M Is for the Many Meals She Made: I’ll Go by the Book, As Long as It’s My Mother’s

The Book wasn’t cool. It showed up at my house, sent by my mother, and got tucked away.

It looked corny to my mid-twenties eyes. It had cheesy pink hearts on the cover, potted petunias and an inexplicable, bandana-wearing chicken under the words: “Family Favorites.”

I didn’t appreciate my mother’s recipe book, although this seems impossible now. It took me a decade or so to understand finally what I should have grasped a long time ago.

This book of mine -- of Mom’s, of ours -- is now amply splotched with red sauce. It is frayed and overstuffed, nicked from too many packings and unpackings in northern California and New Orleans and Annapolis and Miami Beach. It is, quite frankly, saggy.

But it might be my most precious possession.


Tortilla Espaqola: A potato omelet that calls for a bit of culinary acrobatics, from a treasured recipe collection put together by the author's mother, Norma Roig. (Renee Comet Photography)

Inside is our family story wrapped in a lesson book. It is told with the understated eloquence of my mother, Norma Roig. I might have expected as much from this pretty lady, a once shy -- and maybe still just a bit shy -- youngest daughter who at 60 doesn’t seem to mind that her own mother and siblings even now call her “Babe.”

There are recipes in the book from the Spanish city of Huelva where I was born -- the homeland my father, Manuel Roig Loredo, left with his young family when I was 2, but never left in spirit. And there are the second-generation Italian concoctions of my mother’s family, the huge proportions and exquisite ingredients proclaiming: “We have arrived.”

Mom somehow knit these two families, these two cultures together. That molding was most often done in the kitchen. On her side, the tone was set by her parents, John and Antonette Franzia, such headstrong chefs that they built separate kitchens in their big stone house out among the grapevines.

On my father’s side, all culinary knowledge flowed from his parents, Manuel Roig Meca and Josefa Loredo Dominguez, who conjured flavors from memory rather than the written word.

Flipping through the pages of my book rouses the scents of my childhood. The vinegary shock of Mom’s antipasto, that sharp whiff of Parmesan rising over rows of hollowed-out zucchini. And garlic. Garlic everywhere, in everything, and Dad saying, “too much garlic” and no one listening to him.

My parents never meddled much in my life, so Mom hardly asked over the years about the recipes she bequeathed to me, with instructions typed out so precisely:

RECIPE: mushroom gravy

SOURCE: Antonette Franzia

can do ahead

can freeze

She let me come to her with questions, in my own time, when I was ready. Somehow it has seemed better that way. I’ve called her clandestinely, my voice way down low, so girlfriends or baseball buddies or co-workers couldn’t hear. One day it was, “I took the gazpacho recipe out of the book and left it at the store. Help!” Another day, it was “Mom, the store’s out of Swiss chard, can I still make grandma’s rice torta?”

The answer is always the same: “No problem. Don’t worry.” She told me that spinach doubled nicely for chard in a torta and that she had not one, but two, gazpacho recipes at her fingertips. I still use the gazpacho recipes she dictated, though they’re scribbled and barely legible on the back of a New Yorker magazine renewal envelope, instead of the nice sheet Mom typed up.

If I was looking for a moment that said I had arrived as a cook -- and I wasn’t -- it came two winters ago. My dear Spanish grandfather -- my Abuelo -- was teasing my Mom. But he went too far.

“Manolito,” he declared, rolling out the syllables of the little-boy version of Manuel that he’ll call me forever, “makes a better tortilla Española than his mother.”

He was approaching our family’s notion of blasphemy. I was neither worthy nor ready to carry the family mantle for tortillas, the blocky potato omelets that seem to sit on every restaurant counter in Spain, glazed gold in olive oil.

What’s more, I know Mom could not turn cooking -- the very bedrock of our generational bond, our one real shared obsession -- into a competition. If preparing meals were a contest, Norma Roig would not have shared her secrets, she would not have made the Book.

During the winters now, when Mom and Dad escape the fog that darkens the countryside outside Modesto, Calif., to spend a few months under Miami sun, Mom will sometimes walk into the kitchen when I’m making Grandpa’s artfully rustic spaghetti coated with red sauce for what seems like the thousandth time. She’ll gently ask, “Why so much garlic?” I tell her -- just as gently, I hope -- that I’ve gone my own way on this one.

But I always follow the tortilla Española recipe to the letter. Well, it isn’t really a recipe so much as a culinary acrobatic act, or at least it felt that way until I’d made it a half-dozen times. Somehow, after a long consultation with Mom, it didn’t seem so impossible anymore to fill a skillet with sauteed potatoes and onions, then flip the whole mushy thing without smearing the kitchen floor. (I did a lot of smearing until Mom told me the trick is letting the potatoes cool before mixing in the eggs.)

There was a tortilla Española on the table when I stopped by for lunch a few months ago at the place where my parents stay on Miami Beach. It was moist, just a bit oozy in the center, seared gold and salty on the outside. Saltier than mine, but not too salty. Prettier. I ate three thick wedges. I didn’t say it at the time, but I should have: Mom’s was better.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is The Post’s Miami bureau chief.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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