My sisters and I used to love to go to the grocery store with my mother. We would follow like little disciples, contributing our wish list of meal choices for the family dinner. This was the one thing that kept us together, the family meal; the one thing that protected us from the ominous storm that was about to brew.
Growing up in Cleveland Ohio was not an easy feat, with my fathers disappearance at the age of ten, well lets just say things were bleak to say the least. After that fateful day, memories of that time are a mish-mash in my head. My father was an Italian Restaurant owner, and the one thing he did well before he vanished was to pass on one last gift to my family; he taught my mother to cook with passion. We were far from well off, and we had many tough struggles, but there was always something delicious waiting for us at the end of the day; comfort food personified.
When my mother was growing up, she had artistic abilities, talents that she never had the opportunity to fulfill. She could pick up a pencil and sketch a portrait, and sing like a songbird, but her mother taught her dreams were unrealistic and unattainable. Over the years those dreams were left at the wayside, replaced with children to raise, and the constant need to just get through a day and survive. When my father first met my mother, her cooking skills were so lacking, she could not even boil an egg. I believe when she picked up that wooden spoon for the very first time, the artist in her was reborn; the wooden spoon was her pencil, and the food she created was her masterpiece. Her cooking would be the light that kept us from despair during those challenging years of childhood, and I believe her culinary talent became the basis of her identity and our lives together.
Our home did not have many creature comforts, and we lived in sparse spaces lacking color and light. However, our humble kitchen was my mom’s oyster; and a place we all came together and connected, a place where we all came alive. I can remember coming home from a long day at school, pre-teen angst causing confusion within, and my mother would whip up my favorite meal, roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, broccoli and homemade biscuits with butter. Suddenly all the grief I felt from not belonging disappeared, and was replaced with something that would stick to my ribs along with the meal; my mother nurtured and loved me, and showed it through her passion of cooking.
My mid age school days were turbulent to say the least, yet I always knew no matter how my day went, as soon as I walked in the door my mind would clear. My Mother would whip up something fabulous, even if it was incredibly simple. She had a way of taking whatever ingredients she had on hand and turning them into a culinary work of art. Home was a place that may have been lacking material possessions, but we made up for them in love and spirit and there was plenty of laughter and love to go around. We were nourished in more ways then one.
As we grew into our teens, birthdays meant big meals with spaghetti with meatballs, and all the accompaniments that go with a a huge Italian meal. Our friends were always welcome, and there was always enough food to share with anyone who stepped on our doorstep; kindness to others always came first. We might not have had much, but there was always enough to share. Through my mother I learned it is so much more important to give than to receive. A value I believe has shaped me through the years.
As the years went by I never took a liking to cooking, I was always off doing my own thing and lets face it; who needs to cook when you have someone always doing it for you. I could never compete nor did I want to; that was her arena. Then the day came when I wasn’t within driving distance of my mother. My husband had an opportunity too good to resist and we had to relocate to Hartford Connecticut. It didn’t dawn on me until that Thanksgiving when I found out my husband had to work that first holiday away from home. I had an ethical dilemma, do I go home and see my family or stay and attempt Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings? I decided on the latter, I could not leave him alone, that would be wrong; but what to do now? I had not the slightest idea what to do with a turkey, let alone a whole Thanksgiving meal.
I consulted my mother and through the phone she guided and taught me how to cook my very first Thanksgiving dinner; and oh what a challenge it was. She always made it look so easy and simple. I was a wreck that day, literally calling home every five minutes. It was like a comedy, me with flour in my hair totally clueless. The first challenge was when my Mother told me the first step, to remove the neck from the main cavity.Excuse me? I was totally repulsed, I had been a vegetarian for almost ten years and here I was removing a neck from a body cavity…I took a deep breath and conquered the cleaning the turkey; next I had to baste it and place it in the oven for hours. I mastered the stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, yet I burned the sweet potato casserole. The last step was to remove the turkey and make sure it was cooked thoroughly and finally make the gravy. To this day gravy is not my forte. Both my sister and mother in law called to check on me, and asked if I remembered to remove the other bag from the other crevice. Pardon Moi? What other bag from what other crevice? I cooked the bird with the bag of giblets in tow. The bag burned, I removed it and the turkey was no worse for wear, but I could not say the same for me.. I questioned myself how she made it look so effortless.
The meal was on the table when my husband finally walked through the doors at seven pm tired from a long day at his new job. The table looked lovely, I on the other hand, well I was a disheveled mess.. How do women time and cook such a large elaborate meal and find the energy to make themselves presentable and pretty? He didn’t care about my unruly hair nor the fact I was wearing sweat pants, he just wanted to sit down and eat Thanksgiving dinner with me, his family.
It was just the two of us, and it was a bit melancholic being so far from our family and loved ones. Traditions are so hard to break, and you can either wallow in your woes or find ways to remember your far off loved ones. We chose the latter, sat down to try my very first culinary feast courtesy of my mothers teaching via the phone. I sat nervous wondering if I had pulled off a success. The look on his face when he took the first bite said it all as he proclaimed ”this tastes like Cleveland Ohio.” I smiled wide, took my first bite and giddily. agreed, I had cooked a replica of my Mothers famous Thanksgiving dinner and did so on my first try.
Lights went off in my head. I cooked much more than a meal. I cooked memories of Mom and I realized what I had learned that very first Thanksgiving away from home, and it was priceless; I would have my mothers traditions for the rest of my life and the lessons that came with them. My mother taught us to be kind to others, to share your gifts even if you do not have much, because it is far more important to give rather than receive. I could not have had a better teacher of life and I am grateful for my treasured upbringing. I wouldn’t trade those memories for all the money in the world. Those teachings have been the basis that has shaped my identity as cooking shaped hers.
In the years since that first Thanksgiving away from home I moved to NYC and now I reside in Los Angeles California. I have mastered most of my mothers beloved recipes, with her famous spaghetti and meatballs to be my next challenge. Everything I have cooked and learned I did on the phone with my remarkable mother who could put even the food network to shame, and I do so with love and gratitude. I am farther than ever from my mother in distance, yet I feel closer in heart because of the new connection we have formed. We bonded over cooking,sharing, and the blessings of life. We are two very different individuals yet we found such a common ground built of tradition, family,giving, and love.
Tomorrow I think I may cook Sunday dinner, roast beef with all the trimming ala Mom, and sit down to a meal and be transported to a modest yet magnificent kitchen somewhere in Cleveland Ohio; never forgetting to make enough in case someone shows up hungry on my welcome doorstep.