(by Gina Pell)
My mother comes from the heart of Polynesia, midway between Tahiti and New Zealand—a tiny place called American Samoa. By the time she was born in 1937, the island kingdoms of the South Pacific, with the exception of Tonga, were overtaken by Western imperialists. What remained was a hierarchical tribal system comprised of village and family chiefs. Since my grandfather was a high chief in his village, my mother Katie was chosen to be the taupou—the family princess to perform ceremonial duties in traditional costume. Food was prepared by the people in the village and served by members of the extended family.
But it was a different sort of life that my mother had in mind; as a young woman, she moved to the United States, where she soon met and married my father. Since neither she nor my grandmother had ever cooked, I grew up eating baloney sandwiches until my older sister Rosa took over the stove when I was in the third grade.
(Mom at age 18)
Every month we'd receive a thick envelope from Betty Crocker, a subscription service my mom joined from the back of a woman's magazine. It contained recipes printed on glossy stock like baseball cards, with a tantalizing photo on the front and cooking instructions on the back. The recipes were classic American fare like macaroni and cheese, sloppy Joes, tuna casserole, and beef stroganoff. The cards were filed in an avocado green plastic box with category dividers: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Dessert, Hors D'Oeuvres.
My siblings and I would pull cards from the box and lobby Rosa to make the dish we wanted. There was a lot of shepherd's pie, made with minced meat, frozen vegetables, and reconstituted mashed potatoes, but covered with enough cheddar cheese and ketchup to make an old shoe tasty. I still crave it every now and then.
Mom was overly doting but simply had no idea how raw ingredients turned into cooked, edible food. She did have a penchant for cleaning everything in sight. To this day, she'll wash out your wine glass and return it to the cupboard if you glance away for even a split second. Goodbye half-finished glass of Dom Perignon.
Since I didn't grow up at my mom's apron strings, and my sister’s skills were limited to those cards, learning to cook myself was a slow process that continues today. When I was pregnant with my first child, a young woman who worked in my office must have worried that my cluelessness in a kitchen might leave my future offspring starving, so she taught me some basics like salad dressing from scratch and a succulent pork chop. It wasn't until I discovered cooking shows on the Food Network that I started to think: Hey, I could do that. But I still follow recipes and measure out ingredients with the precision of a pharmacist. Free-styling makes me nervous since I don't have the confidence of a gustatory grammar to add a dash of this or that.
For the past five years, my widowed mother has lived with my husband, children, and me. She still needs directions on how to boil an egg and handles a knife like a detonated grenade. But she watches me with awe whenever I cook and has become my sous-chef.
With my mom by my side, I've started to attempt more complicated recipes. She washes; I cut. Last month I spent an hour reducing an exotic ten-ingredient sauce as the base for a minced meat dish. I set it on the counter to cool, and by the time I turned around, my mom was washing it out in the sink. After my blood-curdling scream subsided, we foraged through the fridge for ingredients to salvage the dish. Lo and behold, we found a container of dehydrated potatoes, a package of frozen vegetables, and some cheddar cheese. Even my mother remembered the recipe for shepherd's pie. “I got this,” she said. I got the ketchup ready.
Gina Pell is the content chief of The What, a clever list for curious people.