I was 14 years old on that fateful Thanksgiving Day when I decided that enough was enough. The family would soon be gathering for what I knew would become yet another sad dinner. Once again, we would “gleefully” partake in my mother’s partially cooked, slightly tepid turkey. (There was one occasion when she cooked the giblets, bag and all, inside the bird.) The mashed potatoes would resemble soup, the carrots would be nearly raw, and the stuffing would look like mulch. (Trust me, I am being kind). We would conclude with store-bought, semi-thawed apple pie, topped with long-crystallized, months-old vanilla ice cream.
My usual “Welcome…to another sad dinner” would elicit stifled giggles from around the table, but my mother would just sigh and give me that glare. Fed-up with my annual stab at humor, she hissed, “If it’s so awful, Patricia, then you cook it!” as she abruptly left the table.
I knew she was hurt, and I apologized profusely later, but I also knew that this sad ritual had to stop. I loved my family too much to allow my mom to perpetrate her cooking attempts on us any longer. I took over.
There’s a reason that my mom was never interested in the culinary world: There were always servants to fill that role for her. Her mother could trace her family crest back to Spain in the 1300s and was a somewhat well-known artist in Mexico City who married a self-made Irish-American millionaire. My mother was a high-society beauty queen in Mexico City and met my father, a dashing race car driver for Mexico. My older sister and I were born in Mexico City and lived there on-and-off throughout our childhood. After our parents divorced, my mom fell in love with a wonderful man—Grandpa Tom—and relocated to Pasadena, California.
Mom was always a bad cook, but was really never ashamed of it. My jokes about her "sad dinners" didn't hurt her as deeply as they would have hurt someone who was genuinely trying. Cooking simply never interested her. And ironically, when it became clear that I was a natural in the kitchen, it brought my mother, my grandmother, and me closer. My grandmother now had someone next to her who was keen to learn her fabulous authentic recipes and teach me her kitchen techniques. My mother felt freer to be openly curious and ask about my grandmother's refined world of cooking, without the insecurity and pressure of not being a good cook herself. It seemed that I had broken an earlier tension that had long existed between them, surrounding cooking.
I have a picture of that fateful turkey day when I said “Enough.” I’m in ninth grade in our partially restored kitchen (Daddy being as good at construction as Mom was at cooking). I’m cradling the raw bird in my arms, vowing to master this holiday meal. My timing wasn’t great—getting the various components of the meal on the table was a juggling act—but over the years, my home became the hub of all things glorious about Thanksgiving. The turkey is always succulent and roasted to a dark golden brown, the potatoes mashed to a buttery softness, the vegetables colorfully grilled. The pièce de résistance is my stuffing, slightly sweet with fruit and savory with a hint of sausage. My sticky buns come out of the oven just as chairs are being pulled back by guests squeezing in. (The recipe from Grandpa Tom’s family in Waitsfield, Vermont, goes way back.)
I treasure all of the years Mom and I have shared together, cooking happily side-by-side, and I owe a debt of gratitude to her shortcomings in the kitchen. Stepping up to my role as the family chef let me identify my own special skills, ameliorated family tensions, and let us have a truly Happy Thanksgiving.
Patricia Becker-Spellman was an award-winning television writer, producer, and editor, who retired to become a full-time mom. She is a community outreach volunteer in Valencia, California, and can be found at www.patriciabecker-spellman.com.
Grandpa Tom's Sticky Buns
11/2 packages yeast
1 1/4 c. warm water
4 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
3 T. powdered milk
1 t. salt
1/2 c. melted butter
2 T. butter, at room temperature
1/2 c. sugar
2 t. cinnamon
1/2 c. butter
1/2 c. water
8 oz. brown sugar
3/4 c. walnuts
Dissolve yeast in warm water.
Mix all dry ingredients, then add wet ingredients, adding yeast/water last.
(Add additional flour if dough is too soggy.)
Place in large floured bowl in warm spot on counter, cover with dry kitchen towel, and let dough rise for about 30 minutes.
Knead dough, place back in bowl, and let rise again.
Repeat kneading/rising process.
Boil butter, water, and brown sugar together until blended and sugar is dissolved.
Butter two round cake pans.
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Distribute hot topping mixture evenly into cake pans and add nuts, mixing together.
Divide dough in two.
Roll each piece out to a large rectangle, approximately 18 x 12 inches.
Brush each piece with half of softened butter.
Mix sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle on dough.
Roll dough up into a log shape and cut into 1-inch slices. (Kitchen string works best.)
Place slices into nut mixture in both pans.
Bake for 30 minutes (do not overbake).
Place a sheet of foil on a large plate, then place plate on top of cake pan, and flip.