(by Gina Daidone)
I’ll shamefully confess: I’ve never been one to cook. I find the art of cooking fascinating in many ways, but in practice, I’m more of a modern day hunter-gatherer. I’ll happily shop for all the ingredients, prep the individual components...and ultimately order take-out while snacking on said ingredients. But when cooking with other people, I make an excellent sous-chef and genuinely enjoy the camaraderie of the kitchen—most evident with my mother, Patricia, a culinarian through and through.
My mom and I are fundamentally similar, although we look different. She has Irish/Polish features: bright green eyes, auburn hair, and skin so fair, it reddens like a tomato after only minutes of sun. I have honey brown eyes, dark hair, and an olive complexion, courtesy of my Sicilian father. Mom is the youngest of five; I’m an only child. But we’re both born and raised in New York City, smack dab on the island of Manhattan, in working-class families. Growing up on the lower end of the financial spectrum meant we didn’t have many luxuries—a very meat and potatoes existence. But food has always been a safe haven for us. Despite our circumstances, my mother (and her mother before), always made sure the children were well cared for and had good food to eat.
Once I was old enough to safely handle boiling water, she began trying to teach me to cook. I listened to her tutorials, chopping veggies and observing her movements as we sweated from the heat in our small kitchen, her Disco-era music playing on the stereo. This semi-daily occurrence was our unspoken bonding ritual. But when I entered the terrible teen years, I became a quintessential little hooligan, the kind who wanted to goof off aimlessly or roam around town, wreaking havoc with friends. And since Mother Dearest sometimes had authoritarian parenting tendencies, I was constantly attempting escape from her seemingly suffocating grasp.
My parents divorced when I was very young, and I was raised primarily with my mother, so there was plenty of the usual angst and rebellion of youth. Plus we've always had trouble communicating effectively. We’re both hot-headed, stubborn, and often overly sensitive. But despite our quarrels, she always had a hot meal ready for me. Whatever issues we had that day were put aside to sit down and eat dinner together.
Mom has a unique cooking style because she doesn’t follow any recipes. She’s what one might call “old-school.” She knows what tastes good and doesn’t believe in using standard measurements, choosing to eyeball her way through instead. She’s self-taught—her only lessons were from her mother, who unfortunately passed away long before I was born.
And she can certainly throw down in the kitchen. Just about any dish, you name it, she’ll make it. Her notable specialties include a slammin’ sofrito from scratch, an exquisite chili, fresh chicken and orzo soup for whenever one of us is sick, and her signature meatloaf and mashed potatoes. She’s also a natural hostess. Anyone she genuinely likes is invited to eat. Food is her love language. She’ll spend all day preparing a veritable feast, then, ever-so-good-naturedly, inquire throughout the meal whether guests think the food is good and if they’re enjoying it. I promise you, Mom, they always think it’s good, and they’re always enjoying it.
I’m not entirely feral, and over time, I’ve learned to cook...decently (especially during my college years when cooking is a useful skill for anyone to sustain herself). My greatest joy is when Mom lets me take the reins and cook for the both of us. I usually have to shoo her gently out of the kitchen as she attempts to nose around and provide tips, but the good intentions are there nonetheless. And when we’re miles apart, it’s common for us to send each other pictures of our meals, or to video chat as she talks me through making one of her trademark dishes.
From constant enemies and reluctant culinary partners, over 25+ years, Mom and I have formed an al dente bond that knows no bounds. Because she isn’t just my Mom, she’s my best friend, and the best chef I’ll ever know.
Gina Daidone is an actor, writer, and producer who splits her time between New York City and Los Angeles. She can be found at www.ginadaidone.com
1 c. raw rice
pinch of salt
olive oil to coat pan
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 red or green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 c. white onion, chopped
15-oz. can pink or kidney beans
12 oz. canned tomato sauce
salt and pepper to taste
chili powder to taste
2 – 3 dashes Adobo sauce
Combine rice and salt with 2 c. water.
Bring to a boil, lower heat, and cook until done.
Drizzle a large frying pan with olive oil.
Over medium heat, brown the ground meat, breaking it up.
Drain and discard excess fat.
In the same frying pan, combine peppers and onions with browned meat.
Add beans, tomato sauce, and 1/2 c. water
Add salt, pepper, chili powder, and Adobo.
Bring to a boil, cover, and let simmer, stirring occasionally for 20 - 30 minutes.