Love On the Plate
(by Claire Acerno)
My mother died from Covid in 2020 at the age of 98, after having Alzheimer’s for many
years. Although I was distraught from the circumstances in which she parted this life, I
was also relieved. She’d been suffering in that hellhole called a nursing home for way
Mom grew up poor and hungry during the Great Depression, one of eight children of parents who had emigrated to New York from Italy. She talked about going begging for apples and nuts on Thanksgiving Day to strangers or neighbors, door to door like trick-or-treating, and getting oranges for Christmas. Although she loved to eat, really lived to eat, we were not bonded at the kitchen hearth. One day when I was five years old and watching a Hostess Twinkie commercial, I wished out loud that I had the sort of TV mom who baked sweets, only to get pounded by my eight-year-old brother, who became Mom’s only male stalwart after my dad left.
My mother was a dynamo, with a nickname that suited her, although it didn’t represent why we chose it. She was “Grandma Gogo” because she believed all of life’s ailments could be solved by a good bowel movement. She had the best smile and the best laugh; she could dance across the kitchen floor like it was a damn ballroom. She had five kids who got away with murder—she couldn’t tell any of us what to do ever. But she got up every day to take the train from Queens into “the city” to her shitty job as a secretary where she brought home a meager paycheck to feed and house us.
She was so ravenous when she got home from work that she went for speed. She’d turn the oven to broil and stick in a pan of chicken with carrots and potatoes, but it always turned out perfect—crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. My brother and I always fought over the white meat. She could make iceberg lettuce and out-of-season tomatoes taste good. I know she rubbed the salad bowl with garlic and cut her olive oil with Crisco to save money, but I’ve never been able to replicate it. There was always a can of grease on the stove that she’d save to make French fries, although they took forever in her burnt black frying pan, one layer at a time. “A lotta work,” she’d say. After dinner, she’d do the dishes, clean every counter, and Ajax the sink, then she loved to “get in her wheels” and take us visiting relatives and friends who lived in nice houses and had “normal” families.
A childhood of hunger meant that food was everything to my mom—her joy and satiety, escape from a sad life. For me, it was rebellion. I was an extremely picky eater and always needed more than she could “cook up.” Sometimes she would ask me, “What kind of pasta would you like for supper?” I’d say spaghetti but she would inevitably say, “I like macaroni so much better, don’t you?” I refused her pork chops, hamburgers, leather-like steak, and frozen vegetables. I did drink the blood left over in the meat pan after a roast. I can still remember the taste of iron and salt. Mostly I lived on cereal and bananas. Mom would say, “You’re gonna turn into a Rice Crispy.” Sometimes she would splurge and buy me baby food in a jar—I liked the chicken and rice. If we ate at a cousin’s or friends, I just didn’t eat or would spit my food in a napkin and be excused from the table. As a teenager, I graduated to blueberry yogurt and Cheetos, and pizza if I had the money. I remember always being hungry but never knowing what to eat. I drank black tea with lots of sugar, started smoking cigarettes at 13, and sucked my thumb until I was 16—all things that quelled my appetite.
Sundays at my dad’s apartment were big eating days. Everything at my dad’s place was the polar opposite of my home with Mom. My stepmom Sharlene would make me whatever I wanted to eat. With the money he saved by not ever giving my mom child support, my dad bought only the best cuts of meat, and my stepmom didn’t care if I ate the little circle out of the center of the lambchop. She also set a pretty table and taught me about eating etiquette. She liked to include me in the kitchen; we made cookies and stuffed shells, things that gave us time together. She was very present and kind, a gr