Thursday, March 31, 2016

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime rice-a-roni



Convenience may not be the most delicious, but it is a consideration. My mother worked full time, had little money and took whatever help she could get. She loved Rice-A-Roni. It was her way to elevate the same old same old, so in my eyes Rice-A-Roni became the mother-from-which-all-other-rice-dishes-derived; Biriyani, Arroz con Gandules, Mujaddara—even Chinese fried rice. Ass backwards, and the crazy thing is subliminally I still felt this despite knowing something of the crisscrossed journey of rice and recipes across time. We hold tight to what our mothers teach us despite the things we learn.

As a kid the elongated vermicelli and swollen grains were an impressionistic tangle of tasty earth tones on an otherwise hum drum plate. And eating something with such a happy tv jingle meant we too were a happy tv home. Now, the hydrolyzed corn gluten and dehydrated parsley flecks in true Proustian form carried me back through time, but the flavor set-off a collapse of painstakingly built illusion. The salty pilaf, like our dutifully held premise of happiness, turns out to have been make-believe.

In 1960, my mother, the shy youngest of shtetl immigrants, divorced my father who was having an affair, or maybe he left her—I never knew. Either way it was a distinction among her siblings and extended relatives, which speaks to her liberalism, and also how bad her marriage must have been. Dogged by missing support checks, the string of live-in nannies, my sister’s troubles—it was more than she could handle even though I tried so hard to make it right.

That bite of Rice-A-Roni after forty-five years filled my mouth with vitriol. Its broken promise tasted of my mother’s shortcomings, her weaknesses, my father’s narcissism, his absenteeism, my sister’s fragility, my passivity. Our missed connections. That bite ripped open memories I would have liked to forget. I scraped the Rice-A-Roni into the trash and left the pan on the counter where the rice dregs dried to crust.


Two days later washing my mother’s precious pan I was filled with such sadness. This is what she did. She fed us, then washed the dishes through her sadness and disappointment. She did the best she could. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime chocolate milk


         

    Around 5:30 pm I’d hover by the front door, waiting to take my mother’s briefcase to carry to the hall bench as she hung up her coat and kicked off her heels. Hungrier for her than for supper I’d trail her to the kitchen wanting to help. It couldn’t have been easy, working all day, then cooking with a kid hanging on your apron, but my mother had her repertoire and I think she was generally content making meals.
     By the time I was 10 or 11 I was reading cookbooks and making my own dishes. I got hooked on food because food’s a gregarious companion. It shares intimacies, gets messy and reacts to what you do, maybe more so than my family did.
     I don’t think my mother thought of food the way I think of food. The food she cooked shows she cared; it was tasty and mostly well prepared, but she wasn’t using the food to say ‘I want you to taste this because I’m watching you grow and I think you’ll like it now’ or ‘I know you’re studying such and such at school and this is what that food is like’ or even ‘here is a way we can celebrate the season’ the way I did with my kids. Her dinner would have been the same if I were there or not. She just made food.
     I have been cooking what I remember of her, trying to feel something I lost during the years of her illness and this experience of cooking and eating has roused buried emotion, but I hadn’t felt my mother’s love, and here I mean the deep primary kind, until I made chocolate syrup and drank a glass of chocolate milk. 
     When I was a kid we flipped between Bosco and Hershey's. It was what made milk palatable. I had it mornings with Cocoa Puffs and it paired surprisingly with fish sticks dipped in ketchup. On the occasions we had chocolate ice-cream I’d make a big production of double chocolate shakes. The syrup was her gift, her way of fixing things. I didn’t like milk but had to drink it, she let me use syrup. Closing my eyes now I can see the sanguine goo sinking in ribbons to the bottom of the glass, the edge of the spoon pokes out against the glass as it pulls upwards, stirring to blend though leaving unblended streaks too. I hear the spoon clinking on the side of the glass. 
     Chewing the tip of a red and white straw I'd blow bubbles till they overflowed, sliding in slow-motion down the side of the glass, popping on the table leaving chocolate milk rings. In my teens I swiped a baby bottle from one of my charges and late at night I’d lie on the couch stoned, sucking chocolate milk, obliterating my mind on late night tv. 
   Tasting my homemade elixir the chocolates’ spiciness ignited my throat while the milk caressed, hushing the flame. My eyes grew heavy. The sip coddled like only a mother can.

Making syrup from scratch takes hardly a minute. 
Syrup
1 cup good quality unsweetened cocoa
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup water
pinch of salt
big splash of vanilla
In a small saucepan over medium heat whisk together cocoa, sugar, water and salt. When it comes to a boil, remove from heat and stir in vanilla. It thickens as it cools. Can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for weeks.


Add a tablespoon or two into a big glass of cold milk. Stir.














#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime seeded rye

I hated the seeds in the rye my mother loved. Now I can pick them out.
                   

