I think it's safe to say that the relationship you have with your mother is the single most complicated, complex, fascinating, and unique of all the interpersonal relationships in your life. I admit I have spent more time analyzing my relationship with my own mother since she died than I have since I was a teenager in the midst of the famous 60s "Generation Gap." It was never easy, it was rarely fulfilling, but now that she is gone, may God have mercy on her soul, I've only got these small bits and pieces left. There are words, phrases, some sentences, few paragraphs. And there are these recipes.
Much as I would like to be able now to distill my mother's cooking into a handful of adjectives, it's nearly impossible to do so. I have the sense that she really did not enjoy cooking and that if something weren't "quick and easy" as the old cookbook chapter headings said, it wasn't likely that particular dish would surface on a dinner table any time soon.
I remember she would call them hamburgers when we had the money for meat and bread, and meatballs, when we only had enough money for meat. I know she made spaghetti sauce from a box and that my dad wouldn't eat it the first day, only the second. I remember lots of Campbell's tomato soup, Velveeta or peach jam sandwiches on Fridays, and waffles on chilly mornings with Smoki-links. She rarely ate what she served the rest of us, preparing her own large, fresh salad. It's funny that I never once ate a salad until I was out of college because, since she never served it to us, I figured it was something only grownups ate. She used to set our dinner on the table and place her salad bowl front of her. She always had iceberg lettuce, fresh tomato, cucumber, onion, and green pepper kept in the refrigerator "crisper," as she called it.
When I went away to school, she took the time to type up a handful of recipes to give me so I would have something to cook out on my own. I always thought these recipes, which I had not looked at for years until just a few days ago, were something she cooked for us when I was a kid. But it turns out, now that I read them, she hadn't made most of them. They are prefaced with "I haven't tried this one" or "I know someone who tried this and liked it."
There is only one of them, the family recipe for Beef Stew, that I remember eating as a child and that I have started making again as an adult. It tastes exactly the way I remember it and it is very reminiscent of the Irish stews I tried in Ireland when I was there last year. It is simple, quick, nearly foolproof, and delicious. But at the end of the typing, she wrote "this is not so quick and easy."
So, here I am now, nearly a year after her death, trying to piece together something that I can hang onto that spoke of my mother. She didn't leave me any objects, like jewelry or a lamp. She didn't leave me money or property. I've got a mirror that is in one of her wedding day pictures and a random assortment of photographs. But these recipes can live off the page once they are cooked and it's something real. There's magic in cooking that I usually take for granted. In this case though, I really sense the magic and the few memories I have of my mother in the kitchen at home come back to me when I make this stew.
I am not prompted to make all of these recipes because frankly, neither was she. But I want my children to think of this elusive woman when I make her Beef Stew.
Photo by me 2012