If Music Be the Food of Love
(by Eva Caisey Thompson, Maria Thompson Corley, and Kiana Corley)
A Three-Generation Trilogy
Eva Caisey Thompson:
Even though I was a dedicated piano teacher for my children, my attitude about cooking was much like that of my mother. I felt that if one could read, one would be able to cook. That has definitely proven to be the case for my daughters (Maria, Alicia, and Patricia), my sisters, and me. In my family, we have always been concerned about eating nutritious meals, but the preparation of food takes a back seat to musical endeavors.
As far back as I can remember, and until I was about six years of age, I heard the music of my mother, Cecily Richardson–Caisey, a 1930 pianoforte graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, who came home to Bermuda after graduation and played classical piano music at least five days a week (Sunday was excepted). My early afternoons consisted of singing children's songs while marching around a table in the parlor, followed by playing with picture puzzles, coloring, or reading, all the while listening to works by Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin. It’s music that I still treasure.
As the size of my birth family increased and my mother became busier with home duties, my lessons were few and far between. If I got more than one lesson a month, it was a miracle. In spite of that, I was able to advance, and by the age of 12, I became the pianist at Sunday school. As the oldest child in my family, I was the last to practice the piano—usually at night, in a room that was not well lit, and away from the rest of the family. It was scary, and I often ran from the room. (Obviously, concentration on the music was not what it might have been).
My mother served delicious meals; and even though many decades have passed since I lived with her, I can almost taste the roast beef, macaroni and cheese, gingerbread, bread pudding, lemon meringue pie, and upside down cakes she prepared. Her cookies and hot cross buns were legendary. Unfortunately she taught neither me nor my sisters how to cook. I think she was just very busy and did not care to slow down her progress by taking the time to teach this skill. Fortunately, every Saturday night after a day of teaching piano lessons, she would cook dinner for Sunday. As far back as I can recall, I stayed up in the kitchen talking to her as she cooked, having special personal time with her and observing some of her techniques.
After I married and had children, I wanted them to learn to play the piano well. Fortunately, my husband was on the same page. When I started to teach Terry, our oldest child, to play the piano in September of 1968, Maria, who was then two years old, asked to be taught too. I told her that she had to learn to read first. I started to teach her to read, and she took to it so readily that I wondered if it was a skill that she already possessed. Even at the age of four, she would sit at the piano and say, "Look, Mommie, I know how to hold my hands!”
A friend and I decided to take our children to a program introducing pre-K children to the piano. I realized that Maria did not need the lessons, but the staff explained, nicely, that they were professionals and were sure that my assessment was that of an overly enthusiastic mother. Maria, who had been drawn as if by a magnet to one of the many pianos in the building, began to play one of the pieces she had memorized. One of the “nice” staff members asked if she was able to read music. Later I received a call stating that she would be placed in the advanced group I had recommended and that she would be an asset to the program. But I never enrolled her in the program. The underlying dismissiveness with which my daughter and I were initially treated—which undoubtedly had to do with race—was enough to prevent that.
Maria has become the concert pianist that she always wanted to be. Despite her focus on music, she also learned how to cook. Perhaps my mother and I were right all along.
Eva Caisey Thompson is a retired teacher who lives in Leduc, Alberta, Canada.
Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
1/4 c. butter or margarine
2/3 c. packed brown sugar
20 oz. can sliced or crushed pineapple in juice, drained
optional: maraschino cherries without stems
1 1/3 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. granulated sugar
1/3 c. vegetable shortening
3/4 c. milk
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1 large egg
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a 10-in. ovenproof skillet or 9-in. square baking pan, melt butter in oven.
Sprinkle brown sugar over butter.
Arrange pineapple on brown sugar, cutting slices into pieces if necessary.
Place optional cherries in the center of each pineapple slice.
In large bowl of electric mixer, beat remaining ingredients on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl.
Beat on high speed for 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally.
Pour over pineapple.
Bake skillet 45 - 50 minutes, or square pan 50 - 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Immediately place heatproof plate upside down on skillet or pan.
Turn plate and skillet or pan over.
Let skillet or pan remain over cake a few minutes so brown sugar topping can drizzle over cake.
Cool 15 minutes.
Serve with ice cream.
(Eva Caisey Thompson and Maria Thompson Corley)
Maria Thompson Corley:
I am the daughter of a Proverbs 31-style pillar of the community, but my mother never taught me to cook. Her mother never taught her to cook either; both of them assumed that anybody who could read would be just fine, and besides, neither one was particularly keen to have kids in the kitchen. That doesn’t mean I never prepared food. By following a recipe, I could make pancakes from scratch, concoct muffins and cakes, and assemble a lovely salad. But meat, not so much, because my mom didn’t want to waste a perfectly good roast on an amateur. Not that I begged for instruction. I was perfectly happy to play the piano, write a story, or read a book instead. Since achievement was important in my house, the status quo worked well for everyone, as long as the kids did the dishes.
Although my mother doesn’t particularly enjoy cooking, we never lacked for a variety of home-cooked meals. The fare tended to be simple and nutritious, with plenty of vegetables and liver (well-done, because my mom thinks medium-cooked food is both unpalatable and dangerous). The fresh-baked bread phase was particularly beloved. (I didn’t try to replicate that part of my childhood during lockdown.) And on occasion, she really got into it: One of the best things about growing up in my house was Mom’s rum-soaked fruitcake, which she spent hours mixing in large batches, then steamed in a pressure cooker.
