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You Don’t Need to Know

(by Terri Sutton)

My parents’ origin story could have been a Hallmark movie. They met in a textile factory in 1945; World War II loomed in the background. My mother, an excellent student, had earned nearly enough high school credits to graduate, so she attended classes in the morning and worked at a factory in the afternoon. My father, having grown up in the Jim Crow south, had joined the northern migration of Blacks and relocated from Arkansas to Ohio. He was 26. Before meeting my father, my mother had been accepted by Ohio State University and planned to become a teacher, but after their meeting, she decided not to go to college.

In four years, my mother had three children. I’m the youngest. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother in the kitchen, an apron tied around her waist (it was the ‘60s). Because my father was a southerner, my mother was expected to prepare southern dishes. Not a problem. Traditionally, northern Black women prepared recipes originated by southern relatives, and passed them—mother to daughter—through generations.

I grew up eating southern standards: collard greens, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, black-eyed peas. For Christmas, chitterlings, considered a delicacy, were added. Although my mother bought, cleaned, and cooked them, she never ate them—perhaps turned off by the gauzy foul smell in the kitchen. Cooking chitterlings is like cooking greens; their overflowing contents shrink to a few cups. A 20-pound container yielded only enough for one dinner. Knowing this, my sister, brother, and I would offer competing plates to my mother, begging for more like children in a Dickens novel. I savored every forkful, coated with hot sauce, and ignored the greasy puddle left on the plate. Years later, when I learned that chitterlings are pig intestines, I stopped eating them.

In junior high school, when some of my friends’ mothers began teaching them to cook, my mother did not, although I was responsible for washing bowls and pans after she cooked. Once, when she was standing at the kitchen table, her hands coated with flour ready to knead dough, I asked her how to make pie crust. “You don’t need to know,” she said, “just clean up when I need it.” As a pre-teen I was anxious to learn what it meant to be female. My body was developing; boys weren’t obnoxious anymore; cooking seemed to be an essential part of the package. It felt like a rejection directed not just at me but at my sister too, like our mother was selfishly keeping something she should have passed on to us.

In high school, I became weight conscious—most likely fostered by images of wafer-thin women on television and not my mother’s Rubenesque figure. I viewed cooking as a chore and the evil twin of weight gain. At school, I ate Jell-o or salad for lunch; at home my mother was cutting back on her cooking. My older brother and sister had left home; my father had died. It was just my younger brother, my mother, and me. Fast food restaurants became an option; casseroles appeared—chicken and rice, chicken and broccoli, chicken and anything. Desserts, which my father had insisted on having, were simplified--canned peaches served with whipped cream or a frozen apple pie. Soon my mother’s attention shifted outward. She explored enrichment classes—an English literature class taken at a local high school and ceramics at a community center. She became active in the church, was a featured speaker for the annual Women’s Day program. She volunteered to teach budgeting strategies to young mothers and became a voracious reader of romance novels. She traveled with friends.

After graduating from my hometown college, I moved from Ohio to Wisconsin. I had no cooking skills and no desire to cook. I substituted restaurant meals for my mother’s cooking. When I went home for holidays, my mother made a point to have my favorite rice pudding. I ate what was placed in front of me until finally—with protests from my stomach—I reluctantly confessed I’d given up red meat and pork. Though shocked, my mother took the news in stride, and on subsequent visits served chicken or fish.

I reclaimed my old pattern of cleaning up. The difference was that I began staying in the kitchen, sitting at the table and talking to my mother until my clean-up services were needed. During these kitchen conversations, I realized my mother carried an adventurous spirit into her cooking. Rarely did she use a measuring cup. The amount needed was judged by color, texture, or the constant tasting she did while preparing the dish. If there were missteps, she contrived a remedy and recalibrated for the next time.

During our kitchen talks, I also discovered my mother had become a smart, funny woman. She had a storehouse of family stories—some funny ones that I’d heard over the years, but now she told me the dicey ones. On one of my visits, I finally asked why she hadn’t taught me to cook. “Because cooking was my job,” she said, then told me about an older relative who made her daughters do the house chores—cooking, cleaning, and laundry—when they were still in elementary school. “I always thought that was unfair,” she said. “Plus I wanted you to do your school work.” I could have told her that learning to cook and getting a good education weren’t mutually exclusive, but I didn’t. Her motives were loving, and my agreement or not with them didn’t matter.

Eventually I tired of restaurants and carry-out food and started watching cooking shows like “The Galloping Gourmet.” With much practice, I developed a cooking style that focused on healthy, calorie-conscious meals, which usually meant eliminating butter or cooking fat, a staple of southern cooking. While my mother’s cooking style was instinctual, my approach was recipe-based. I was exacting in my measurements. Uncertain about how these foreign mixtures should look or taste, I relied on trial and error. My mother was able to keep a mental record of her efforts, but my cooking results were recorded on index cards with cross-outs and marginal notes for adjustments. In time, I developed a basic repertoire of meals I could reliably produce and used them when my mother visited me.

It was during one of these visits that my mother looked into my refrigerator and did a slow scan of the shelves. “I don’t recognize anything in there,” she said.

We both laughed a little—dry, hollow sounds.

One night I made dinner: baked chicken, sautéed spinach, and salad.

Looking at her plate, my mother asked, “What’s this supposed to be?”

“Dinner,” I answered, “and there’s dessert.”

She frowned, with a mock displeasure.

After dinner, I brought out the rice pudding I’d made for dessert. “I used your recipe,” I told her, though I didn’t mention I’d cut the sugar and butter portions.

She ate a spoonful, then looked at me. “Needs sugar,” she said.

I laughed. But later I added a note on my recipe card: “Add more sugar on Mom’s next visit.”


Terri Sutton is a retired teacher who lives in Toledo, Ohio. Her work can be found in the anthologies Age Ain't Nothin but a Number and House of Secrets.

Mom’s Rice Pudding

rice (whatever you have)

evaporated milk (enough to cover the rice and then a little more)

sugar (sweet enough to know you’re eating a dessert)

melted butter (to freshen up the leftover rice)

salt (enough to bring out the flavor of everything else but not enough to taste salty)

vanilla extract (not imitation)

Bake at 350-ish until the center is firm; use knife to check.


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