My mom did not know how to cook when she married. She used to tell stories about Daddy teaching her how to boil water and how to cook hamburger. I could hear her newlywed desire to please her husband in those stories. I could also hear her satisfaction in the self-sufficiency that drove her to bake bread and butcher her own chickens in the early days of her marriage.
Four children, the grueling work of running a dairy, and the disappointments of life with a man who didn't know how to love, drove all the romance out of cooking (and most everything else) for her. Surviving her life became all she could do. Self-sufficiency was no longer a point of pride. There was no other choice. Nurturing, parenting, loving - all got short shrift - which meant that so did her kids.
But we were fed well. And because she didn't have a natural affinity for food and its preparation, she relied on cookbooks. She had three. One was a huge binder filled with booklets, each on a different topic, with the impressive title, The Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedia of Cooking and Homemaking. Another was Elsie's Cook Book, Tested Recipes of Every Variety by Elsie the Cow. The third was Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book.
I have all three.
I acquired them after we moved Mom into Assisted Living a few years ago and I was closing out her house. I had always wanted them, and hoped that they would be passed on to me in an act of love and sharing. There was no final reconciliation between us, and so I had to satisfy myself with possession and with the sweet memories held in the pages of the books.
I love to cook. I don't remember learning to cook. I just always have. Mom was happy to turn as much of that job over to me as I could handle. So as soon as I could reach the stove at seven or eight, I was in charge of the nightly potatoes. Chocolate chip cookies became an early specialty, as did spaghetti. I played with spices and combinations and flavors. My failures were tolerated. My successes encouraged and praised.
Cooking was something I could do to please. Something that came easily. The only other thing besides reading and writing where I could lose myself and find myself at the same time.
So the cook books came to represent all of that to me. And in that, to represent what little love and approval I was able to experience with my mom.
This fall, I pulled the battered, stained and frayed Betty Crocker out of my cupboard when I decided to bake cherry pie for Thanksgiving. It's one of the few times in all the years those cook books have lived in my cupboard that I sought one out to actually use. It was so satisfying that Betty, and my mom's food-stuck pages, became my primary source for Christmas cooking this year.
For the first time since my mom's dementia removed any hope of our being adult friends, I felt close to her. As I followed the recipes in her cook book, the losses of my childhood no longer had the power to wound. The expected tooth-ache longing for her approval never did appear. The satisfaction of creating food that once nourished our bodies and our relationship was enough. I love that Betty Crocker cook book. I love my mom. I love that I can, finally and simply, love the woman whose recipes I use to enrich my life.
photos from Flickr