My Mother's Un-Cooking School
The kitchen of my childhood was of near-phantasmagoric proportions.
The walls and countertops were bright orange, a hue that might hurt your eyes. Hanging on the walls were found objects from my mother's weekly garage sale adventures. Instead of being used for chopping vegetables, the counters were a display area of Americana-style artifacts, such as a vintage mint-green milkshake maker and a glass jar of Christmas ornaments circa 1940. I think at one point there was an old sewing machine stand over by the oven, but I'll have to check with her on that.
The dining room was no less a kaleidoscope of color. Pepto pink was the dominant color scheme, accented by stripes of Easter egg yellow and green. The piano that we kids learned to play was pink, too. Filling out the space was a wicker baby carriage turned plant holder and a real, honest-to-goodness penny gumball machine. I'll agree, that was super cool.
A cook she was not, unless you count Shake-n-Baked chicken, Hamburger Helper and every other magic-presto dinner out of a box that was all the rage in the 1970s. I think there was one cookbook in the house from the 20th century, a big binder of the Better Homes and Gardens variety, but it was tucked away in the laundry room, along with other things used once a year, like the turkey roasting pan.
As a result, I didn't learn how to cook from my mother, or for that matter, from either of my grandmothers. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by food, chomping at the bit to make cookies and grilled cheese and surprising my parents with a breakfast-in-bed tray of French toast.
In lieu of cooking lessons, my mother taught me how to dress a table. Susie showed me how Pez dispensers could work as centerpieces and that mismatched plates and silverware from another century made for a more interesting (and attention-grabbing) holiday table setting. Instead of beef Wellington and soup from scratch, she cooked up color and whisked my imagination. Instead of recipes for Sunday night dinner, she passed on a recipe for life -- to always think out of the box. To wit, in the living room, the stereo was housed in a gutted 500-pound oak ice box, and the "table" where we'd leave house keys and outgoing mail was a six-foot-tall wrought iron stove.
With Mother's Day approaching, I want to thank my mother for not teaching me how to cook; after all, that's what culinary school was for. It's those other lessons -- of creativity and individuality -- that I could only learn from her, burnt meatballs notwithstanding.
Tomorrow: A few recipes to fete your mom or favorite mother figure this weekend.
Happy Mother's Day everyone.
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