My mother was an exceptional cook. It was not simply the taste that was so deeply nurturing and satisfying. It was the display of the food served in beautiful ceramic pottery and proportionally balanced on the plate. To me, my mother was a culinary artist.
The smells of her cooking prevailed in our home, luring my father and older brother to convene in the kitchen. Nightly, we sat at the white round table eating dinner together. Her specialties at the time were comfort foods: chicken tetrazzini, spaghetti and meatballs, matzah ball soup. She was a cooking explorer too and was constantly seeking new recipes, techniques and foods to taste.
I loved to be with my mother in the kitchen when she was preparing dinner. I’d assume my position at the kitchen table a few feet from where she stood at the stove working multiple pots, slicing food at the adjacent the counter, reading recipes and going back and forth to the fridge. Sometimes I helped her cook, slicing a bright red, heirloom tomato from my father's garden or chopping a yellow or white onion.
We'd often be singing together. Wiggling her hips, my mother swayed as she sang, closing her eyes and belting out favorites from Pete Seeger, Carol King, Joan Baez, and Ray Charles. I’d join in immediately, singing harmony or in unison. We’d laugh and giggle, acting out the song or humming when we couldn’t remember the lyrics.
The best nights were watching her prepare my favorite: chicken parmigiana, more specifically the breaded and fried chicken breasts. I loved to just sit with her—hear the crackle of chicken frying in the oil, watch the dips of the chicken breast into the bowl of mixed egg, the mallet used for thinning slices, the breaded pieces gently being placed into the pan—my mother and I laughing as the air filled with a puff of steam from the stovetop, the smell rising from the pan. Taking out the individual pieces from the pan, she'd place them onto a plate of paper towels, reserving one very small piece that she’d make special, just for me. It was my treat, a bite before dinner, before anyone else. I’d take it to the table with a grin on my face, and my mother smiling, looking back at me as I ate it.
I remained a cooking voyeur until last spring. With some health issues that led to two surgeries, I wanted to be in control of strengthening and nourishing my body. For years, I had relied on eating out, taking out, and the cooked sections of the grocery counter. It was mostly healthy food, but I wanted to assume my role as the chef. I started with my mother's chicken recipe. Not an easy task, but I was determined. After several attempts, I broke through being the voyeur and created a plate of pure happiness.
In these last months, I have found the joy and artistry that my mother had known and cultivated. I am determined to follow this passion as she did, and continue the traditions that made me so happy in the kitchen as a kid: singing Pete Seeger, swaying my hips, finding new foods to explore and putting my heart into every dish.
This blog is a tribute to my beautiful mother, who loved to cook, and I can finally say, passed that onto me.