My Mother’s Gift: Cooking Family Style
by Mollie Doyle
My earliest memory of my mother in the kitchen is of her making dinner, an apron draped over a blue wool skirt with her white shirt sleeves rolled up, bent over a cookbook, reading the instructions twice just to get it right. These days, her cookbooks all contain notes. “Tasteless.” “Added twice as much cumin.” “Disgusting.” “Addictive.” My family often jokes about one cookbook that did not have one positive review. We wonder why, after 10 or even 15 disastrous recipes, she didn’t throw the book out. But I suspect that because it was one of her first cookbooks and in her early days as a cook, she didn’t
have the confidence to know that the problem wasn’t her.
My grandmother was a terrible cook. Her idea of entertaining was putting a tray of Stouffer’s Turkey Tetrazzini in the oven. Fortunately, her portions were tiny. I distinctly remember her breaking out a small can of tuna for a lunch for six. Her only two claims in the kitchen were Red River hot cereal with a dollop of lemon yogurt (repulsive) and her meatloaf, which was a bunch of hamburger and chopped onions mixed with wheat germ and then slathered in ketchup. Despite her limitations in the culinary arts, my grandmother was a phenomenal painter. So much of an artist, in fact, that anything—children, friends, food—that took her focus or time away from her work was a nuisance.
My mother had a typical daughterly reaction to her mother’s relationship with food: she became a great cook. And a person who makes 16 gourmet sandwiches for four.
In 1976, after spending increasingly crowded summers at my grandfather’s home in Vineyard Haven, my parents decided to buy land and build their own house on the Island. My mother bought a commercial restaurant stove that had six burners, two ovens, and a grill. My father thought it was outrageous. Thirty-seven years later, it is one of the few original things left in the kitchen and we all acknowledge that, not only was the stove the best decision she made about our house, but that it is also the heart of the house. Those six burners have cooked at least a thousand meals each. The stove’s grill is where I make my annual red, white, and blue pancakes on the Fourth of July. The oven on the right is the one that had a gas leak, exploded and singed my mother’s eyebrows when she lit it. The one on the left baked the spanakopita for my wedding.
By the time I was 10, my mom, Cindy, had developed a cooking posse: Jane, Julie, Cindy, Gail, Frank, and sometimes Nancy, who worked for Julia Child. Together the gang took cake decorating classes together at Sears, made pesto together for the first time, and began to think about food more seriously—where it was from, what worked well with what. They discovered all the things I take for granted: fresh, local ingredients, sesame oil, balsamic vinegar, ginger and figs, to name a few. Four times a year, her posse would gather on Martha’s Vineyard for what they called “Walk Weekends.” Though they did take long walks during the day, the focus was the food. The weekends were often arranged around themes: a particular form or focus of poetry, architecture, Jean Redpath (a Scottish Folk singer and dear friend of Jane’s). The food would always align with the theme. For instance, the architecture theme involved food that was constructed. On those weekends, nothing was too complicated or too much. I remember Julie covering the dining room table with brown Cronig’s bags and white sheets of paper to take spore prints of mushrooms she had foraged for a wild mushroom risotto. Or Jane and Gail working a mortar and pestle for an hour to feed a green curry that took two days to simmer.
These weekends inspired me. There was something so incredible about putting three, five or ten things together in a bowl or pot and then watching them turn into something else. So, I pulled a chair up to the stove and began cooking with my mother. Together, we worked our way through Maida Heatter’s Great Desserts, then the breakfast and dessert items in Joy of Cooking and Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book. Soon, I graduated to helping make our family dinners. For inspiration and guidance, we looked to the Moosewood Cookbook, whose recipes always involved a lot of peanuts and peanut butter, and, of course, The Silver Palate, which was THE cookbook of the early ‘80s.
