Posted on May 13th, 2012
Is there a phrase more overused, more cliché, more pre-loaded with meaning, and ultimately more misleading than “just like mama used to make”? (“I need that report by five o’clock” comes close.) The phrase, when uttered, (usually in a booming, “here ya go” manner with an army of fat invisible exclamation marks following) brings to mind red-and-white checkered tablecloths, huge steaming pots of spaghetti, plates of mashed potatoes and creamy sauces and sweet/spicy sausage served by a larger than life individual who is either (your) mama or a generic version of Mario Batali, unto you – a rapt tween who has yet to experience heartbreak, unemployment and endless traffic jams. Mama cooked out of love, not duty (and through exhaustion and sleep deprivation). Chefs were kind kitchen Santas, not psychopaths yelling obscenities at line cooks. The good guys never lost. Everything was for you. You never thought that time would come again, until… you were served THIS DISH, which surprisingly, incredibly, tastes Just Like Mama Used to Make.
The Mama in question is, undoubtedly, your mama. The assumption is that your mama knew how to cook, and no one could ever cook better than her. (The logic instantly becomes flawed when you consider that if everyone’s mama was the best cook in the world, then no one’s mama was actually a better cook than the rest.) The assumption never goes: “And while mama slept on the couch, passed out and snoring from an evening of shooting smack into her big toe and drinking a bunch of 40s, and papa sat in the basement with the shotgun, contemplating ending it all because the hallucinations were too horrible to withstand, I would take little sis and off we’d go, into the freezing hell of Alaskan winter, not a car in sight, thin layers of ice covering potholes in neglected roads, until we reached Timmy’s house, and Timmy’s mom would heap our plates with roasted chicken and grilled veggies and for that, at least, we were grateful”. To this person, Timmy’s mama would be the Mama who made tasty things; thoughts of her own mama might bring about memories of salty mac and cheese from a can and a glass of Kool-Aid, on good days.
Furthermore, the phrase’s nostalgic nature carries with it a darker undercurrent. “Used to make” means that the Mama in question probably no longer makes it, whatever “it” is. Is she deceased, or did she simply figure that you are now old enough to cook for yourself and stop exploiting her, and papa can make himself a sandwich, thankyouverymuch? In either case, something happened – the line of goodness, of sustenance, of unrestrained gluttony has been irrevocably interrupted. Things will never be the same again. Good thing this plate of frozen, microwaveable slop is here to set the world right for you.
Let us suppose, for a second, that the diner in question did not grow up in a Harmony Korine movie and never went to the funeral of anyone more important than an ancient pet hamster. How often, really, does the food actually live up to the promise? When do those bowls of spaghetti taste divine, and not like something that emerges as an “entrée” from the back of a questionably clean local pizzeria? When is that filet of fish bursting with the flavor of the sea, instead of the fryer? How often does that chicken noodle soup need to be nuked into oblivion with salt and pepper in order to have any kind of flavor at all? Contents of the plate frequently appear better than they actually are.
Here’s a perfect example of how two people can have very different interpretations of the same phrase, ripped from my own family history. As a child, I sometimes stayed with my paternal grandparents for a week or two. Like any old school Eastern European grandma, mine fussed around the stove endlessly, cooking for gramps and me as she did for my father when he was a boy. I didn’t want to eat her food; I was spoiled. I should mention here that my mother is an amazing cook, and I never want to hear “just like mama used to make” because she always has, and still does, prepare perfect, simple comfort food when I am over, and while I have eaten food that was great in other ways, I have never been served something “like” it that was just as good. In other words, grandma didn’t stand a chance. It did not help matters that her food was genuinely subpar: heavy, oily, with the flavor just a little off from what you’d expect. (Good thing she doesn’t speak English well enough to read this.)
I was also already becoming a bit of a neat freak, and somehow, grandma’s kitchen didn’t come across as very sanitary, though it was not particularly filthy either. The problem was that her hair occasionally, i.e. about 40% of the time, made it into the dish. And as Lucinda Williams (or Eddie Vedder, depending on the version you hear) once sang, that which you fear the most will meet you halfway. And boy, did the hair meet me halfway. More often than not, I would be the only one at the table to find a fuzzy surprise in my dish. “What, not again?!” grandma would exclaim and clasp her hands in exasperation, and the family would laugh as I sat there coughing up a hairball.
My father was now used to finer things in life, too, but grandpa had no choice but to eat his wife’s masterpieces. One day, as I tried to hunt down yet another hair that was hiding behind a piece of chicken somewhere, he said, “You know, that’s nothing. When your grandmother’s mother was alive, we all lived in the same apartment and she was the one who cooked all the meals. That woman – she shed like a damn cocker spaniel.”
“What are you talking about?” grandma protested.
“Oh yeah, say, you’re eating soup. An innocent bowl of soup. You’d plunge the spoon in there, and come up with a spoonful of hair!”
“That’s not true! I never got any hair in my soup. He’s making it up.”
“Hair soup! Hair soup, that’s what we had every night!”
Somehow, this did not inspire me to keep eating my grandma’s dish. But whereas my grandmother enjoyed her mother’s cooking (or pretended to), grandpa had a very different opinion of his mother-in-law’s creations. When the phrase “just like mama used to make” is synonymous with “hair soup,” the frozen dinner doesn’t sound so bad. At least there’s quality control at the factory, and machines don’t shed hair.
In light of the aforementioned, I propose that we put the obnoxious phrase to bed. There are plenty of other clichés to be used, like “hearty Italian” and, you know, “artisanal.” The phrase has long ago lost all the meaning it was intended to carry. In fact, can you imagine someone cool – say, Paul Newman in his prime, or Clint Eastwood in the Sergio Leone trilogy – saying this to anyone? Exactly. Neither should you.