cook. Once I learned by watching my mother–in-law, a culinary marvel, my mother came to appreciate my newfound skills. Our relationship was conflicted at times—she was a perfectionist who expected the same from her offspring—but she mellowed as she aged, I learned to ignore certain comments, and our bond improved. Cooking for her became a way to show my love. I could also do something better than she could.

When she wasn’t feeling well, she’d beg me to make chicken soup (as good as her mother’s, she said), and when she was feeling better, she’d ask if I’d make her favorite chocolate chip cookies. She’d say, “I don’t really like cookies; yours are the only ones I’ll eat.” We’d have conversations where I’d sit in her room and have her full attention. We frequently talked about food–hosannas of praise for cherry pie with real vanilla bean ice cream, discussed in delicious detail. Any animus dissipated as I saw her in a different light. I mattered to her for the first time, or at least the first time she could verbalize that idea, and I believe she respected my decisions and who I am today.

After I had children, I vowed that they would have free run of the kitchen to cook, eat, and make a mess. I have kept that promise. My mother never understood how I could be so laissez-faire about tidiness. When she came for dinner, I tried my best but never cared about those rigorous rules of my childhood. And I never asked her to clean up.


Margaret Crane is a writer in New York City. She is the co-author of Suddenly Single After 50 and Not Dead Yet: Rebooting Your Life After 50 .

Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened (use good European butter)

1 1/2 c. brown sugar

1 c. plus 2 T. granulated sugar

3 large eggs

1 1/2 t. pure vanilla extract

3 c. all purpose flour

1 1/2 t. baking soda

1/2 t. salt

1/2 lb. milk chocolate chips (preferably Guittard)

1/2 lb. semi-sweet chocolate chips (preferably Guittard)

1/3 c. pecans or walnuts

In bowl of an electric mixer or with a hand mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the butter, brown sugar, granulated sugar, eggs, and vanilla at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

In medium bowl, whisk or sift the flour with the baking soda and salt.

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and beat at low speed until incorporated, scraping down the bowl occasionally.

Stir in chocolate chips and then add nuts.

(Alternatively divide dough in two and add nuts to half the mixture.)

Cover and refrigerate the dough until chilled, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 F. and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Scoop up two tablespoons of dough and roll into balls (wet your hands so the dough doesn’t stick).

Place the balls on the baking sheets about 3 inches apart (allowing room for the cookies to spread.)

Bake in the lower and middle third of the oven for about 17 minutes, until the cookies are lightly browned around the edges but still very soft in the center, shifting the pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through baking.

Slide the parchment onto racks and let the cookies cool.

If reusing baking sheets, run them under cold water between batches.

Repeat with remaining dough.


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