Navigating the Sandwich
Not Cooking Like My Mother
My mom was a bohemian rebel who had no time for domesticity. I rebelled against her and learned to cook
When I was about eight years old, my mother squinted at me through her cornflower blue eyes, which always turned into little slits if she was either angry or had something to say that she thought was profound. “Don’t be a mother,” she said, “it’s not worth it.” My two sisters — one 18 months older and one 18 months younger — and I were sitting at the fold-out kitchen table eating Rice Krispies. We looked at her blankly.
My mother was different from all of my friends’ mothers. She liked to think of herself as a revolutionary because during her spring break at college, she’d once gone with her roommate to West Virginia to take photographs of coal miners; and also because she’d once written a story for The Daily World, a Communist newspaper, two stories she would tell us again and again. She not only acted differently, but she looked different too. Other mothers of the ’50s wore dotted flower shifts. My mother wore baggy dresses in strange colors, like olive drab. And while other mothers were sporting short bobs with bangs, my mother wore her long, ash-brown hair swept up in a bun.
Most wives back then were housewives; they cooked, cleaned, and ironed. But cooking was not one of my mother’s skills. I was thrilled whenever invited to a friend’s house for a delicious home-cooked meal like lamb chops or lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs. My favorite meal at home was the treat we were allowed when my parents went out to dinner and left us with a babysitter: Swanson’s Turkey Pot Pie. The rest of the time, the three of us were subjected to my mother’s rotation of three meals: boiled hot dogs with no rolls, chicken cacciatore (as she called it, but it was just broiled chicken with a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup dumped on top), or Spam.
We usually had dinner, just my sisters and I, in the cramped kitchen before my father came home. We’d be finished by the time he arrived, and they’d have two martinis each and eat in the dining room. On Sundays, we ate with them in the dining room. My father would make scrambled eggs with bacon, and we’d all sit down together. But there was never any conversation — my parents read the newspaper and the three of us fought over the comics section.
There was a reason my mother didn’t cook: she’d been brought up rich, never worrying about money. Her family had a chauffeur, and also a cook, so she didn’t need to learn any culinary skills. When she graduated from Vassar, she became a bohemian, rebelling against her sheltered life by marrying my father, a funny and creative but poor man. Her own mother was livid and criticized my father constantly, saying he wasn’t good enough because he wasn’t rich. My father wanted to be a writer, but couldn’t support his wife and three daughters that way, so my grandmother was constantly doling out money for our food, education, and housing.
In the same way my grandmother said my father wasn’t good enough for my mother, my mother made me feel the same way: nothing I did was good enough for her. If I did something particularly difficult, her typical comment was “I could never do that”; but the way she said it made it sound like criticism, never a compliment. After college graduation, I couldn’t flee to Europe fast enough. Once there, I married and learned to cook — not just heating up contents from a can as my mother had done, but really cooking. I made applesauce by peeling, boiling, and mashing the apples. I pounded the veal and smothered it in thick, fresh cream. I learned by watching French women prepare meals, and while I learned to cook a few good meals while living in Paris, ultimately I never aspired to be Julia Child.
Then I divorced husband #1. After four years, I returned to New York and married husband #2, who wanted me to be with him in the evenings, not in the kitchen. We mainly ate out. And then I married husband #3, a Southerner who would spend hours preparing Brunswick stew and baby back ribs; there was no need for me to cook. But I divorced him too (nothing to do with the delicious food).
Now, when I’m not going out with friends, I eat in, but I don’t cook. I found a fabulous food delivery service from which I order 14 meals a week (lunch and dinner). The food arrives fresh every Monday; I freeze half the meals and defrost the rest day by day. If I feel like cooking something in this time of social distancing, I make a huge salad with vegetables from the farmers market. I once thought about buying a frozen Swanson’s Turkey Pot Pie just for old time’s sake, but I knew it would taste nothing like I remembered it, so I refrained. But if I ever change my mind, the supermarket is just a couple of blocks away.