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.


My mother, Susan O'Donnel, the technicolor wizard. (Jim Oschmann)

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.


Susie went to great lengths to find these bride and groom Pez figures for my wedding this March. (Leslie Silverman)

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.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 10, 2007; 10:06 AM ET Family , Kitchen Musings
Previous: The Magic of the Mango | Next: A Feast for Mom

Comments

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What a nice post. But please tell me that someone knew how to make shepard's pie or soda bread in your house. I mean O'Donnel does have a nice green ring to it. :)

Posted by: Irish girl | May 10, 2007 1:02 PM

So sweet! ::hugs::

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | May 10, 2007 1:16 PM

Gee Kim, everything you described is so on target. Of course you have left out the walls, littered with vintage game boards and a drawer of mismatched placemats below the wall oven that became the perfect birthing place for a litter of kittens.

To know your mother is to love her. Thanks for sharing your tribute. The photo does not do her justice.

Posted by: Nancy Susan | May 10, 2007 1:32 PM

Thanks for the great post. And oh my god, these are the Pez bride and groom figures at last! Fantastic!!

Posted by: Martha | May 10, 2007 5:44 PM

My grandmother was illiterate and I want to thank her for teaching me how to not read.

seriously. This article makes no sense if you aren't related to this person. Not cooking is a mental handicap that can be cured with some intellectual curiosity. really.

Posted by: DCer | May 10, 2007 9:32 PM

YOU HAVE MADE ME FORGIVE MY MOM.....WHO SPENT ALL HER LIFE COOKING, KNITTING AND KEEPING THE COUCH PILLOWS UP TO BE REFRESHED.....UNLIKE YOU AND HER, I LIKE COLOR AND PRESENTATION......YOU CAN DO THE COOKING AND CREATING AND PASSING ON THE RECEIPIES THAT I CAN FOLLOW.......HUGS PHYLLIS

Posted by: PHYLLIS PRANSKY | May 16, 2007 11:54 AM

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