FOOD: In Mother’s Kitchen

It was the late 70s. I was just a kid and life was good—bell-bottom jeans, braces, school sports, cheerleading practice, homework and all. Friends were plentiful and days were filled with seemingly routine events, culminating with family dinner each night. What a lost joy it seems now. Just the five of us, our original family, there at that thick, lacquered oval dining table. I don’t even know where that table is today. It’s probably long since become firewood, landfill or some highly toxic, rejected material by the EPA. But it will always be a precious relic in my mind. Life was complete at that table.

Laura with her motherI grew up with an appreciation of food. Not just the food itself but everything it embodied. I loved the planning, the preparation, the elaborate presentation and the sheer delight of being in the kitchen with my mom, especially before her fabulous dinner parties. In those moments, I felt like a grown-up, a thrill perhaps only a 10-year-old girl fully understands.

Dinner parties were the height of culinary fashion at the time, and Mom knew just how to finesse the crowd and the cuisine. I was drawn into the domestic magic of it all. While the other kids were competing to see who could slide down the stairs in bean bags without falling off, I was setting the dining table with silver-lined china plates and being trusted to mix the perfect sour cream topping for Mom’s raspberry gelatin salad. I eventually joined the kids on the stairs in bean bags, but loved sneaking back downstairs later to serve all the adults coffee with their dessert and clean the kitchen to surprise Mom.

As a grown-up now, responsible for dinners and gatherings of my own, cleaning the kitchen doesn’t hold quite the thrill it did then. I wonder how Mom used to do everything with such style and grace—and without a microwave to accomplish the simplest task like melting butter! I wonder how many other ‘minor’ tasks escaped my attention back then.

Mom made food a special celebration for our family, even on the most mundane of days. There was fondue night around our coffee table in the living room by the fire, Sunday movie night with real-popped popcorn and Friday morning trips to the donut shop before school. Not to mention her to-die-for chicken or fruit crêpes, swanky cheese logs and country breakfasts.

Laura with her grandmotherLucky enough now to have a mom, step-mom and mother-in-law who are all spectacular cooks, I relish every chance to be near them and learn. It’s a never-ending quest to glean some little nugget of family lore that you just don’t get from the cooking channel. Something you forgot as a kid, something you want to replicate as an adult. Every tidbit of culinary wisdom from them is a family treasure.

I love the copies of my mother-in-law’s recipes with smudges and markings and notes, like some laborious scientific formula was unearthed in those kitchen moments over biscuit ingredients. And remembering how Mom taught me to make gravy—for which there is never a scientific formula, always brings a skillet full of happiness on chilly weekend mornings. My step-mom’s savory steak teriyaki. My grandmother’s heavy cut glass bowls, pitchers, relish dishes and dainty salt and pepper shakers that now grace my china cabinet and table. Every iconic piece and recipe tell a story I love to remember again and again.

I don’t have children of my own watching me in the kitchen, but if a child’s joy is anything like the look on my nephew’s face when I offer him a simple bowl of Crunch Berries or chicken strips, or the satisfied smiles when I host my dad’s birthday party dinner, maybe I’ve accidentally passed on something good, just like mom did. In those moments, I’m a little girl all over again in my mom’s kitchen, the most delicious place on earth.

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