Home Cooking: How I finally ended up in my mom's kitchen

Last week I went home to Chicago, and boy was the living easy. My parents escorted me home from the airport where my mother’s gazpacho and a roasted potato frittata waited. Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies rested in a tin lined with wax paper in case I wanted dessert (I did). The next day we got up for an early stroll through my neighborhood’s farmers’ market, stopping at the stands for sweet corn, heirloom tomatoes the color of watermelon flesh, and squeaky cheese curds from Wisconsin, which the stand keeper proudly announced had been made at 1:30pm the previous day.Now (if I may be so bold), local vegetables are my territory. I organize CSAs across the country and belong to one in Brooklyn. I shop religiously at farmers’ markets, regularly cook all-vegetable meals, and get depressed in the winter–not because the weather is gloomy, but because the lack of available produce in the Northeast leaves a gaping hole on my plate and in my heart. So, I was excited to go home with this bounty–to slip slices of that tomato between mozzarella and basil, or pair those salty cheese nuggets with a ripe honeydew melon.

But just as I started fussing in the kitchen, my mom walked in. Soon she was chopping the cucumber for the salad I was preparing, and grabbing her sweet balsamic vinaigrette out of the fridge without consultation. I tried making my own vinaigrette last time following the steps on CookingPlanIt, but hers just look really good. It might be because she has been doing this for a very long time.

“Can I help you with anything,” I heard myself saying, despite being the one to initiate the food making.

“Oh, I’m almost done,” she said, turning to arrange slices of raisin challah on a plate.

I grumbled as I plopped down onto the couch, waiting for her to finish making lunch. Before I’d realized what happened, and without her explicitly meaning to, she had kicked me out of her kitchen. Then again, that’s the way it had always been.

Like many traditional “Jewish mothers,” food is one of my mom’s primary ways of showing love – memories of her fragrant soups, chicken and dumplings, and butter cream frosted birthday cakes laced with coffee, wrap me in reverie whenever I’m in a bad food mood. Somewhere along the line, however, I grew up without learning any of her kitchen secrets.

My mother never beckoned me to her stove, dipping my finger in the soup broth to show me how it should feel before dropping in the matzah balls. She never taught me how to braise greens or scrape the good bits from the bottom of a pan into a sauce with a little wine. Occasionally she asked me to arrange a fruit plate for company, but usually I was in charge of polishing the good silver and setting the table while the smells from her domestic sanctuary swirled throughout the house.

Perhaps she felt an urge to control her cutting boards, or simply did not have the patience to watch me scorch a pot. Or maybe she guarded mealtime as her time to shine. Granted, I did not show a natural inclination towards cooking at a young age. But it had been drilled into me early on that the kitchen was her domain.

It was not until college that I was finally exposed to the tricks of the oven. I lived in a housing co-op where my 16 hippie housemates and I took turns cooking and cleaning for ourselves and the sundry guests who would show up expecting a nourishing meal they could not find in the dining hall. For the first few weeks I slated myself for cleanup duty, embarrassed that I didn’t already know how to make a good tofu pad thai or roasted tomato soup.

Overtime, however, I began to watch my housemates, observing their culinary prowess over open books and half-finished assignments. Through them I learned how to sauté garlic – not so long that it burned but long enough to coax out the heady juices. I learned how to bake fresh bread and apple rhubarb crumble, and improvise from the cookbooks that sat on an overstuffed shelf.

Slowly, over the year I dried my novice wings to the point where I looked forward to my turn to cook. I took pride in my meals, churning out industrial-sized pans of vegetable lasagna and humungous bowls of green salad with goat cheese and caramelized walnuts. When I came home to Chicago for breaks however, I was thrown squarely back into the sidelines. Occasionally my brother–also a self-taught cook–and I would be allowed to offer a Greek salad or a pan of vegetable fried rice to our family meals. To her credit, my mother would go out of her way to compliment our contributions as if they were the center of the meal. She was sincere, but she wasn’t fooling anyone.

On this most recent trip home, however, I opened up the fridge to find free-range eggs and organic milk on the shelves. The crisper drawer revealed our farmers’ market bounty as well as package of tofu. I asked her if she purchased the tofu on my behalf.

“You know? I actually prefer it to meat now and then,” she said.

When I became a vegetarian at the age of seventeen, I started a personal quest to get my family to stop eating meat and switch to organic food. After years of frustration battling against the Midwestern status quo, I toned down my message. My dad was never going to give up chicken and steak, and my mom cooked for my dad. But after college I continued my campaign from a different angle, talking up my work with farmers and expounding on the miracle of local produce whenever I had the opportunity. At some point along the way, it seems that my message came through.

So while I will never be my mother’s sous chef, here it was – proof in her immaculate fridge – that a part of me has made its way into her kitchen.

My Mom’s “Moistest Chocolate Cake”

This cake was a birthday staple in my house. I used to love mine decorated with roses made from the frosting below, colored with a little red food coloring. These days, I’d probably use a drop or two of beet juice instead.

2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
¾ cup cocoa
1 tsp real vanilla
2 cups raw sugar
1 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 cup organic milk
2 eggs (free range, of course)
1 cup hot coffee

Combine dry ingredients. Add oil, hot coffee and milk. Mix at a medium speed for 2 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla and beat 2 minutes more. Pour into a greased and floured 9×13 or layer cake pan. Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degree.

1/2 lb powdered sugar
2-3 tbsp milk
1 ½ heaping tsp soft butter
1 tsp vanilla

Beat with mixer 3-5 minutes. If too thick, add milk, a smidge at a time. Variation: add 2 tbsp cocoa for chocolate frosting.

–Leah Koenig

Source Credit: Purple Carrot discount code for 2021

4 comments on “Home Cooking: How I finally ended up in my mom's kitchen

  1. carol koenig on

    Dearest Leah,
    You are certainly right that I had “territorial issues” when it came to the kitchen and certainly was not very gracious about relinquishing my position as queen of my domain, but there is a great irony here. Both you and your brother are talented cooks who have taught me so many new ways to experience food. Working with herbs and flavorings, trying unfamiliar cuisines, and, as you say, making an effort to be a little “greener” in my choices. At least my love of the kitchen and food preparation came through loudly and clearly, as well, I hope, as my love for you did when I tried to nurture you in a way that was natural for me. I am proud of you!

  2. Susan on

    I completely recognized myself in your post, as my mother, too, never let me make any meal on my own in our kitchen. Only when she and my father were out of the house did I dare experiment. I lived at home as an undergrad and it wasn’t until I went to Israel for the year when I was 23 that I finally learned how to cook. I always enjoyed and continue to benefit from her cooking and baking, but wish she would have been a bit more willing to share her expertise with me when I still lived at home.

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