This news may come as a shock, dear readers, and you may even find it downright impossible to swallow, but I am about to commit something to print that I rarely admit out loud: Sometimes I have really bad ideas. Worse yet, sometimes I blurt those ideas out during TWIS staff meetings.
“What’s that? Kaye Warr is writing a Mother’s Day piece about what moms like to cook for their kids? That’s such a great idea! Those of us with some free time should pitch in and write a piece on our childhood memories of cooking with our own moms and eating all the delicious meals they whipped up from the heart!”
Even as the words spilled from my mouth, I realized what a grievous error I was making, but it was too late to turn back. Everyone loved the idea, and I knew had to step up to the plate.
(I’m sorry, Mom. Remember how I told you not to worry about my choices to major in art history and embark on a perhaps less-than-lucrative career path as freelance writer because I had a “back-up plan”?
“Don’t worry, Ma. If all else fails, I’ll just pursue a career in standup comedy. There’s money in that, right?”
I’m not sure if you remember the horrified look that crossed your face when I said that to you, but I do, vividly, and I imagine you’re reading this with that same look on your face. Just remember how much you love me.)
My mother is not bad at cooking (usually, except in the case of ducks, eggs and cupcakes, which we will visit momentarily)—she just really hates to do it and avoids it at all costs.
Mom has consistently provided me with sustenance from the day she placed the first bottle of milk to my lips straight up through the present, nearly 25 years later, as she pretends not to notice how much food I sneak out of her pantry every time I visit my parents when I’m too broke to go grocery shopping.
She has (somewhat grudgingly, at times) treated me to countless homemade meals that I do, in fact, enjoy. Nine times out of ten when she agrees to cook, she cooks well. My mom makes killer homemade stuffing, for instance. I love it so much that the one year she decided not to make it, I threw a tantrum that nearly ruined Thanksgiving. I was 22 years old.
To this day, when I’m sick she offers to make soup and drive across town to bring it to my house. If I’m having a rough day, she insists on having me over for dinner and she fixes up my favorite comfort food, beef stroganoff, or a batch of chicken piccata. She even lets me be the one to pound the chicken cutlets into thin slices—fantastic stress relief. During my “meat is murder” phase in high school, in which I abruptly announced my vegetarianism (which I have obviously since renounced—blame the beef stroganoff and the chicken piccata cravings), Mom went through the trouble of cooking separate meat-free meals for me without a word of protest.
So, yes, I absolutely could make a post about my favorite things she cooks. However, what I value more than anything is the complete lack of orthodoxy in my mother’s cooking methods, and the life lessons I’ve learned while spending time with Mom in the kitchen, watching her weather the occasional less-than-successful culinary venture with grace and dignity.
Without further adieu, allow me to impart a list of life lessons gleaned from the culinary wisdom and foibles of Mama Smith.
Never let another person pass judgment on your (cheese) choices.
In the Smith family household, we don’t even look at a plate of spaghetti Bolognese if there isn’t a pile of sharp cheddar cheese (hand-grated, none of that pre-shredded nonsense—we have class, thank you) sprinkled on top and melting into the sauce.
I had an Italian roommate in college, and it wasn’t until I glanced up to see a mortified look on his face as I doused my spaghetti with sharp cheddar that I realized there was anything unusual about my choice in cheese. I called my mom and she gently broke the news to me that some people—we’ll call them ‘elitist snobs,’ my words, not hers—have specific ideas about what kind of cheese goes on what kind of pasta.
My mama taught me that it is perfectly okay to march to the beat of a different drummer if that’s what makes me happy. Judge away, dinner guests, but cheddar cheese on my spaghetti makes me happy, and I’m going to put it on yours, too, when I invite you over for dinner … And you will eat it, and you will like it. (My mom taught me that mentality, too.)
A watched pot never boils, but abandoning a pot of boiling eggs is a really bad idea.
My mother is notorious for over-boiling her hardboiled eggs. And by over-boiling, I mean that until my parents’ recent kitchen remodel, there was shattered eggshell cemented to the ceiling above the stove from an unfortunate explosion that occurred approximately 20 years ago. My father spent years trying to scrape those eggs from the ceiling, but in some ways I think my mom liked having them there. They served as her culinary battle scars and her justification to put someone else in charge of cooking: “Or else, look what will happen … ”
Well played, Mom. Well played.
Yes, it is safe to bake paper cupcake wrappers in the oven.
Mom does not bake. I repeat: Mom does not bake. However, in what I assume was a valiant attempt to provide a valuable mother-daughter bonding experience, Mom and I embarked on a single baking adventure when I was a child: Cupcakes.
To be honest, I don’t really know why this happened. Looking back on my childhood, I am 90 percent positive that all I actually wanted to do was dig up rocks in the backyard and study them obsessively for hours, and I’m pretty sure that given the option to bake confectionaries or watch her weird kid dig up and stare at rocks for hours, my mother would have preferred to choose the latter. But bless her—she tried.
This was prior to the days of the ubiquitous Internet where you could simply Google any question you have, such as, “Is it safe to put paper cupcake cups in the oven?” and receive an instantaneous answer. My mom had to wing it, and I will never forget her calling my dad at work to confirm that she wasn’t about to burn the house down.
“Yes, this is a serious question, Oscar. Putting paper in the oven is counter-intuitive. Do you really think it’s okay to teach our daughter that putting possibly flammable objects in the oven is a good idea? Do you, Oscar?”
As it turns out, apparently cupcake cups are the safe kind of paper to put in a 350 degree oven. Go figure.
Thank you, Mom. If I ever found myself overcome with the urge to whip up a batch of cupcakes, I would waste valuable seconds Googling that question if you hadn’t blazed the path with your own research.
Know when to admit defeat and move on, so as not to kill your loved ones.
Both of my parents always encouraged me to try new things and luckily, I have never been a picky eater. In fact, just last week when I was at their house for dinner, I asked my mom if there was any specific meal I actually requested as a kid. (Confession: I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to write for this piece.) My mom’s response was (and I quote):
“Hmm. No, not really. You basically just ate whatever I put in front of you. And I mean literally anything.”
She said this to me, by the way, over a steaming plate of what she described as “some kind of shepherd’s pie thing” which was garnished, oddly enough, with beer-battered onion rings, and I’m not going to lie: It tasted awesome. Munchies 420 Cafe, look out.
Some things my mom has cooked in the past, however, are not so awesome. The Great Duck Experiment of 1993 is the best example.
In attempt to diversify our meat options, my mom tried to cook duck once, and only once. I won’t go into the gory details, but the greasy mess that resulted from this endeavor haunts my dreams to this day. I was so traumatized that I refused to try duck again until I was 23 years old.
Despite the grotesque nature of the failed meal before me, my six year-old self was conscious of the value of manners, so I quietly attempted to choke down my meal. A tense and heavy silence fell over the dinner table for what seemed like eternity (but was probably only approximately three minutes) before my mother dropped her fork and said to my father and me:
“What is wrong with you two? This is beyond inedible. Jessica, honey, no. I can’t watch you keep eating this. I’m going to go whip up a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese, okay?”
That’s my mom. She never lets her pride get in the way of her sense of humanitarian benevolence, and to this day I believe that I am a better person because she let me eat macaroni and cheese rather than forcing me to eat that duck that night. Thank you, Mama.
And happy Mother’s Day. I love you, Mom, and I think that perhaps I should cook dinner for you tonight.