Posted on May 13th, 2012
My father likes to tell my mother that she seduced him with her cooking. When they were friends at university, before they dated, my mother invited my father to her apartment for a meal. She made her mother’s oven-gratinée recipe for sea scallops. After serving them, as my mother went to the kitchen for bread, my father devoured his whole plate. When asked if he wanted more, my mother gave my father the portion on her plate that he promptly swallowed up, and only then did he find that she hadn’t made any more beyond that–she had given him everything.
A vessel, brimming with an intangible, abstract concept called love, my mother is ever ready to give. It is a pity the world has not found a way to harness this ethereal energy to power civilization, since I’m certain it would solve most of our problems if only by virtue of its boundlessness.
My mother often displays her renewable energy in the form of food, as does my sister, as do I. Her cooking is grounded in her French and Polish roots, and we three with my father were recently together for a few evenings of delicious feasting. These nights were a tender ritual, wrapped in crispy celebration. The daughters have moved out and away, taken up companions, so there’s something mouthwateringly sweet about being just the four of us. It is a throwback to our childhood and a reminder of my mother’s younger days.
Every day at the table, my mother’s grandmother, Franciska, crossed a loaf of bread with a knife before slicing into it. This was my mother’s earliest memory of food. A Catholic family, they never said grace, but their thanks were expressed in this gesture. This respect for food – the sacredness of having it and sharing it with others – defined certain parts of my mother’s personality.
Other parts were deeply marked by her brother, Richard. My mother was not yet born when my grandmother, Hélène, was crushed by the death of her first child. Richard, my mother was told, was an infant underweight though not underfed. He was three and a half years old when he passed.
While Hélène believed a better-fed son would have lived, my mother says that daily exposure to an uncle with tuberculosis was the root cause of her brother’s death. At a time when some did not believe in bacteria because they could not be seen by the naked eye, when God would never do something as cruel as to take away a mother’s son, Hélène was left placing blame and wondering how she could have prevented her loss. She overfed my mother.
During those youngest years, my mother spent a lot of time with her grandfather, Antoine, in his vegetable garden. Taking her by the hand, Antoine would breathe in awe to come see with him the things growing in the long rows of dark soil. He grew enough potatoes to feed three families, eighteen people. In the glum, flat north of France where men were coal miners and women married at seventeen, my mother’s family ate potatoes at every meal through the winter. They were never hungry.
Later, my mother observed her mother work up a storm of a feast on days when guests shared the dinner table. Whether a matter of pride or love or both, those days were spent whirling in the tight kitchen, creating side dishes, roasts, appetizers, desserts. My father, my sister and I now laugh when by mother begins her guest-day anxiety. A caricature of herself, she exclaims in French, “It’s 11 AM and I’m already late for guests arriving at 6!”
When asked if there is one meal in the past or present that tickles her taste buds more memorably than most, my mother does not hesitate long before recounting her mother’s Sunday roast chicken. Every Saturday, Hélène would buy the farmer’s chicken, fed on grain and grubs, at the market. She would cut it into large chunks – the bones, skin and meat – and sauté the pieces in small batches in an iron casserole on the stove. The meat sizzled in the hot butter-oil mixture until my grandmother had a pile of browned pieces. She would then throw all the chicken back into the black pot, adding white wine, shallots, salt and pepper, cover it with the heavy lid, and slip it into the broiling oven. Toward the end, Hélène would remove the lid to render the pieces a pleasing gold with delectably crispy skin – the sight and scent reason enough to battle with one another for a taste, and battle they did, my mother and grandfather, Stanislas.
Along with the roast chicken, my mother remembers her mother making mashed potatoes. Hélène would boil, peel and mash the potatoes by hand, and then add one or sometimes even two whole eggs, salt, and pepper. No butter or milk, the market potatoes were rich with fresh egg. Hélène always made too much so that she could use the leftovers for kluski. Later in the week she would add flour and another egg to those mashed potatoes, mixing it well before laying ribbons of the dough on the counter. The ribbons were then cut into pieces and tossed into boiling water, rising to the surface when ready to be scooped out. Kluski was best, my mother says, when sautéed in a hot, oily skillet so that the outside – like that roast chicken – would become irresistibly golden and crispy while the inside remained delicate and creamy.
My mother does not know whether it is the oven, the oil or butter, the chicken, the potatoes, or the casserole itself, but for one or many reasons, she has never been able to reproduce that Sunday afternoon meal of her childhood.
Today, my mother’s favorite meal is not important, she says. In fact, when asked, she honestly doesn’t have a favorite. She enjoys preparing what my sister, father, and I enjoy most. On days when she is alone, she does not take the time to create a masterpiece because cooking for her is about bringing to life the love that she has for us, giving us the beauty that simmers inside of her. In talking with my sister, I have noticed that we do the same. When friends join Nathalie for dinner, she is so proud of her cooking she thinks she should marry herself. I have been developing my intuition, hoping to please eyes, surprise mouths.
My sister and I may not often cook the recipes of my mother or my grandmother, but just as Hélène and Franciska influenced Marie-Christine, Nathalie and I are the kluski to the mashed potatoes. I can only hope to be as delicate and enveloping, as boundless and beautiful as my mother.