My mother was obsessed with food (which she lasciviously pronounced “foooooood”), with appearance, and control. My 35-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia was linked directly to her cruelty, which knew no bounds when it came to me, her eldest child and only daughter. “I am trying to learn to love you,” she would explain to my two-year-old self. Girls, she said, were “dirty,” “catty,” “no good.” And yet….
I learned to cook from her. My parents and I first lived in a Dartmouth College dormitory, set aside for returning World War II veterans doing graduate work under the G.I. Bill. Nightly, she blew the fuses building-wide when she prepared dinner—her repertory was boxed Kraft’s Mac & Cheese, hamburgers, and toast. A friend taught her how to push the lever down on the toaster. My father was besotted; he thought she was a culinary genius.
When we returned to New York, she received The Settlement Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking as gifts. They were her bibles. She made an exceptional Manhattan clam chowder from scratch, delicious “in-and-out potatoes,” and the best spaghetti and meatballs ever. But before I was old enough for school, a battle between us was in place: She denied love, approval, and affection; I denied her food. She now had the first of her cherished boys, overindulged and overfed. “A woman is not complete without a son,” she repeatedly explained.
Though she was awkward with children, especially girls, she created magical birthday parties. My seventh birthday was a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan. She prepared individual wicker baskets for my friends, lined with red-checked napkins and filled with fried chicken, deviled eggs, potato salad, fruit, cupcakes, cookies, and little toys.
Eventually she took formal French cooking lessons and became a skillful cook. Suddenly, instead of tuna-noodle casserole or meatloaf, we were eating rognons de veau Dijonaise, ratatouille-stuffed crèpes, pommes Dauphinoise, and tartes aux fruits. She had blossomed, and I had shriveled into severe anorexia. As a young woman living in New York CIty, I had wonderful caring friends who did everything they could as they watched me waste away to 55 pounds.
During those three-plus decades, my mother's stranglehold dominated what little I felt was left of my life. While she and my father threw stylish dinner parties for their few wealthy suburban friends, with me she wielded food to bend me to her glacial will. She barraged me with recipes, with obsessive discussions about diet and appearance, also of paramount importance to my father, both of them denying the reality of my situation. The only time she related to me without being cruel was when she showed me how to cook. That was our DMZ, and even though I thought I hadn’t been paying attention, obviously I had.
With the help of a therapist and the support of friends, I eventually liberated myself from my family. My eating disorder receded and vanished, and my life took off. I began cooking fabulous feasts from my tiny Pullman kitchen. In the beginning, I replicated from memory my mother’s dishes, since they were the only foods I knew. Once on my own, my repertoire rapidly expanded. The joy of sharing my table with loving friends, of eating, drinking and laughing long into the night has become one of life’s great pleasures. I was diminished, devoured, nearly obliterated, by my mother, but I had also acquired skills from her. Yes, she was a monster. And yet….
Patricia Fieldsteel is a native New York writer who has lived in Provence, France, since 2002.
3 large Idaho baking potatoes
1/3 c. sour cream/ or crème fraîche
2 - 3 T. butter
pinch of nutmeg
salt and white pepper to taste
bunch of scallions, chopped
additional 1 T. butter
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Thoroughly scrub potatoes and pierce skin with a fork.
Rub skins with vegetable oil and bake until soft.
(Time will vary according to the size of the potatoes.)
Let potatoes slightly cool.
Lower oven temperature to 375 F.
Slice lengthwise in half, and scoop out flesh into a mixing bowl.
Add sour cream, butter, nutmeg, salt and white pepper.
Thoroughly mix with a hand-mixer until smooth.
Mix in scallions.
Fill each potato “boat” with a rounded mound of the mixture.
Top with parmesan cheese, a few dots of butter, and a sprinkling of paprika.
Bake for 20 minutes.
My Mother’s Meatloaf
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground veal
1/2 lb. ground pork
1 c. dried breadcrumbs
1/2 c. tomato juice
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. ground black pepper
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 medium onion, chopped fine
1 t. mixed dried herbs—chives, tarragon, chervil
1 1/2 T. Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 T. ketchup
finely chopped leaves from 1 bunch of fresh flat-leafed (Italian) parsley
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Mix meat together with hands in a large bowl.
Add remaining ingredients, except for hard-boiled eggs, and thoroughly mix with hands.
Grease a loaf pan and add half the mixture to the bottom, pressing it flat.
Place the 3 hard-boiled eggs lengthwise on top and add the remaining mixture, making sure the eggs are completely covered.
Smear a layer of ketchup on top and bake for 2 hours.
Let stand for a few minutes before slicing to serve.
Serves 4 – 6.