Many of us connect at least one experience of food with our mothers. For Ellen McKenzie, it’s chicken frying in the electric skillet. For Anne Dunne, it’s Irish soda bread warm from the oven. For Mary Whited, it’s baked beans and brown bread on Saturday night. For me, it’s stuffed cabbage filled with rice and meat, covered in tomato sauce.
Ellen, Anne, Mary and I play basketball in a local over-50 women’s league. Besides basketball, however, we share the knowledge that the food we grew up with was much more than just a meal meant to sustain us (though that was certainly important “back in the day”). So many years later, the diverse dishes we recall still evoke strong memories of family life where meals were a time when we assimilated our cultural heritage and family traditions, and cultivated an appreciation of food.
Mary Whited grew up in Bridgewater, a small, Aroostook County town about 20 miles from Presque Isle. To this day, Saturdays still conjure up memories of baked beans simmering on the stove and the smell of homemade brown bread cooling on the kitchen counter. There was always a dessert at the end of these meals, and Mary attributes her love for such treats to childhood days.
Mary says her mother worked too hard on the farm from dawn to dusk and had little time to teach her and her two sisters to cook. But by observing their mother’s ways – and by partaking of the food she served – they all developed a love of cooking.
“All three of her daughters like to cook,” Mary says. “I even feel it sometimes with the girls (her stepdaughters), that the one thing I can do to make them happy or enjoy me being their stepmother is by cooking for them. They are so appreciative.”
“You know,” Mary continues. “I think what we learned from Mom about food is how it can bring a family together. It shows love, even if you don’t say it to someone. It feels like home. (The kitchen) was always a safe place.”
“The heart of the home was the kitchen with my mother leading the way,” agrees Anne Dunne of Scarborough. She grew up in the Bronx, where her parents emigrated from Ireland. For her family, the daily evening meal was a time to eat, chat, debate, argue, and share stories. Her early memories are of roasted meats, fresh vegetables and potatoes – “always potatoes, but there was never a complaint on that score,” recalls Anne. “We loved them: boiled, baked, fried, mashed. The cooking was simple but delicious.”
One of Anne’s favorite treats came when her mother made Irish soda bread to go with her Irish tea.
“It went really fast, so you made sure you were around when the baking was complete,” Anne recalls. “We would sit around the kitchen table with mugs of sweet tea and milk, soda bread with butter and wide-ranging conversations.”
Anne learned from her mother the pleasure of preparing a meal for the people you love – as well as taking the time to share a meal each day. It’s a family practice that Anne is passing on to her own daughter, Sarah.
“Not only do I enjoy cooking with my mother, but I also appreciate the times where we are able to talk about our days and catch up with each other,” wrote Sarah in an email from Colby-Sawyer College, where she is a sophomore. “Cooking with my mom has made me realize the importance of keeping tradition and of passing down my mother’s teachings to my own family some day.”
Ellen McKenzie grew up in Portland in a family of eight. Though she credits her mother with an array of fabulous dishes, the memory of her fried chicken (the recipe for which remains a family secret) stands out.
“When she was frying chicken in the electric frying pan, you could smell it in the playground adjacent to our back yard,” recalls Ellen. “I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into what I knew would be another delicious meal.”
One time, Ellen and her twin sister Lisa tried to duplicate the recipe to surprise their mom.
“We used confectioner’s sugar as our special ingredient,” Ellen recalls. “It was a good laugh and surprisingly tasty. It makes for an amusing tale to this day.”
At the age of 83, Ellen’s mother still cooks for herself and often makes enough for any of her children who might stop by around dinnertime. She also brings her special sweet potato dish to Thanksgiving every year.
“What makes these memories so powerful, along with the taste of the meals, is the love she put into making them,” Ellen says.
My own mother was the only daughter of Russian immigrants. She straddled two worlds while we were growing up in a small town just south of Boston. She would visit her mother on the family farm every afternoon – with her twin daughters in tow – and we would listen as they conversed in Russian in my grandmother’s kitchen. Hurrying home to fix dinner, our mother cooked American fare straight from her Betty Crocker cookbook. I observed how she could turn around a hearty meal like a short-order cook, ready for our dad when he got home at 5:30. Cultivating this skill served me well when I had to feed my own family after a long day at work.
The one traditional Russian dish my mother prepared on special occasions was halupki: cabbage leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice and ground meat, covered in a thin, sweet, tomato sauce. My sister and I would stand by her side at the kitchen counter, watching her fold the cabbage leaves over the filling. She would patiently coach us while she worked, as we practiced pronouncing the name of this exotic-sounding dish. (We called it “whole-la-bi”).
On the few occasions when I’ve made halupki, I’ve felt a curious swelling of pride, akin more to the accomplishment of some complicated culinary task than the simple stuffing of cabbage leaves. Peasant fare though it might have seemed to her, halupki was a delicacy to me – part of a heritage we were proud to share with the person who gave us life and so much love.
Sharing our mothers’ food legacies, we have come to understand that – no matter what they served or how they cooked it – our mothers were teaching us important lessons. As the saying goes, we are what we eat. And for that, we have our mothers to thank.