By Elizabeth Newdom
Now that Mom is almost 80, I dream of canning our time together for future winters when she is no longer with us.
The curve of her upper back and the slowness of her gait seem more pronounced in recent months as do the hard edges of her words. Once soft spoken, Mom is more inclined to say what she feels these days like those old lady characters in movies, and sometimes, she is downright sassy: she wants what she wants, and I, along with my husband and 13-year-old son, usually oblige.
“Okay, Mama, we can watch another episode of Shrinking, and yes, I’ll make you some popcorn,” I say on a night when she is visiting from Northern Virginia, as I take her empty wine glass back up to the kitchen.
Mom reminds me so much of her own mother, Amelia (whom the grandchildren called Mim), at this age. Some Saturday mornings, when Mom and I are drinking mugs of the too-dark coffee she has brewed by 6:00 a.m., I see my grandmother’s face staring back at me. And for a moment, I am ten years old again, waiting for Mim to unwrap the peach soap I gave her every Christmas.
Until that is, Mom says, “Be a dear, and bring me my sweater,” breaking my reverie.
When I think of my mother in her younger years, say when she was 30 or 40-something, back when we lived in my childhood home on Knox Place in Alexandria, Virginia, I see The Joy of Cooking fanned out on the countertop, open to a recipe for mashed potatoes, tomato aspic, or silver dollar pancakes: the mixer, with the two manually attached beaters, held firmly in her delicate hand. The dining room table is set with cloth napkins, and the crystal chandelier is sparkling clean. Aunty Betty and Uncle Bruce, on their way over for a holiday meal.
Mom was the embodiment of a 1950s housewife—standing over the stove in her white apron and house slippers—even in the 1980s.
She was The Joy of Cooking: precise, measured, and reliable. She stuck to traditions and to things that “weren’t broke.” For this reason, Mom didn’t have many other cookbooks that I can remember. She relied so much on Irma Rombauer’s classic that she gave me a copy when I got married as if it were an heirloom or a rite of passage.
However, I am not sure I ever used it, truth be told. As a 35-year-old bride, the cookbook held little appeal to me: recipes stacked together like newspaper articles. So much butter, sugar, and flour listed in the ingredients. Even now, I’d be reluctant to pull out the step ladder and take the heavy book down from the cabinet shelf.
What Mom and I do share is a love for trendy kitchenware stores, like Relish, in my town of Frederick, Maryland. Among the colorful plates, the bowls with retro designs, the dish towels with funny quotations like “Fresh out of Fucks,” you can also find inviting cookbooks on display.
This past March, I discovered Happy Vegan Food sitting cheerily in its stand next to a set of bowls with painted poppies inside. I stopped to take in the deep greens, oranges, and purples of the avocados, carrots, and Swiss chard artistically arranged on the cover. Then I scanned the title again and again. The word “happy” grabbed me on a day cold enough to wear a winter coat despite the cherry blossoms lining the tree limbs of my suburban streets.
I couldn’t remember when I’d last bought a cookbook (Allrecipes.com was my go-to), but I purchased this one for the anticipation of what might lie within its pages, after briefly perusing the contents.
Later that night, after my son, Asher, and my mom had gone to bed, I plopped down on the caramel leather couch with Happy Vegan Food in my hands and turned toward my husband Eric, whose legs were stretched out in my direction. Then, I began to read, starting at the book’s beginning, with breakfast foods.
I read the recipes aloud: “Bright Healing Turmeric Porridge & Warm Berries,” “Peanut Butter Overnight Oats & Home-Made Granola Crunch,” and “Almond Butter & Smashed Raspberry Stuffed French Toast.” I rolled my tongue over the words like I was rolling dough across the granite counter:
Add the milk, turmeric, pepper, and melted coconut oil and bring to a boil…leave the porridge to bubble away until you get a beautiful, creamy, golden porridge…put the berries, maple syrup and a pinch of vanilla seeds…into a small saucepan and gently heat.
When I paused to glance up at Eric, he was sleeping soundly. The cookbook, I found, was already creating happiness, and I hadn’t yet made a single recipe.
The next morning, as Mom and I sat down at my flea market dining table, wiping sleep out of our eyes, I asked, “Do you still use the Joy of Cooking?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I use it for all of my favorite holiday recipes. That book contains so many memories.”
I knew what she meant. I could see the appeal. I, too, had had many joyous occasions where food was the bond among loved ones.
I saw Mim’s face again in Mom’s hooded eyes and thought I could taste the oyster dressing she served at every Christmas dinner. I began craving the cheese straws in the aluminum tin, the homemade cranberry sauce, and the ambrosia with extra coconut—the holiday staples that helped ground (or can, if you will) those moments in time.
What I wouldn’t give for a taste of my grandmother’s house: her kindness, elegance, and steadiness were a part of the food we ate.
I understood now why Mom returned again and again to the same recipes, the same cookbook. She was savoring memories and passing them on to her own children and grandchildren: the “joy” of cooking. Or maybe more aptly, the joy of making memories.
Perhaps the classic American recipes that Mom loved weren’t what I wanted to pass on to Asher and his potential children, which, considering he is only 13, I hoped were way off in the future. But I got the idea.
Some day, say 20 to 30 years from now, Ash could be sitting across from me at his own kitchen table, and for a second, out of the corner of his eye, look up and see my mother’s face staring back at him. Maybe we will be stirring our spoons in the turmeric porridge I have just made, waving away the steam. Served in what will be vintage bowls from Relish by then.
Ash might smile and say, “That’s exactly how I remember it. The perfect amount of vanilla.”
A writer and an editor for Literary Mama, Elizabeth Newdom lives in Frederick, MD with her family. During the carefree summer days, she is cooking her way through Happy Vegan Food. You can follow her journeys of motherhood and midlife on her blog, How the Light Gets In.
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