I’ve been doing more cooking in my time away from work. As I look down at my hands as they chop and mix and stir and scoop, I think about my mother. Our hands are identical. And I remember the food that made me. The weird combinations. The standard weekly suppers (we never called it dinner) and the special occasion foods. The smells, the presentation, the tastes and textures. All of it has become a comfort to me as I recharge and repair my soul and drop out for a little bit. I’m now my mother’s daughter, more than ever.
Pizza With Tunafish
Friday nights were for pizza and tunafish. I would make the tunafish and prepare the iceberg lettuce leaves on a plate while my mother or father went to pick up the pizza a few blocks away at Two Tony’s Pizza. The pizza was always plain and the craziest the tunafish ever got was onion and garlic powder. We’d make little roll-ups of tunafish and lettuce and then eat the pizza. Before lettuce boats were a no-carb and trendy form of food delivery, that oval orange kitchen table is where the action was. We don’t order pizza very often nowadays, but when we do…I’m that little tunafish mixing girl all over again.
Spaghetti With Salmon Pancakes
Canned salmon mixed with matzah meal and pan fried in an inch of vegetable oil. The fried fish smell was unmistakable, combined with the garlic and onion laden spaghetti sauce. My mother’s hands always smelled of these powdered ingredients as she instinctually checked our foreheads and cheeks for temperatures throughout the day. I made salmon pancakes last week. I baked them in the oven with a healthy spritz of cooking spray. And I ate them alongside Miriam and her spaghetti. When she asked me what I was eating, I strategically told her it was “a different kind of pancake.” She ask to try and I gave her a healthy forkful, trying to hide my excitement at her curiosity. Her review? “Tastes kinda good but also kinda disgusting.” I thanked her for trying and went back to this sense memory of a meal, feeling a soft pat on my back from my mother.
My mother’s stuffing was the stuff(ing) of dreams. I was the crusher. A big stainless steel bowl with a hand crushed sleeve of saltines and a whole box of corn flakes, crushed but not pulverized. Onions, cooked in the frying pan until crispy and blackened, eggs, and the ever present vegetable oil were added and I mixed it all with a giant spoon. The raw stuffing was fantastic and often my mother threw caution to the wind as we enjoyed the raw egg mixture together. It was the 70’s and life was simple.
Mishmosh night was when my mother was a little extra frazzled with us four kids. All cooked in one pan with easy ingredients, only now do I realize why mishmosh night was said with breathless relief when we asked our mother “what’s for supper?” Chopped beef, a can of chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, frozen peas, frozen corn, chopped onions, and healthy dose of garlic and onion powder. Minute Rice was expertly prepared as the base and supper was served.
Is there anything better than chocolate pudding? How those little rectangular boxes turned into that bowl of pudding was sorcery in my mind. My mother had an electric hand mixer, but these past few weeks, I’ve used a simple wire whisk. The aggressive whisking motion makes my shoulder hurt. But the pudding begins to thicken and turn the most perfect shade of brown. I could hear my mother yelling for me to come lick the electric beaters. What a selfless invitation, I thought to myself, as I licked my wire whisk.
There was matzah brei on Saturday mornings and French Toast on Sundays. Polaner All-Fruit jelly was the game changer with French Toast. It felt fancy. And the pineapple Polaner jelly was often used on Breyer’s chocolate ice cream. Trust me. Try it.
There was meatloaf so dense, it stood up and walked right into my mouth. Covered in ketchup, my meatloaf now is airier, made of turkey and eggs. There was chicken soup with matzah balls. There was way too much dill and celery, but with every spoonful I engineered around the seaweed as I called it, the matzah balls made up for it all. She would shout from the kitchen as she spooned out each bowl of soup…”How many balls??” All of us kids giggled over our mother saying “balls” and I wished to myself I could have just a bowl full of balls with a little soup added in. Because more is more when it comes to matzah balls.
And those foods that made us will always bring us right back to those moments. All the weird combinations, all the edible family secrets, all the flavors and smells that have brought us to our complicated adult lives. And that’s precisely when those memories are the strongest.