Then came the first Leo Party, which I mark as the time when our mother-daughter cooking partnership took off. Two out of four of my family members are Leos, along with our friend Pam, her daughter Jessica, and our friends Doron, Nellie and Clinton. We decided to celebrate all these birthdays with one party at our house. Forty people were coming. Most people would hire a caterer or make it a potluck. But my mother is a D.I.Y. kind of woman. So we made a feast together. Frank (from my mother’s posse) had put together a cookbook called The Wild Olive for the Atheneum Library in Providence. It featured many Middle Eastern recipes from his boss Sylvia’s childhood in Egypt. We went with it. Hadrian’s Hummus, Tahini Caesar, Tzatzike de Sade, Tabbouleh Bankhead, Spanakopita-Zorba, Falafel Ptolemy. We cooked for three days. We called friends like Julie who had lived in Greece for advice. “How long do you think we should hang the yogurt for the tzatzike?” We agreed that the falafel batter looked like it needed more egg, cumin, and onion. Along the way we realized that the tomatoes in tabbouleh needed to be firmly ripe or they just made the wheat soggy. These recipes are still some of my favorites and the collection is one of my favorite meals.
Around age 15 I went away to boarding school and became a vegetarian. By college, I was in a vegan co-op. In many ways, I was divorced from food. I mean really, how many ways can you cook with soy cheese? Moving to New York after college didn’t help my culinary aspirations either. Cooking in New York seemed silly. I lived alone and could walk one block to get an organic vegetarian burrito with cactus stew for seven bucks.
It wasn’t until my mother almost died that I began cooking again. Seven years ago, she had a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage. Upon seeing her lying in a hospital bed with tubes running out of every vein and limb, my first instinct was to feed her. I immediately googled “health food, Whole Foods” and found a store about a mile away from Brigham and Women’s in Boston. Every morning, before heading to her room, I would walk to the market and get fresh fruit, vegetables and anything else that seemed like it might heal her. Of course, it was irrational to think that fresh pineapple might help her brain, but it was all I could do.
That summer, I lived on the Vineyard and cooked for my mom. As she got better, she would come putter around with me in the kitchen. Raising the Salad Bar had just been published, so we fiddled around with those recipes and cooked lots of comfort food from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa. I remember the day when she picked up a knife and chopped a bunch of onions. My mother is an excellent chopper. Onions, carrots, mushrooms, even the harder vegetables and fruits, like mangos, are always uniform. It was such a relief to see her neat piles on the cutting board. I felt like she was back. Everything was going to be ok.
Another kind of disaster hit that summer while cooking for our Leo party. More than 50 people were coming and my mom and I had decided on Mexican. We made empanadas, cornbread, flan, our favorite salad (with butter lettuce, red onion, grapefruit and avocados), mounds of guacamole and two giant vats of vegetarian chili. Everything was looking good, tasting good, coming together. But we had not accounted for space in either one of my mom’s two refrigerators for these pots of chili. So, we figured we’d put them outside, place rocks on the lids to keep the raccoons and skunks out, and the chili would be fine. When we fetched our pots the next day, we found a one-inch layer of mossy, lime green mold had grown on the surface of the chili. Apparently, a warm August night does that. With only a few hours to go before guests were to arrive, we did what we had to do: scraped the mold off and served it to our guests. Disgusting, I know. I must confess that I don’t think either one of us ate any, and, fortunately, no one got sick. At least, that we know of.
Since then, I have moved here. So we have another fridge for space on big party days. But most of the time, my mother and I cook for our families. We try things out—Burma and Jerusalem are two new food zones—and tweak classics like roast chicken. Once in a while, we find the occasional recipe that sounded good on the page, but is just revolting.
In May of last year they found a walnut- sized tumor on my mom’s brain, which was totally unrelated to her first brain issue. My mom had to have another brain operation. There was more “cooking” at the hospital. More recuperation. She couldn’t drive for six months. So, we got to spend more time together, discussing recipes, ingredients, making meals. But this time, I became aware that time with my mom in the kitchen is precious. I pay attention, noting her skills—especially how to chop vegetables so that they look like an elegant version of themselves, or the artful touches she adds to her food, like placing a whole basil leaf in her spring rolls so that each roll is also a portrait of an herb.
As the daughter of an artist, my mother’s attention to presentation is acute. If it doesn’t look good on the plate, it is not a success. That, along with her mother’s beautiful art that graces her kitchen, was my grandmother’s small gift to my mom in the kitchen. My gift from my mother is much larger: an appreciation of great ingredients, the ability to look any recipe in the face and not be scared (well, 90 percent of the time), and most of all, knowing that if there is someone to cook for, I have someone to cook with. At least, for now.