In the months since my mother had died, I had been avoiding cooking.
Not in the traditional how ‘bout a quick fried egg and spinach salad sense, but in the let me find a recipe that I can lose myself for hours sense. I wanted to clutter up my kitchen, carve up root vegetables, throw salt in the air as if I were a fairy godmother granting wishes and immerse myself in the smells of memory.
But the task had eluded me and instead, I perused recipes such as fig, hazelnut and goat cheese salad from Sunset Magazine, munched on pea shoots from the farmer’s market and declared them as sweet as honey or ate dinner out.
Until I read Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Save Me the Plums.
During a visit to my local bookstore, her book cover of a single violet plum set against a white background had jumped out at me. The simplicity of the image shook me from my stupor of wandering the aisles and wondering if my novels would ever measure up to those sturdy ones now on the shelves.
The title, a reference to a William Carlos William poem, had drawn me in. I desired to read something not dementia-related as per my field of endeavor, something not everybody else was reading so I had to wait to borrow it from the library, or something I had to read because I committed to reading it.
Ruth Reichl had been the last editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and so much more. In one hand, I held her purple plum book, but with my other hand, my fingers danced across the shelf to best-selling Tender at the Bone, Ruth’s first memoir about food. One was enough. My bookshelves were brimming and my husband, Mark, had warned me, if I bought any more books, he would buy the same number of earbuds to match my collection.
I carried the book home, dug my teeth into a crunchy apple as if I were sinking them into Ruth’s world, the one she created for the reader as a child who read cookbooks.
As a young girl, I had done the same, though I only had my mother’s cookbooks of Italian recipes to leaf through. However, I would skim the recipes of the Sunday newspapers. And Good Housekeeping magazines. When I was finally on my own, then married in my late twenties, I no longer made Betty Crocker’s Suddenly Salad pasta helpers. I subscribed to Cooks Illustrated instead.
The subscription was my shot to break free from my mother’s Italian cooking. And her attempts to be American—hamburger pie, zucchini pancakes, Jello desserts layered in angel food or pound cake. Even her vegetable lasagna. I was in full rebellion mode.
As a wife, I threw myself into cooking French onion soup, buying white ramekins from Williams-Sonoma. My mother wouldn’t have ever known a ramekin, right? I purchased a terra cotta garlic roaster from a catalog and threw a clambake party because Bon Apetitit told me I could. My first husband, Devin, had gifted me an automatic pasta machine. He thought I could replicate my mother’s recipes for the revered ravioli. Instead, I churned out a new seasoning of pappardelle once a week. My mother had never strayed from her set of pasta recipes. It was her blessing—and her curse. But all I did was stray. My own blessing—and curse.
I read through Ruth’s memoir, awed by her challenges in establishing herself in the food world and her experiences in the glorious days of Parisian food scenes and the raucous dinner parties she attended with access to the best chefs in New York City. But the scenes about her mother kept me riveted to the page. When finished, I borrowed Tender at the Bone and Not Becoming My Mother from the library and feverishly read them too.
While her father had introduced her to the world of New York City smells, her mother’s crazy ideas of buying a suckling pig on a whim, making refrigerator stew, or sickening an entire family of in-laws by serving them days-old deli salads surely inspired and prompted young Ruth to pursue her mastery in the kitchen.
Toward the end of Save Me the Plums, Ruth tried to replicate the one dish her mother always ordered at the now-defunct New York City’s Lüchow’s—apple pancakes. She soothed herself as she peeled apples, finished the task and offered the concoction to her son. Her son took one bite and said, “I’m sure you can figure this out.” Ruth worked at the recipe from memory and began again.
Uncovering the Truth
We always cook for our mothers, don’t we?
It was why I had stayed away from the kitchen for so long after my mother died. My husband and I had traveled with our adult children from Cincinnati to Austin, so I wouldn’t be reminded of my mother in the kitchen during Christmas, though she had not cooked Christmas dinner before her dementia set in. We took turns rolling tamales and spooning out large quantities of creamy guacamole, and scrambled to make a few other breakfasts in a rented kitchen, but none of that counted. I knew what I was doing—or not doing.
