When I moved out of my parents’ house, I may have been the only 22-year-old eager to spend more time in the kitchen. Up until then, cooking was taboo.
I was an only child, growing up in Bayside, Queens, New York. My mom and dad met when she was 15 and he was 18. His first impression was seeing her beat up another girl who “wanted to see a Jew girl fight.” She won, and they’ve been together ever since. (Her calls her Mushie.) But she had, and still has, obsessive compulsive disorder, just like her own mother. During the summers, when I was home from school, I’d sometimes scramble some eggs for my lunch. No matter how much I scrubbed and sprayed air freshener, my mom would return from work and exclaim, “Who cooked in this house?”
That’s not to say that we didn’t have home-cooked meals. Her old faithfuls were franks and rice or spaghetti with ketchup and Parmesan cheese (still a favorite that I will eat only if my boyfriend is out and I can hide the evidence). After warm summer days at our pool club, we had a tradition of make-your-own-BLT night, and she could turn a tuna fish and cheese sandwich on Wonder Bread into a religious experience.
But we almost always ate off paper plates, rarely using real china. When friends came over, we had to use the DustBuster after eating a snack, and we weren’t allowed to sit on the couch—my mother would put a blanket on the living room floor. She made my bed every day, and if I didn’t fold my clothes correctly, she refolded them. It was all I knew.
She also happens to be the “cool” mom who always rises to the defense of the underdog, like the teenagers who worked in the snack bar of the pool club and were harassed by snooty patrons saying, “I asked for the dough in the bagel to be scooped out.” Of course, she defended me too. In the third grade, I started going to Bayard’s Dance and Drama on weekends. My school class did a horrific musical version of The Crucible, and I was only given two lines because I was, and still am, an abysmal singer. But my mother went to school and demanded a meeting with my teacher, arguing that, because I was a drama student, I should have more lines. Needless to say, two more pages of dialogue were added.
Mom was never embarrassed to talk about drugs or sex. She’d only ever been with my dad, but loved hearing my stories about dating and always said, “As long as you’re careful.” She definitely dressed differently. When I was in high school, we were known to friends as Peg and Kelly Bundy. When the school authorities didn’t approve of my sexy clothes, they would call her and ask if she’d seen me leave that morning, to which she’d typically respond, “Not only did I see her leave, she’s wearing my skirt!”
When I moved into my own apartment, I slowly discovered that cooking was something I loved—especially for friends and very lucky boyfriends. After a night of partying, I’d make insanely gooey 3 a.m. cheese omelets for the crowd. I’d see "chicken Francese" being made on a cooking show and replicate it. Flour and eggs, who knew? The dish that I am always asked to bring to parties is my mom’s stuffed mushrooms. Making them was one of the few occasions when I was permitted to help in the kitchen, with Motown playing in the background.
Mom is extremely proud of my kitchen skills—she tells her friends, “Karen is a true gourmet.” Over the years, her house has become something of a museum; the dining room is rarely used, and I have officially taken over holidays.
But Mom insists on doing the dishes.
Karen Stanion is an actress who plays the role of an administrative assistant Monday to Friday. She lives in New York City and can be found on Facebook and @karenstanion.
Mushie's Stuffed Mushrooms
12 - 18 oz. white mushrooms or Baby Bellas
2 T. olive oil, plus extra for pan
4 - 6 chopped garlic cloves (my way) or 1 heaping T. jarred chopped garlic (Mom's way)
1/2 c. Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
1 c. grated Parmigiana Reggiano or Pecorino Romano
salt and pepper to taste
crushed red pepper (optional)
Stem the mushrooms, and pulse the stems in a food processor until finely minced. .
In a small skillet, heat 2 T. olive oil.
Add garlic and sauté for one minute until fragrant.
Add minced mushrooms, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Add optional red pepper flakes, and sauté for 2 - 3 minutes until mushrooms are just cooked.
Cool slightly, and add breadcrumbs and cheese.
Stuff the mushroom caps generously.
Place mushroom caps in an aluminum pan rubbed with olive oil (or use cooking spray)
Preheat oven to 350 F. and bake for 20 - 30 minutes, until the tops are crispy.
*There are many variations, but my favorite is turkey or pork sausage, scallions, and cream cheese. Cook the sausage, garlic, and scallions first, then add the minced mushroom stems, breadcrumbs, cheese, and cream cheese. Proceed as above.