It doesn’t matter whether the maternal figure in your life worked daily magic in the kitchen or saw a kindred spirit in the canned-soup shtick of Peg Bracken. What you take away — the part that stays with you longer than the taste of a two-day spaghetti sauce — is that her efforts nourished your spirit as much as they filled your stomach. It was love, through food, expressed in ways great and small.
For Mother’s Day, here’s to the memories shared by Post colleagues that ring true:
During the academic year, my mother directed dance shows and classic musicals at a nearby high school. Holding a giant microphone that looked like something FDR might have used to reassure an anxious nation, she sent her instructions, corrections and encouragements booming out from her perch at the back of the gymnasium.
In the summer months, though, her creative energy was focused entirely on my little brother and me at home. And the central production of our season was July 4, which she choreographed with the pizazz of “The Music Man.”
But we were not “foodies.” This was the Midwest in the 1960s. Our culinary arts were focused mostly on exotic engineering of Jell-O. Remember tilting parfait glasses in the fridge and adding layers of different flavors and Cool Whip two hours apart? That was transcendent.
What sticks with me half a century later is the Fourth of July Whale — my mother’s annual watermelon creation. Unlike Ahab, she caught her monster every year. It seemed, to me, a work of magic: that leviathan fruit wobbling slightly on the kitchen table as she plotted her attack. With a pencil she would lightly outline the whale’s happy face, its long body and finally its jaunting fluted tail. Then the rind was carefully carved away and the pink flesh cut into little squares. (Watermelon had seeds back then. And flavor.) She would mix it up with strawberries, blueberries and slices of orange before folding it all back into the hollowed-out vessel. A pair of grapes fixed with toothpicks made its bulging eyes.
Swimming down the center of the table in the back yard on a hot St. Louis day, my mother’s watermelon whale was as close to love as a fruit salad could get.
— Ron Charles
My mother was a beauty queen first, a doctor second. It seemed as though she missed out on the “cooking gene” my grandmother had so carefully cultivated with stews, collard greens and the soul-food version of macaroni and cheese.
Mom usually whipped up some form of chicken for my sister and me; we had chicken, chicken and more chicken. But one way she made it was better than the rest. We called it Mommy’s Candy Chicken. There wasn’t much to it — a jar of apricot preserves and some salad dressing. But man oh man, could that candy chicken erase a bad day at school or ease anxiety over the latest book report that was coming due.
In some ways, it was like she knew just when to serve it to us and therefore always kept the ingredients on hand. That candy chicken seemed to save me many times.
I recently made it for myself. It had been at least a decade since I last had it, and when I took a bite, I cried. I don’t know whether it was the taste of it or merely the idea that my apartment was filled with smells from my childhood. But it felt like home — as if my mom, who lives 200 miles away, were right there waiting for me to finish my homework.
— Victoria St. Martin
My love of baking comes from my grandmother, Catherine Bishop McGlone. She was a central, always-smiling figure of my childhood whose lessons still play in my head whenever I pull out my measuring cups and mixer. The daughter of Slovak immigrants who settled in Boonton, N.J., my father’s mother lived three houses down from us until I was 8 years old, when my parents made the big move across town. Till then, I spent many after-school afternoons and weekend mornings in her kitchen.
She was our family’s baker, making desserts for every holiday, cakes for birthdays — allowing us to choose the flavors we wanted — and even simple treats when she came for midweek dinners. Her repertoire was small, never fussy and always in tune with the season: pumpkin and apple pies in the fall and at Thanksgiving; walnut-stuffed kolach for Christmas; lemon pies in the spring; and blueberry pie and cake in summer.
When I bake a pie, I picture her fingers guiding mine as we worked soft mounds of shortening into the silky flour, creating first a pebbly texture and then a gathered ball of dough that we would roll out on her Formica-topped table. I remember the snippets of Slovak she would murmur under her breath and her instructions to set out the ingredients, chill the water and never, never overwork the dough.
