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8 favorite recipes from our moms, full of lessons and memories

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
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There’s common talk among food writers about how we regularly mine our own lives for content, such as the experience of being a new foster parent or having to figure out how to use an electric cooktop for the first time. In our search for inspiration, some of us frequently return to our youth and time spent at a caretaker’s side while they prepared our favorite meals, while others weren’t the voracious eaters they are today and would have rather been anywhere but the kitchen. Regardless the scenario, it was often our mothers who were tasked with keeping us nourished, whether they — and we — were willing and interested participants, or not.

So in honor of Mother’s Day, we’re rounding up a handful of the memories, lessons and recipes the Food staff has picked up from our own moms. Hopefully, they will bring to mind your own fond memories of the matriarchs in your life — be they real or fictional.

Do you have a favorite recipe from your mom to share? Share it in the comments below!

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Tex-Mex Tortilla and Black Bean Salad, above. “In my memory, she approached cooking as a labor of love — but labor nonetheless,” Joe Yonan writes in an essay accompanying his take on the salad his mother made “every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every birthday. In hindsight, I know Mom was teaching me that variety and experimentation were all well and good, but especially with a crowd to feed, there was nothing wrong with a repertoire, even a small one, of dishes that worked.”

Cod Fish Cakes. “My mother taught me to cook almost by osmosis. It was something that happened every day at our house, and I moved so gradually from watching to doing,” Ann Maloney writes. As part of the “doing” — and as a way for her mother to take a break from meal duties — she instituted Every Man for Himself Friday dinners. “Why Fridays? Because after a week of teaching public school and, as she put it, ‘homemaking,’ she was tired.”


Instant Pot Arroz Con Pollo. Some recipes are passed down from parent to child for generations. Others take a less direct path, as in the case of Daniela Galarza and this Puerto Rican-style arroz con pollo. “I learned to make arroz con pollo from my Iranian mother, who learned from my father’s mother, and whose instincts in the kitchen — a superpower sense of smell, a pitch-perfect taste for slight variations in flavor — taught me more about how to be a great cook than my overpriced culinary school.”


Runzas. “I’m a food writer without a defining childhood story,” Tim Carman writes. While he’s now known for scouring the DMV for the best barbecue and sandwiches, his tastes were much simpler as a kid in Nebraska. “I hated almost everything outside my personal junk-food troika of vending-machine candy, hamburgers on the grill and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches,” he writes. “The one dish, however, that I loved with abandon was my mom’s runza, a basic meat pocket that’s a staple of the Great Plains diet. Little more than baked dough balls stuffed with cabbage, onions and seasoned ground beef, runzas aligned perfectly with my limited palate.”

Baked Chicken Thighs With Butter and Onions. I practically grew up in the kitchen, learning how to cook under my mother’s watchful eye. “While I love her tried-and-true recipes, I’ve also learned to embrace my zeal for creativity and experimentation in the kitchen,” which I embraced in my take on my mother’s recipe for baked chicken.


Apple Sharlotka. “If your mom suddenly dashed to the kitchen to bake a quick cake for company, that cake would be an apple sharlotka,” Olga Massov writes of her childhood in Russia. “The cake was a byproduct of Soviet women’s ingenuity and resourcefulness fueled by a strong desire to show hospitality,” and could be produced with a scarcity of ingredients, time and equipment.


That Cream Cheese Cool Whip Pie. “[My mom will] use words like ‘fancy’ and ‘complicated’ to describe what I’m up to, with the implication that what she does is too simple. But you know what? Simple is good. Simple can be nourishing, time-saving and much less likely to leave a person — ahem, me — standing in a flour-and-sugar-strewn kitchen, (not so) quietly cursing my propensity for latching on to lengthy and involved recipes when I should probably be doing other things,” Becky Krystal writes. “My mom would also be refreshingly unashamed about turning to recipes from food manufacturers. That’s how a much-loved dessert from Keebler entered our rotation.”

World’s Fair Cake. “More than almost any heirloom from my family home — my late father’s fabulous photographs, the toys of my childhood — it’s my mom’s recipe for her World’s Fair Cake that I most desired,” Tom Sietsema writes. While there’s immense value in learning how to make treasured dishes and recording them for posterity, sometimes the real prize is the act rather than the outcome. “A funny thing happened on the way to finishing these recipes. The mixing and measuring, the slicing and dicing — the release of a cork from a bottle of rosé — got us talking about the past, mostly hers.”

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