“Can y’all not serve yourselves without spilling something on the damn counter?”
The wife of a hungry soldier, the mother of two absent-minded boys and one clumsy girl, and the matron of the coolest hang-out house in our neighborhood, my mom should have given up a long time ago on maintaining a clean kitchen.
As a military family, we moved frequently across the U.S in our early years, until we settled in the Midwest. Throughout all those years, we never really ate at the table and instead propped up individual TV trays in front of our big-screen TV. We didn't even have a proper dining room table until a few years ago—it just wasn't a priority. Sometimes we would eat together, other times we'd spread out around the house, but Mom would be there in the kitchen to show off her meal (and explain to us whether it should be served on a plate or in a bowl), watching the whole family file in to dish out their meal, and every time, without fail, someone would spill the first spoonful of beans, shepherd’s pie, or spaghetti sauce as it was transferred.
So we naturally flocked to what we were good at. Rather than learning to cook alongside my mother, laughing together in our matching aprons, mimicking her motions as she slowly stirred in a perfectly sifted cup of flour, when we asked if we could help prepare the evening’s meal, the response we always received was, “Yeah, you clean up after I’m done.”
The woman is a talented cook, but she is also sassy. So if Cindy says get out of her kitchen, you get out of her kitchen. And while the three of us certainly inherited our father’s appetite, we also inherited her attitude. Even at a young age, I picked up on my mother’s introverted cooking style; around age five, we had an argument, and I walked away muttering what I thought was the insult of the century: “Whatever, Betty Crocker.”
Another time, after she had kicked us all out of the kitchen, she stood in the doorway chastising us, complaining that she had been the one slaving away over the hot stove all day.
“Well, would you rather be slaving over a cold stove and give us all salmonella?” quipped my brother, aged 12 or so.
We’re not a mean family, we just express our love for each other through sarcasm and chores. So that’s the way it was, and always has been: Mom cooks, the children clean. (And I suppose Dad finances it all).
This was fine, but when I went away to college in Miami, I had the stark realization that I didn’t know how to cook. I learned the basics and have gotten creative over the years, but not without incessant calls to my mom, asking things like: How long should I boil an egg? What does “blanch” mean? How moldy is too moldy? Granted, these are all things that could easily be Googled, but sometimes you just need to interrupt whatever your mom is doing from 1200 miles away to ask her a silly question. It's what kids do.
I'd attempt to flip the camera around so she could see what I was doing, but it usually ended up with a frozen screen and an exasperated "Hannah…." She and my dad could only laugh at the nature and frequency of my calls, so when Dad began to garden (at a ridiculous scale only a soldier would dream up), she started canning lots of vegetables, jams, and soups. They’d joke that they’d need to send me cans so I could survive when I didn’t have anything to eat.
Visiting me for a week, Mom was determined to can enough food to feed me for a year. When she realized that I didn’t own a potato masher, a microwave, or a proper knife set, her reaction was similar to when we spilled beans on the counter or sassed back at her—too funny to be genuinely mad. She fixed me up good, though, leaving me with all the necessary equipment “to start canning.”
Nice try, I thought, tucking everything in the closet after she left, to join the rest of the misfit kitchen supplies she'd bought for me. But after a few months, I spontaneously decided to make some jam. I was semi-successful, and am still learning, but now “How do I know it’s sealed?” has been added to the lineup of unnecessary FaceTime questions.
Mom’s Salsa Verde is made using the vegetables my father grows, which I then dump into a pot with beer and chicken for tacos. The recipe itself captures her patience, taste, and natural talent for cooking, while its use captures my impatience, haste, and natural talent for putting alcohol into anything.
Thanks, Mom, for making us learn the hard way, but at the same time inspiring us to be as talented as you. I promise there are many more culinary letdowns to come.
Hannah Artman lives, works, and plays in Miami, Florida. She can be found on Instagram.
Cindy’s Salsa Verde (from Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving)
7 c. peeled, cored, and chopped green tomatoes
5 – 10 jalapeño, habanero, or Scotch bonnet peppers, seeded and finely chopped
2 c. finely chopped red onions
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 c. lime juice
1/2 c. loosely packed, finely chopped cilantro
2 t. ground cumin
1 t. dried oregano
1 t. salt
1 t. freshly ground black pepper
In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, and lime juice.
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly.
Stir in cilantro, cumin, oregano, salt, and black pepper.
Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes.
Remove from heat.
Ladle salsa into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace.
Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if necessary.
Center lids on jar.
Screw bands down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.
Place jars in canner, ensuring that they are completely covered with water.
Bring to a boil, and process for 20 minutes.
Remove lids, wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool, and store.
Makes 6 8-oz. jars or 3 pint jars.
Hannah’s Chicken Tacos
1 jar Cindy's salsa verde
1 bottle beer (preferably Mexican)
2 lb. boneless chicken breasts
salt and pepper to taste
cumin or Mexican chili powder to taste
tacos or rice
Place salsa verde, beer, chicken, salt, pepper, and spices in an instant pot for 12 - 14 minutes.
Alternatively, place in a large pot, and simmer until chicken is cooked.
Shred chicken, and serve in tacos or over rice.
(If you prefer a thicker mixture, add more chicken and/or less beer.)
I like to top with pickled onions or sautéed mushrooms and cheese.
Tip: Use jackfruit instead of chicken for a vegetarian option.