Her Lemon Sponge Pie was a favorite of my father’s; none of us kids would eat it because the filling was so tart. The recipe wasn’t in my playbook until after Nana died, when I baked it for my dad out of nostalgia. Funny thing . . . as I’ve gotten older, I now appreciate that aggressive lemon flavor and the way it honors her memory. My kids tried it and didn’t like it, which I expected, so I bake brownies and cookies for them.
I’m hoping they’ll grow into it, too.
— Peggy McGlone
When my five sisters and I were growing up in Bethesda in the 1960s, we loved anything Mom cooked for dinner: fried chicken, stroganoff, even fish-Friday frozen fish sticks. Family dinner was an event full of laughter and conversation. We loved the comforting regularity of the side-dish pairings. But there was one dinner she made that stood out over everything else, and for which we prepared maniacally.
It was spaghetti and meatballs.
This was a two-day event. It started early in the morning the day before, with a huge stock pot covering half the stove. Into it went an immense quantity of chopped onion, garlic, green pepper, celery and spices, slowly sauteing in oil — a lovely scent as we got ready for school at St. Jane de Chantal. Then many large cans of whole tomatoes. All day and night it stayed on very low heat, with Mom carefully tending it as the tomatoes slowly broke up into a thick, incredibly rich sauce. The day it was for dinner, we skipped breakfast and lunch.
On some winter evenings, we took the added precaution of going to the YMCA indoor pool on Old Georgetown Road and swimming like Katie Ledecky for a few hours before sprinting the few blocks home through the cold with the approximate appetite of the Donner Party. The house was filled with a steamy warmth and the added scent of big baking trays of homemade meatballs and garlic bread.
We sat down at our regular spots at a wooden picnic table, covered with the traditional red-checked tablecloth, in the family room, and covered the plates with pasta and garlic bread. My grandsons’ term of art for how they devour meals they like just as much: “We crushed it.” Whatever wasn’t eaten that night was divided up into containers for the refrigerator and freezer. We ladled the sauce over poached eggs for Sunday breakfast and made our own little pizzas with white bread and melted cheese.
Most of what I cook at home now for my grandsons, I learned from Mom, now 95, who scaled back and simplified her cooking once we were grown and gone. Yet I have never tried to make that sauce. My sisters Kathy and Susy did, and they came about as close to Mom’s magic as I can imagine anyone doing. But there will never be another meal that feeds the soul like Mom’s spaghetti did.
— Vince Rinehart
My mother’s brownies were legendary among my elementary school classmates in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. They were fudgier than they were firm; in other words, the perfect texture. She made them every time we hosted a party, and every time my friends quickly gobbled them up.
Mami is Puerto Rican and my father is Saudi Arabian. When we all lived in Jiddah, she wanted my siblings and me to grow up with some of the traditions and holidays of her past. Her desserts were one of the main ways she did this.
The first step to making Mami’s fabled brownies began well before the kitchen. Almost every summer when we visited Washington, she made a stop at the baking-supply store. There she would stock up on holiday-themed cake decorations and tools, filling her basket with all the things she might need for the events of the next year: Halloween, Easter, Christmas and birthdays. These sorts of things were not sold, or were almost impossible to find, in Jiddah.
Mami spent hours laboring over her baked goods, sometimes to the sound of salsa music or American pop songs in the background. The house smelled like chocolate, a favorite in the AlFadl household.
She was especially meticulous when it came to decorating: cupcakes of different colored icings, expertly spread and adorned with sparkly sprinkles; chocolate lollipops shaped like jack-o’-lanterns when it was Halloween; gingerbread men for Christmas. Even her brownies had pizazz. Mami would sometimes cut them into shapes (Valentine’s Day) or top them with fudge and candy decorations.
The truth, unbeknownst to many, is that behind every beautifully decorated batch of brownies was a box of . . . instant brownie mix
— Azhar AlFadl Miranda
My four siblings and I grew up in the small town of Boling, Tex., eating meals made by our mother, Corean Waddy Abbott, and her mother, Cora Lee Waddy. Because my mother was cooking whole holiday meals by the age of 11, she does many things in the kitchen off the top of her head — as in, no written recipes.
