I grew up in a single-parent household, amid the stucco houses and smooth sidewalks of 1980’s inland California. My siblings and I were a small, disparate band of adolescent pirates; in a constant state of mutiny against my mother, and at odds with each other. Our home life was highly-disciplined but fractured and shipwrecked, out-of-place in a sunny suburban neighborhood of two-parent families. They were doctors and businessmen, and real estate agents. Mom was a part-time grad student and full time librarian. They had green lawns, manicured weekly by the resident males. We had what my mother called, a rock garden, which we occasionally hosed down to remove the dust. They had back patios, with a Weber and lawn furniture. We had a fenced-in forest of towering redwoods that served as my outdoor bedroom, and which leaked tannin-y needles over the neighbors’ back lawns. They had fathers that barbecued on Saturdays and coached little league baseball after work. We had a deadbeat dad and a stepfather who had the courtesy to leave us the dog and his beloved avocado tree, which never really took root among the redwoods.
I spent much of my adolescence setting booby traps for my older sister in our shared bedroom, stealthily avoiding my mother, or ditching my big brother at an event to which he was ordered to accompany me. Perhaps in an effort to instill some normalcy in a home life that seemed so often awry, mom insisted that, every night, we eat dinner together.
It was torture. We were called to the table for a square, but gag-inducing meal prepared by my mother as soon as she got home from work. Bony chicken breasts stewed in canned tomatoes. Boiled lima beans from the freezer. Leathery pork chops, ice berg lettuce, canned peas. And a Friday “meatloaf” made from the week’s pulverized leftovers, forced into a bread pan and baked beyond recognition. And everything accompanied with jalapeño peppers (another legacy of the avocado-loving stepfather).When our plates were clean, and we were excused, my siblings and I were expected to clear the table, put away the leftovers, and wash the dishes. I resented this interruption to my daily life of adolescent misadventures. And I dreaded my mother’s “cooking”. But showing up for dinner was nonnegotiable. And to this day, I can not remember a single occasion when any of us dared not to.
I began to take my mother’s place in the kitchen when I was 11. Not because I had a change of heart about eating dinner together, but because, in a plot to escape mealtime, I had suddenly declared myself a vegetarian. The emphatic announcement, which came to me in a spontaneous revelation one night over cube steak and stewed jalapeños, was received by my older brother and sister with raucous exclamations of betrayal. Mom merely sipped her wine, calmly insisted that I finish my dinner, and gave me leave to become a vegetarian tomorrow.
Over the next few weeks, my mother brought home vegetarian cookbooks from the library—The Vegetarian Epicure, Diet for a Small Planet—and fresh produce from the grocery store. When she came home from work, she poured herself a glass of wine and left the kitchen. Her message was clear: if I was going to be a vegetarian, then I would learn to cook.
And so I did.
And while the vegetarianism didn’t last, the lessons I learned from those first cookbooks did. Wash, chop, prepare with intention.
I eventually spent my Saturdays at the library with my mother, foraging the shelves for more lessons in cookery—Julia Child, Jeff Smith, Irma Rombauer, Fannie Farmer. I made grocery lists for my mother that included things like gruyere, bok choy, arborio, and saffron. At fifteen, after my brother and and sister had left home and it was just the two of us, I took over the shopping altogether.
For most of my adult life, I have thought of my mother’s cooking—her hatred, really, of the kitchen—as one of the many ways she failed us as a parent. It sounds petty, I know. But as a tender-spirited girl, I craved hugs, a kind guiding hand, hot chocolate, and comfort. Instead, I received harsh discipline, reference books, silent lessons, and…well… jalepeños. You get the picture.
And yet, I have had a beautiful, varied, adventurous career in food. Half a lifetime of feeding strangers, friends, and family alike. A love—a need (perhaps much like my mother)—of calling people to the table.
And lately I’ve realized that the very best memories from my childhood were from events that took place at mealtime. My brother cracking jokes that had me spraying milk out of my nose. My ecstatic delight for a fondue party on my 10th birthday. My family’s dubious and hilarious reception of my first all-vegetarian dinner. And the unexpected affection and pride I felt for them when they created a French cafe in our living room for my prom night.
The dinner table, and the requirement to be there, gave me a reason to learn how to cook. I learned the ways of butter, broth, and salt; and I learned from those things, not only how to make food taste good, but also how to feed a hunger that my mother could not.
I came to our family meals a wild thing, resentful and unguided. But I left having made those meals my own, with purpose and a path. Whether by accident or design, I see that my mother gave me these gifts by vacating a space she could not love. She did it selflessly, and without ego. All I had to do in return was show up at the table.