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Cook 'Till Tender

(by Deborah A. Lott)

I have a recurrent dream in which my mother refuses to feed me. A long table displaying an array of delectable foods stands before me. This is food that my mother has prepared, and though other family members are eating, I understand that this food is forbidden to me. Off to the side, as if on a different plane from the one I reside on, my mother appears, faded, like a copy from a printer running out of ink. Her words are muffled and sound as if they are coming from some faraway location. “Why can’t I eat?” I ask, but she can offer no explanation.

I am very, very hungry.

What happens in the dream is not at all representative of my real life as a child. My mother always cooked abundant meals for my father, two older brothers, and me. Because of her family’s myriad food allergies, sensitivities, and proclivities, she sometimes made separate meals for each of us. I can still see her running from the “office” (the bedroom in our house dedicated to my father’s insurance agency)—running from her endless job typing and billing, strategizing, and cheerleading, all in an attempt to prevent the ruin to which my father seemed naturally inclined, to the kitchen where she made brisket, roast chicken, chicken soup, and sweet and sour cabbage rolls.

At the dinner table some nights, I’d watch my obese father gorge himself on a large portion of bloody rare steak. My mother would take a very small, well-done portion for herself, and cut it into tiny pieces. After sprinkling it with an inordinate amount of black pepper, she would then eat her bird-bite-sized pieces with her head cast downward as if ashamed of her own carnivorousness. Even while feeding herself, she made it clear that she had chosen self-sacrifice over self-gratification.

I never saw my mother follow a recipe. She cooked quickly and instinctively, most dishes built around the staples of her Eastern European heritage: onions, celery, carrots, garlic, paprika, bay leaf, allspice. Beside her, I learned how to cook, more by a process of osmosis than formal instruction. We often found a measure of joy in cooking together, observing its mysterious transformations: watching over the chocolate pudding as it thickened, waiting for the flavors in the Bolognese to merge.

So, what do I make of the food prohibition in the dream?

I have come to believe that it stands in for another form of deprivation in my relationship with my mother, the lack of a certain tenderness between us. Tenderness arises out of shared empathy, that expresses itself first in the bodily dimension, in physical affection. My mother’s family members were not tender with each other. She was raised by taciturn and stoic first-generation émigré Russian Jews. They did not countenance physical affection or the expression of emotion. With survival the goal, emotional expression must have seemed a luxury. In the photos of my mother and her two sisters, their arms are often crossed, drawing boundaries around themselves. They do not smile.

If my mother was not often tender with me, neither was she tender with herself. She encased her own body in a rigid girdle, saying that otherwise she “might fall apart.” Physical pleasure, if it happened, happened only privately. I never saw her swim or bask in the sunlight or walk briskly on a beach or even stretch languorously. She accepted affection, may have even craved it, but it never seemed to come naturally to her. In the realm of feeling, she disdained intense expression of emotion as self-indulgent; she had no tolerance for sentimentality.

In 1995, my mother died, hence her faded condition in my dream. She did not have an easy final illness or death; she suffered and she resisted. I was largely responsible for making decisions about her care. After she developed aspiration pneumonia several times, the doctors told me that her eating posed too great a risk. I could choose hospice where they would let her eat and die, or continue her more aggressive medical treatment. What I could not do was to let her eat and expect the doctors to treat each bout of aspiration pneumonia. The choice was to let her eat even if it killed her, or deprive her of food and allow the doctors to insert a feeding tube instead. I let them insert the tube.

In moments of coherence, she would ask why she was being deprived of food, and there was no way to answer that she could understand. Because it might kill you? But she was dying anyway¸ though neither of us could accept it. I can’t breathe, call the fire department, she’d plead, or I want to see how the story turns out, I don’t want to leave in the middle of the story. Though I kept vigilance in the convalescent hospital, monitoring her medical care, engaging in long detailed conversations with her doctors, these were clinical conversations; I could not find my way to being tender with her in the way that I observed other daughters with their mothers.

For a while she had a roommate who was dying of ovarian cancer. Every night her daughter came and gently massaged her hands and arms, her legs and feet with rose-scented moisturizer. Despite the mother’s pain, even in the midst of her suffering, she took obvious pleasure in the sensation of her daughter’s hands on her body. The daughter also appeared to find joy as they bonded in the tenderness of that act. But there was no room in my mother’s dying for this kind of tenderness. She approached dying as one more task she was charged with performing. One day, as I arrived at her room, she announced, “I will now die,” shut her eyes, and folded her hands over her chest. But death did not come on her schedule. Observing her roommate’s massage, she might have said, “What’s the point? It won’t make any difference in the outcome.”

I thought the same thing, having become, to some extent, my mother’s daughter.

Another roommate, with a heavy Middle Eastern accent, incessantly cried out her son’s name, “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie,” even though Eddie only appeared once in a while late at night. The woman always felt too hot. She would motion to me to take a paper fan from her bedside table and fan her. As I did, she smiled and groaned with pleasure and relief. There was no equivalent act I could find that would bring my mother that degree of even momentary physical or mental comfort.

Instead, she writhed in her bed, her hands always in a worrying, agitated motion. In an attempt to keep her alive just a little bit longer, in a fantasy perhaps that if I did, she and I could finally achieve that elusive intimacy we had never quite attained, I subjected her to not only a feeding tube but also breathing treatments and IV antibiotics that prolonged her survival but only intensified her suffering.

And I suspect sometimes when I wake up from one of these recurrent deprivation dreams, that she is not feeding me as payback.

In my waking life, I am left to cook the dishes she taught me to cook, for my husband, and sometimes my brothers. Onions, celery, carrots, garlic, paprika, bay leaf, allspice. Brisket, chicken, chicken soup. And though I do not believe in ghosts or soul visitations or my mother’s ongoingness in this or any other world, when I cook, I feel her presence. As I sauté the onions, garlic, carrots, and celery, I imagine my mother’s hand, always powerful and assured in the kitchen, cover my own. I feel my mother’s hand. Together, with a large wooden spoon, we gently stir the vegetables until they are tender, the onions transforming, softening and sweetening, their cellular spaces releasing, tough fibers breaking down.


Deborah A. Lott is the author of a memoir, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me, and lives in Los Angeles, California. She can be found at

My Mother’s Brisket (with a few modifications)

4 - 6 lb. beef brisket (preferably first cut)

2 t. salt (or to taste)

1/2 t. black pepper (or to taste)

2 t. Hungarian paprika (or to taste)

3 - 4 T. olive oil

6 large sweet onions, peeled and sliced

whole head of garlic, peeled and minced (or 2 t. garlic powder)

8 oz. tomato sauce

1 c. red wine

8 oz. beef broth

2 bay leaves

1 allspice berry (or 1/2 t. allspice powder)

3 - 4 large carrots, cut into 2-in. pieces

2 stalks celery, cut into 2-in. pieces

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Season meat with salt, pepper, and paprika.

In a large frying pan, sauté onions in olive oil.

When onions are just about translucent, add garlic, and cook for another minute or two, being careful not to burn.

Put meat in a shallow roasting pan.

Pour in enough of the tomato sauce, wine, and beef broth to come up about 1/3 of the way on the meat (about 2 1/2 c. total).

Add bay leaves and allspice.

Cover meat with about half of the onions, and surround it with half of the carrots and celery. Cover with a tight-fitting lid or tin foil.

Cook for about 2 hours, adding more of the liquid as necessary to make sure the meat is not drying out.

Add remaining onions, carrots, and celery.

Taste the sauce and season to taste.

Cook for 1 hour more, until the meat is fork tender.


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