Cooking on vacation was not like cooking in my own kitchen. I could mess up on vacation with a few easy excuses. But cooking in my kitchen, I could not run away from the truth. The truth of my mother’s death. It came to me in tablespoons and teaspoons—of a certain anise scent, the cut of a spring of oregano, the way I stirred with a wooden spoon, just the way she did. The way I spooned the sauce on a piece of leftover bread and sprinkled it with Romano cheese, “to taste what wasn’t absorbed,” she always said.
My mother had never faltered in the kitchen. She never had a choice. She and my father didn’t have the money to waste food or always eat out. It wasn’t what my father expected. It wasn’t what she expected of herself. The kitchen was hers. It was where she went to grieve the death of her baby, her mother, the death of her in-laws, the heartache of children who left home, and those who never returned.
And hers was a kitchen that never stopped. Despite the number of times she pronounced, “The kitchen is closed for the night,” her words were mostly a signal to us to wash our own plates. She would never close the kitchen, until one day she forgot how.
As I had read Ruth’s memoirs, my hip and thighs ached in a pain from the repetitive motions of sitting for long stretches. It was a pain I could not get over easily. But her writing had helped me forget about the anguish of the burning sensation in my hip flexors.
Suddenly alive with hunger while seated my kitchen island, I pulled Save Me the Plum toward me. Something from inside the book beckoned me and I wanted to hold onto the hospitality and generosity I felt from the love that gushed forth on those pages.
I turned to the recipe for the Thanksgiving Turkey Chili, a recipe Ruth and dozens of volunteers made for first responders during the horrific days following September 11th. I recalled the intention with which she devoted her energies to food as a way of recovering.
Food had always been my way of healing. But lately, food had been my enemy. I had put on too many pounds over the long winter of my mourning and menopause. I had limited my food intake for hours then ate unhealthy snacks and meals. I didn’t enjoy food the way my mother had taught me to relish in the process and the product. I was still rebelling, silently protesting without knowing it.
And I had failed in carrying on with my self-imposed tradition—that I would cook when my mother no longer could. I would carry forth the family holidays (as I had done for many years). I had forgotten that cooking was not only an extension of my mother, but by now, had become an extension of me.
The sun shone brilliantly on the peachy blossoms of a quince branch. I nearly toppled over a vase on my kitchen counter as I grabbed a pen and drew out a list on a post-it note. A small square of paper would never do for my mother. Her list had always been organized by aisle and coupon, cost and need. She needed lines, and plenty of them.
Following my errands to Kroger and Findlay Market, I retrieved spices and herbs from their hiding places and set out my collection of pots and pans, adding to it my mother’s iron skillet. I spent a few hours with just Ruth, a gurgling pot of chili, and another presence I recognized in the breath of steam coming off the pot.
My husband, Mark, and I ate from that batch of chili for three days. The flavors had melded into a singular emotion of loss. I wanted to eat to the bottom of the pot.
After that first night of chili for dinner, my husband had offered to clean up. “It’s our agreement. You cooked.”
“It’s okay,” I had said, “I’ll clean up. Besides, it felt good to cook again.”
It felt good to want to cook. It felt good to cook in a way that welcomed my mother back into my kitchen and my life. Opening the lid on the chili had opened my heart.
We always cook for our mothers, don’t we? As if that last pinch of salt will finally produce the sweet taste of our mothers on our lips.
My garlic roaster had been long replaced by tin foil. I wasn’t one for acquiring lots of implements in my kitchen, much to my husband’s disdain because he was a gadget guy. The ramekins were left behind at our former home. I never tried to host a clam-bake again, because what I mostly remembered from that time was the hot tub party and the cleanup of shells from the bottom of the tub the next morning. The white plastic pasta machine went to a sister and I waited patiently to acquire my mother’s once she no longer knew to turn the crank on her metal one.
The Cook’s Illustrated magazines were long gone. In their place were my mother’s recipe books.
Ruth wrote about the risks she took, accepting the position as magazine editor, applying as a cook at the co-op in Berkeley.
Sometimes our risks are much simpler, more straightforward. Yet, they are the harder ones take.
My mother often worried over my skiing the black diamond trails of Colorado or snorkeling in the open waters in Hawaii. She bemoaned my attempts at adventure.
But she would be proud of the risk I took to return to the kitchen. And start over—without her.