I’ve been accused of being a “crunchy” mom. Most of my mom friends don’t cook much, and I sometimes feel almost embarrassed that I make almost all of my children’s food from scratch, so I’ll often go along with a conversation about what kind of frozen chicken nuggets are best. I don’t want to be “that mom” who makes others feel like they aren’t doing enough. But my obsession with DIY comes from a much different place than the term “crunchy” suggests.
My grandma Sonja and her young daughter (my mother) immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia during World War II. Sonja married a Mexican-American soldier who had been stationed in Europe, and he provided their way to America. While our golden shores meant freedom from the atrocities of war, the women of my family were unfortunately subjected to a life of abuse and addiction. My mother left home as a teenager and began a singing career with the USO; Grandma Sonja eventually left with her three sons in tow.
Grandma loved to cook. She cherished her family recipes, and I still remember her famous palichinkas from a visit to her hometown of Pančevo when I was nine years old.
My mother went on to earn her degree and became a teacher. She tried hard to meet all the demands of working and raising children, and our meals were basic but filling. My father was a pastor and teacher, and money was tight, so tight that the members of our church often brought us food during the summer when my parents’ teacher salaries dried up. Looking back, I see that my mother was in survival mode.
Every mother wishes for her daughter to have greater opportunities than she did. I was granted scholarships that helped me to obtain a master’s degree in vocal performance, and I moved to New York to begin my career as a professional classical singer.
When I met my husband, I had absolutely no knowledge of cooking but decided to embark on a journey through cookbooks, making whatever looked good. I had some huge failures (seriously epic), but I also had enough success to realize it was something I could enjoy.
When we decided to have children, I knew that serving real food would be a commitment I wanted to make to them. I didn’t want food to be merely a form of survival, but one of thriving and of warm memories. I made all of the baby food for my little ones; my now five-year-old and one-year-old actually demand roasted broccoli with their dinners.
Balancing motherhood with my professional life is challenging but worth every bit of the extra planning and organizational skills necessary to pull it off. There are days when I curse myself for committing to making so much from scratch. I’m surely less than graceful in these moments, but if I just take a step back and look at the sweet faces at the dinner table, cheeks full of food that I made for them, I feel like a success. My motto is: It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be real.
I’m the first woman in my familial line to have a stable and loving situation where I feel supported and empowered to give my children something greater than mere survival. I’m raising my daughter to see that food is an expression of caring, a way of showing people that they are worth the effort. I see her watching me. She’s taking it all in, and I hope she’ll have memories of her mama in a warm and welcoming kitchen. She’ll see that I worked hard to achieve lofty career goals and yet still took the time to make food without anything artificial or toxic. It had nothing to do with gender expectations, but everything to do with love.
Jennifer Sisco Porretta is a singer, voice actor, and producer. She lives in Connecticut with her husband Frank and their two little ones, Franco and Tanina, also known as “Thunder and Lightning.” She can be found at www.JennifersVoiceOvers.com and www.JenniferPorretta.com.
Slow Cooker Steak Pizzaiola
3 T. olive oil
4 to 6 boneless rib-eye steaks or chuck steaks
salt and pepper to taste
2 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
2 T. Italian seasoning
1 T. salt
2 t. black pepper
1 T. sugar
pinch of cayenne
1 yellow onion, diced
1 T. tomato paste
big splash of red or white wine
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over high heat.
Season the steaks with salt and pepper to taste, and brown both sides (about 3 minutes per side).
Remove from the pan and place in slow cooker.
Add crushed tomatoes, Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, sugar, and cayenne.
In the same pan over medium heat, cook onion for 1 minute, then add tomato paste.
Stir to coat the onions, and add a healthy splash of wine.
Scrape the bottom of the pan to get all the brown bits up.
Add onion mixture to slow cooker, stirring to combine.
Set slower cooker to high and cook for 5 - 6 hours.
Any leftover sauce is amazing over pasta.