When I was a child in Pittsburgh, my mother’s bed was command central. She’d come home from work and, after dinner, ensconce herself in her room with everything she needed within arm’s reach: Good & Plenty, coffee Nips, black licorice, pine or pistachio nuts, pretzels with Cracker Barrel cheese and Gulden’s mustard, Wise potato chips, crossword puzzles, books, magazines, cigarettes. There we would play Yahtzee or backgammon and watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “The Carol Burnett Show” on her TV, which always stayed on long after she had fallen asleep.
At the Hebrew Home in Rockville, her home for the last year and a half, HGTV or Bravo shows blared when my partner, Michael, and I went to visit on Saturdays, but Mom was usually playing Angry Birds on her tablet computer or tinkering on her laptop, designing greeting cards for staff members and friends or shopping online. The snack food remained, but oxygen had replaced the cigarettes that led to her undoing: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
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.
By the time I was 8 or 9, I had graduated from spectator to participant in the kitchen. One of my earliest duties came during Jewish holiday food preparations. I had to steady the rickety meat grinder clamped to the kitchen table so my mother could feed hard-cooked eggs, schmaltz-drenched chicken livers and fried onions into it with one hand and crank with the other.
The first thing Mom entrusted me to make by myself was her beloved Caesar salad dressing, and I ruined it. My mother had written the recipe down years before on the inside cover of “Thoughts for Food,” her favorite cookbook. The penultimate line of the ingredient list read “two teaspoons sugar,” and the final line read “salt and pepper.” I understood that to mean two teaspoons each of sugar, salt and pepper.
Watching “The French Chef” with my mother was a seminal ritual. In weekly fits of delusion, she assiduously attempted to write down the recipes as Julia Child dictated them, invariably falling behind and demanding that I prompt her.
“HOW MUCH THIS? HOW MUCH THAT?” she’d shriek.
“I DON’T KNOW! I DON’T KNOW!” I’d shriek back. By then, another vital direction would have gone by unheard by either of us, and we’d wind up in paroxysms of laughter.
Ironically, I was the one who turned out to be the Child acolyte. Only a few years later, I nagged my mother to buy the spirits and wine that I needed for “French Chef” dinner parties I began throwing in 10th grade.
By the late ’60s, my mother was done with the stay-at-home role; she subscribed to the do-your-own-thing mantra of the day and opened a store selling wicker furniture. Much as I wanted her to pack my lunches and show up at parent-teacher conferences like other kids’ mothers, that just wasn’t who she was. From then on, restaurant forays became more frequent, and cooking duties fell almost entirely to my sister and me, especially after our brother moved to Alabama and Mom lost her business and divorced again.
When Mom did cook, she was chaotic, especially when making elaborate holiday meals. Always in the back of my mind during those repasts was the mess my sister and I were going to have to clean up afterward.
I can see my mother in a blue negligee, a cigarette dangling from her mouth while she squeezes soaked bread cubes for stuffing and wrestles with an enormous bird for Thanksgiving dinner. However pleasant the memory of roast turkey with mahogany-colored gravy, creamed spinach on artichoke bottoms with hollandaise sauce and marshmallowed sweet potatoes, it doesn’t outweigh the image of the roux-spackled strainer, the egg-stained blender jar and the carbon-crusted roasting pan and casserole.
That, in a nutshell, explains my present-day compulsion to clean the kitchen before I eat.
When I became a columnist seven years ago, she became a frequent source of material. In “Lighten Up, Mom,” I prepared less-caloric versions of her smothered pork chops and her favorite dessert, pineapple upside down cake. In another piece, I referenced her disdain for one-dish meals.
“Casserole,” I quoted her as saying, “is the French word for ‘glop.’ ”
I think she would have secretly gotten a kick out of seeing the accompanying menu I have created as a tribute to her memory, even if I did take liberties with some of her recipes. I replaced schmaltz with duck fat and added port to her chopped liver; bumped up the lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce in her Caesar dressing recipe; crafted a user-friendly version of veal piccata; and filled meringue sandwiches with caramelized pineapple buttercream as a nod to the current macaron craze.
Rather than let on that she loved the attention I gave her in print, Mom would launch the same zinger anytime I visited her after any article mentioning her was published. “I see you told more lies about me!” she’d say in an impish tone.
That’s the same review, no doubt, I would have gotten this Saturday.
Hagedorn writes the monthly Sourced column. Follow him on Twitter @DCHagedorn.