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime mashed potatoes




In most cases the progression of Parkinson’s includes dementia but that’s almost too simplistic to describe the hallucinatory dissociation and drug induced psychosis that was part of my mother’s increasing isolation and grim prospects. At some point she drifted from lucid to lost but even then, if I hung on her words I could shuffle them into something resembling conversation. I’d sit close leaning in my ear and guess at her mumbles and every so often I’d lean even closer and whisper I was sorry her life was so hard. It went on like this for years. Long spells without coherence. Her eyes shut, her face a twisted grimace, and then miraculously she'd look me in the eye and say clear as day she wished she were dead. 

Mostly, until the end, she knew who I was and I would feel that maybe, if nothing else, I brightened her day. You might call it love, but there was bleakness, and below that a layer of magical thinking; as if my presence could reverse broken neurons, as if it were a matter of will for her to pull herself together. As she lay finally dying the hospice nurses wanted to give her morphine to ease her passing. I withheld permission. I wanted her suffering over, I’d been saying that for years, but I wanted more to hold on to the dream that she’d wake up and tell me something. A loving last word. 

Making and eating her food memorializes her. The way the taste of foods I haven’t eaten for years carries me through time helps bypass the black hole of illness. 

Trying to remember everyday routines I close my eyes and imagine the kitchen of my childhood home. At the top of the room an assembly of avocado pits rooting in murky water sit on the sill of the air shaft window. Jammed down the narrow length of the room a four burner gas range and a chipped enamel sink face the harvest-gold floor-to-ceiling cabinets and the noisy Frigidaire. Some years there was a caged parakeet on top of the fridge--Skipper 1, Skipper 2 and so on. At the far other end there was the broom closet and the wall phone with its perpetually twisted cord, with a notepad and pencils tucked neatly on the counter. 

I see the white formica table and moulded swivel chairs in the center of the room but I don’t see us. I have no memories of arguing with my sister over who set or cleared, no memories of eating as a family. I can't recall what we spoke about around that table. The image of the kitchen is silent except for a memory of the ticking Modernist clock with no numbers that made it so hard for me to learn to tell time.    

What I can summon clearly are memories of things cooking—flank steak marinated in garlic powder and soy sauce, charred on a warped cookie sheet. A roasting pan with permanently blackened corners filled with chicken breasts topped with lemon rounds and parsley, and the ever present saucepan simmering, brimming with potatoes, or spaghetti, or stew. 

After my mother remarried and I went to college and they moved from the west-side to a smaller apartment on the east-side and my mother did less cooking, that saucepan moved to their week-end house upstate. There, the scuffed dented workhorse with its ill-fitting lid took on a patina of calcified lime from the well-water used for boiling, and when it came time years later to sell the house, the pot was relegated to the pile for the auctioneer. The stigma surrounding aluminum cookware and Alzheimer’s, even if discounted by further studies was enough for me to let it go.

Now, I wanted to make mashed potatoes the way my mother made mashed potatoes, and that is when I was hit with the longing that is grief. I couldn’t make potatoes because I didn’t have her pot. Of course I can cook them in my fancy stainless steel, or if I’d wanted to snap a genuine looking photo for this collection of stories I could stop by the thrift shop and pick up something old for nothing, but that's not the point. It is her pot I want and I made the mistake of letting it go.

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime tuna fish




It wasn’t everyday but many many days I had tuna salad for lunch. I can take it back to pre-school sitting on the floor in front of our black and white tv watching Romper Room eating mayo heavy tuna on crustless white bread sandwich quarters, and move it forward to middle school when I started making my own school lunches or to high school when it was on toasted whole wheat with added tomato slices, red onion, capers and a layer of crumbled potato chips to keep the bread from getting soggy. 

So few are the memories of cooking with my mother I can count them on my fingers. She taught me to squeeze the water from grated potatoes before frying latkes, to shape meatballs by rolling them between my hands as if they were balls of clay, to pull creamed spinach from a boil-in-bag with bamboo toaster tongs so as not to waste any and also not to burn my fingers, and to finely dice celery for tuna.

Celery was a refrigerator staple. She used it in soups and stews, used the leaves in salad, and fed us stalks filled with cream cheese for snack. I was fascinated by the dirt nestled in the root ends, the fibrous threads, the two part procedure of cutting strips the length of the stalk and then bundling them for the perpendicular cut to dice.

I married a man who didn’t eat mayonnaise and my children wouldn't eat fish so I stopped making tuna salad and ate it only rarely at luncheonettes where it was always disappointing. 


A few weeks after my mother died I made some. I bought imported cruelty-free tuna packed in oil and put it in one of her bowls. I paid special attention to the celery and added onion diced the way she showed me. Once the sandwich was made I couldn’t wait long enough to snap a photo, couldn’t even get it on a plate. From kitchen counter to mouth, then whoosh I was teleported to when I loved my mother and she fed me and nothing else mattered. My hands could barely get the sandwich into me fast enough.