I am grateful for my mother’s cooking, it was the 1960’s version of a Meme. Like many women in the sixties, Mom was at war. My mother used food like a weapon but it was the kind of weapon the CIA would use, not one the Pentagon would consider. Her meals were meant to wear my father down, to wear down his hard edges, to conquer him. Like the CIA’s small victories, the battle was worse than the gains and the gains always backfired. She was beautiful and my Dad could end any argument by insisting that she was prettier than the first lady. It wasn’t the vanity that won her over it was the reminder that my father still found her lovely which meant in her mind, that he still loved her. I suspect she knew. I hope she didn’t know it all. I learned many things about my father’s love after his death and proof after hers.
My mother spent years torturing my father for his sins with suppers that made cafeteria food delicious in comparison. First, came a hamburger patty cooked over a low flame in a skillet until no resemblance of edible remained. This piece of chopped leather lay dead on our melamine plates with a scoop of canned green beans and a scoop of instant mashed potatoes. The potatoes were the only substance that was allowed variety. Sometimes you could use them like Play Do to build a damn blocking the green bean water from making it to the meat; other times, they resembled a puddle of potato soup on your plate. It would then spread across the surface engulfing everything like the Blob, the scariest movie on television.
My father would hold one of these hamburgers on the end of his fork and study each one. Every evening, he’d entertain us with his latest scientific conclusion. They were actually coasters for the glasses of milk but snuck into the frying pan. My favorite was the suspicion that tossing one into the city reservoir would suck it dry and not change the shape of the hamburger, it was that dry. Mom was like one of the Weeping Angels on Dr. Who, she never responded. She sat with her back ruler straight, legs crossed at the knee and she ate her supper so slowly, we never saw her move. One cup of sweet tea, a piece of dry toast and several cigarettes, this varied from her breakfast with a cup of coffee. We never looked at her but busied ourselves with eating, and smiling at Dad’s antics. We dreamed of TV dinners, the cuisine served by babysitters.
Decades of dry toast and cigarettes made my mother’s survival skills extraordinary in my eyes. As children, our family existed at the kitchen table, sometimes in front of the TV but mostly during the inedible meals. We were not aware of the other half-brothers and sisters who watched from a distance. As a teen, I sat with my mother as she waited in terror for my father to return home drunk. After he died, my sisters and aunt told me of marvelous dinner parties and lunches my mother held. My aunt never knew of the suffering meals -she laughed when I told her “Good for her!” she said, “Your mother won every contest in Home Economics in High School.”
I later asked my mother if this was true. She shrugged and took a prolonged inhale of her very long Winston Gold cigarette. Well, played Mom, well played. I did not know of these infidelities or hidden cooking skills. I was raised thinking my Grandmother’s Sunday meals and Thanksgiving were delicious feasts only worthy of Grandmother’s home and special occasions. My first Thanksgiving as a Marine found me in the Mojave desert preparing a huge Thanksgiving meal with the barracks NCO for those of us who could not make it home. She was from Detroit and explained soul food to me. You can imagine what that meal meant to me and my current waist-size can probably be traced back to it. I discovered what something called a ham hock does to a big pot of green beans, that a Southern biscuit was the food served in heaven dripping in butter, a turkey stuffed with cornbread dressing and mashed potatoes made from actual potatoes I peeled myself. I had already discovered grits in boot camp but to taste them cut into squares full of tender pieces of turkey neck was beyond good.
My husband and I relish each meal, I have learned to cook cuisines from around the world, which we enjoy and are grateful. I am not so sure I’d be so grateful had it not been for my mother’s meals. My first Thanksgiving away from home might not have been so magical -although, it would have been as tasty. To say my mother was repressed is like saying the rain isn’t wet. I can only be grateful for her grace and restraint. Yes, tasty food would have been better and children needed be punished with the hound dog of a husband but it was her way of surviving. And I am grateful that her meals provided me a springboard to gourmet meals and also a sense of pride at her restrained efforts in the war-bed of marriage.