Soon after sitting on her bed, I’d discover crumbs of dubious provenance and pieces of candy among the folds of her bed linens and whisk them away with loud, judgmental tsks and exasperated sighs.
“Oh, get over it,” she’d say.
As if. To this day, I cannot abide the thought of eating or drinking in bed. My mother, Carol Norberg, died in August at age 79, and since then I’ve realized just how much my food and cooking proclivities largely stem from her, either as imitations or rejections.
Many women who came of age in the early 1950s will relate to my mother’s story. She, a Philadelphian, met my father when he attended the University of Pennsylvania. They married young (she was 18; he was 21) and wound up in his home town in Alabama. She bought into the fantasy of raising a family, drinking cocktails, attending country club dances, playing bridge and having dinner on the table when her husband came home from work, but things didn’t turn out that way.
By 28, she was back in Philadelphia: divorced, working and struggling to raise three young children as a single mother.
My first food memory, of crunchy, chewy meringue kisses warm out of the oven, comes from that time. When I was a toddler, Mom would make them once in a while after getting home from work.
It wasn’t until she remarried, moved us to Pittsburgh and gave the housewife gig another shot that she sparked in me the desire — and need — to cook. I probably owe my career as chef-turned-food-writer to her. She enthusiastically exposed our family to all kinds of ethnic cooking, either at home, making sukiyaki, baba ghanouj or kibbe, or in restaurants with names like Palmyra, Omar Khayyam, Sichuan Garden, Peking Royal Kitchen and Minutello’s.
One dish I recall Mom being particularly excited about was veal piccata. We understood from hearing about it all day that we were in for a treat, but the final product was a flop. I remember it as sour and grassy, my young palate unaccustomed to the combination of lemon, wine, capers and thyme. (It was many years before I could bring myself to cook with either of the latter two.) All of us children loudly denounced it while our stepfather vainly attempted damage control. Mom was furious.