Thank goodness there are exceptions, and one of them is the oatmeal cookies she baked in multiple batches every Christmas. She got the recipe more than a half century ago from a family member, or at least that’s what she remembers. My mother tweaked it over the years using light and dark brown sugars and different kinds of oats. Then she wrote it down. I used to help her bake at the holidays, and when I came home from college one year, I borrowed the recipe card just long enough to make a Xerox copy of it. She will share her recipes upon request, but the original cards remain on file.
Over the years, whenever my family members or friends ask me to bake treats, my mother’s cookies are always the favorite. They seem to be highly addictive; maybe it’s the sugar (there’s a lot) or the coconut, which gives the cookies a nutty taste and makes them chewy. Just like the old potato chip saying goes: Betcha can’t eat just one.
— Twila Waddy
I grew up in a Vietnamese household in Arizona, with a mother whose love language is food. Her creation of a pot of pho was a multiday affair. I remember going with her from butcher counter to butcher counter, searching for the meatiest oxtails, the butteriest marrow bones and shanks with just the right proportions of fat, tendon and meat.
Once home, she would start on the soul of the soup, its broth. She washed and blanched the bones to ensure clarity. She tossed in onions for sweetness. She carefully spooned a mix of star anise, cinnamon and other fragrant spices into well-worn bouquet garni bags that infused the burbling liquid.
The stockpot would sit on the stove for hours, simmering and radiating heat despite triple-digit temperatures in the Southwestern summers. Even once the broth was cooked, it wasn’t really done. After my petite mother heaved the giant, cooled vat into the refrigerator and shut the door, her pho would not happen for another two days. The spices needed to soften, she said, and a thick layer of tallow — rich, meaty fat — needed to rise to the top.
I knew her pho was ready at last when I heard her hollering questions at us kids from the kitchen, its counters covered in tangles of rice noodles and piles of purple basil snipped fresh from the garden.
Do you want tendon?
Ever since I moved from Arizona, I don’t get my mother’s pho as often. I rarely order it when I go out, knowing that no bowl from a restaurant will compare. But she always makes it a point to put on a pot for my visits. Each trip home, I know the second I set foot off an airplane in Phoenix, there’s a glorious vat of pho sitting in the fridge.
Love in a bowl, care of Mom.
— Lynh Bui
Stuffing was not seasonal in our house. As kids, we never had to wait for a big turkey on the table to enjoy it. The ubiquitous brand of boxed stuffing mix was in our meal rotation year-round, and it was always welcome.
Yet the stuffing my mom made at Thanksgiving seemed special. For one thing, it was homemade. She often made two pans of it — one plain, and one with oysters. I didn’t even like oysters, but that was the one I wanted because it was the smaller batch doled out to just a few of us, which made it even more exclusive.
So when I grew up and moved away and was trying to figure out how to contend with life and the kitchen, I called my mom and asked for her stuffing recipe. Some friends were coming over, and I wanted to make something special.
“Just make Stove Top,” she said.
I was confused. I have prepared Stove Top stuffing, and I will not say one single bad word about it. If you put it in front of me right now, I would eat it and be happy.
So I explained why I wanted her special stuffing. I recounted what I remembered from the times I had watched her make it. I just needed to fill in some blanks.
“It’s not worth the trouble,” she said. “Just make Stove Top.”
I was shocked and a little mad, but undeterred. I bought bread crumbs, onions, chicken stock, butter — and whatever else I thought sounded right at the time.
The stuffing I made was not great. There were pools of butter on top, which might sound pretty good, but it really wasn’t. Then again, it still felt like a step up from Stove Top.
Since then, I have made lots of stuffing. I added mushrooms, because I like them. I started using my own chicken stock; I was surprised to find that I liked it even better with vegetable broth, which I also made. I added wild rice because it seemed like a good idea, and it was. I began making my own bread crumbs because I like sourdough and the store didn’t have sourdough bread crumbs one year. I have never made bread just so I could use it to make stuffing bread crumbs — yet. I figure it’s just a matter of time, though.
So now, that stuffing is my stuffing. And it is special.
And it was because my mom wouldn’t give me her recipe — just the wherewithal to figure it out myself.
— Jim Webster
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