Despite a late start, I did learn to cook, to the point that I either don’t use or regularly alter recipes. I find food preparation creative and fun. I follow in my mother’s footsteps in preparing (mostly) healthy food, and I can’t say I’ve made much of an effort to teach my daughter more than how to make an omelet. To prove to myself that I could be a mother without losing the essence of my identity, my first concert after giving birth consisted of four ridiculously hard pieces (Schumann’s Fantasie, Chopin’s “Barcarolle,” Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse,” and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit). My gamble paid off and led to many other performances of challenging repertoire. Along the way, the example I’ve given Kiana is to skimp on “normal” things, like an orderly house, to pursue the intangible and impractical. My ex-husband liked to cook, but when I left him (with two kids, the youngest on the autism spectrum), everything fell on me. There are always home-cooked meals (often in leftover form), but food has to be hastily prepared if I’m going to maintain the skills that keep food on the table.
I always looked forward to my parents’ annual visit for many reasons, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that help with housework was one of them. Understandably, as my parents got older, the help became less of a factor. My dad, who did everything from mowing to vacuuming to painting to cooking, died in 2015, at the age of 80. My mom focused on food. But now she’s 84, so I cook for all of us when she comes, except for those few requested dishes that she never taught me to make.
Until last year, that is. Kiana and her brother like macaroni and cheese, something I never craved. My son would eat it out of a box, but over time I’ve gotten more hardcore, so I won’t buy something that processed anymore. Mac and cheese is a signature dish of my mom’s, though, so when Kiana requested it, Mom happily obliged.
I’m not sure why I finally decided to observe what my mother was doing in the kitchen. Maybe it was because cooking has become completely demystified. Maybe it was because, on a previous visit, Kiana said that the thing that made her grandmother’s cooking so special was “love.” Or maybe it was because losing my dad made me acutely aware that I won’t have my precious mom forever. Whatever the reason, macaroni and cheese has evolved into a Sunday ritual. And before Kiana moves out, I’ll make sure to pass on the recipe.
Maria Thompson Corley is a pianist, composer, writer, voice actor, and mother of two gifted artists. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and can be found at
www.mariacorley.com and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/mariathompsoncorleywriter and www.facebook.com/mtccomposer. Hear her play Debussy's "L'isle Joyeuse," Chopin's "Barcarolle," and Ravel's "Scarbo."
Macaroni and Cheese
(Note: This isn’t Mom’s exact recipe because my children have food proclivities. Mom adds tomatoes or ketchup and likes to put breadcrumbs on top. I’d add chopped onion, but my son wouldn’t eat it.)
8 oz. pasta (I use chickpea or lentil)
1 c. whole milk
1 T. onion flakes or powder
2 T. flour (I use millet or barley)
2 c. mild cheddar cheese, divided
1 T. onion flakes or powder
salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 or 400 F. (I usually bake the mac and cheese with something else and use the temperature of the accompanying dish.)
Cook pasta in boiling salted water, drain, and set aside.
In the same pot, heat milk over medium heat.
Add onion flakes or powder, salt and pepper.
Stir in flour, mixing constantly until milk thickens into a smooth paste.
If mixture if too thin, add more flour; if too thick, add more milk.
Off heat, mix in half the cheese.
Add pasta, making sure to coat as much as possible with the cheese sauce.
Pour into a lightly greased casserole dish.
Add remaining cheese on top.
Bake until lightly browned, approximately 30 minutes.
(Maria Thompson Corley and Kiana Corley)
My mom plays the piano, and that’s how we eat. Ever since I’ve been alive, which is 23 years, I’ve been constantly surrounded by the sound of different sonatas and scales, as well as the fair share of frustrated bangs and guttural screams. When she wasn’t deep into practice, she was performing, teaching, planning, or composing. The twenty-four hour limit she has every day consistently proves to be too much for her, and as a result, meals she cooked for us growing up were fast. Whatever she could whip up in 15 minutes was what we got. Lucky for us, they were always great.
The days whenever she would have more time, though, would always be great days. One dish I particularly like would be sweet potato pie, which is something my mom never took on until this year. She usually serves it after a meal of salmon, mac and cheese, and brussel sprouts or asparagus. This particular meal is one of the only times that we all get to sit down together and really enjoy each other’s company, if only for a little until we all go our separate ways again to our designated work spaces in the house. We all sit together and talk about our days and plans, or sing along to some Stevie Wonder. After the meal is done and our spirits were high, she would go back to her piano, my brother would go back to his easel, and I would go back to my mini recording setup.
We have always been an extremely health-conscious house. Even now there is virtually no gluten, and the most sugar-filled thing you’ll find is dark chocolate. This made having sweet potato pie an even more special occasion, because it was a switch up from the light and green-filled meals we would constantly have. It was a nice, soul-food break.
My brother has had dietary restrictions from the time he was young, and because of that, a lot of his favorite foods were outlawed. In order to ease his sufferings, my mother would make pumpkin pie from scratch regularly, without gluten or processed sugar. I’ve always been more of a sweet potato person, so one day I asked if she would consider making sweet potato pie instead. From there, it became a regular staple in the house.
Once I am able to move out, I know that my mom’s sweet potato pie will be something I will really miss. I’ll love being able to put my own spin on it, but tasting it will make me think of childhood under my mother’s loving roof.
Kiana Corley is a singer/songwriter who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She can be found on Instagram.
Sweet Potato Pie
(adapted from allrecipes.com)
1 lb. sweet potatoes
1/2 c. butter, softened
1 c. white sugar
1/2 c. milk
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. vanilla extract
9-in. unbaked pie crust (my mom makes one from scratch, with gluten-free flour)
Boil sweet potatoes whole in skin for 40 - 50 minutes, until softened.
Hold under cold water to cool, and remove the skin.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Mash sweet potato in the bowl of an electric mixer.
Add butter, and mix well on medium speed.
Stir in sugar, milk, eggs, nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla.
Beat on medium speed until smooth.
Pour into unbaked pie crust.
Bake for 55 - 60 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.
Pie will puff up like a soufflé and then sink down as it cools.