I took my first bite of food from my mother, a school teacher, who had eight children in eleven years, a peptic ulcer, and a disdain for women who shared recipes. With so many mouths to feed, my mother found cooking an oppressive obstacle to overcome, food itself a burden, its excess almost shameful. I still can picture her bent over the stove cautiously as if the pot held a magnetic force that, dare she linger, would pull her down into some dark and unknown abyss. Feeding, a chore, needed to be dealt with quickly without rumination or fuss. To this day, my mother’s Thanksgiving turkey is ready to serve the Tuesday before the Thursday holiday; she leaves it on the counter under a tin foil tent until we eat it. None of us have ever suffered from salmonellosis; we developed the antibodies long before the disease had its name.
When we were kids, we ate as early as five o’clock, just before our father came home, sitting at the kitchen table while my mother served us. She didn’t sit herself. When my father arrived, he brought with him two gallons of milk, two loaves of bread, and an occasional package of Oreo cookies that we devoured (my mother had a complete disregard for snacks). He had a scotch and water, and then my mother fed him his dinner in the living room while she sat and talked to him, her own nourishment remaining a mystery to us all. Though her meals were predictable and somewhat bland, my mother cooked without fail and without complaint, embellishing her Irish bill of fare with weekly servings of spaghetti smothered in Campbell’s tomato soup and one slice each of Italian bread with butter, real butter—my mother despised margarine. When she discovered RAGÚ, we tasted for the first time a spice other than salt.
For whatever reason, my mother was fiercely competitive about her apple pies and her potato salad, two dishes she took as much pride in as she took offense to my father’s mention of his mother’s versions. And though she didn’t keep a stack of cookbooks or an elaborate spice collection and could easily fit all her cooking utensils in the silverware drawer, she sometimes explored her creative side, mixing her own unique blend of egg and tuna salad for our school lunch sandwiches, all eight of them, the soft white squares lined up on the kitchen table, bread models of our 1960s neighborhood track houses. And she could be sly, frying in butter the B & M Brown Bread slices she suggested (she never lied) were her own. My discovery of the empty tin can still stands amongst those piercing moments of innocence lost, almost as crushing as my first Christmas without Santa.
Though my mother didn’t squeeze lemons or crush garlic, didn’t have as much as a rolling pin—in fact, she flattened her Flako pie dough between two pieces of waxed paper and rolled it thin with a can of soup (maybe the same tomato soup she would later dump on our spaghetti)—her attitude about food was conflicted, for she frequently satisfied her own cravings for radishes that could trigger an ulcer attack or lobster that she and my father coveted and occasionally indulged in on a steamy summer Friday night. She loved, and still does, soft boiled eggs and lobster salad rolls (cold Boston style, not the hot buttery ones she finds herself stuck with in Connecticut), and thick slabs of butter spread on leftover pizza crust. I know how fond she always has been of pepper pot soup and spice cake, and when we traveled to Boston to visit her family, she looked forward to a highway Howard Johnson’s hotdog on a toasted split bun.
My mother’s complex and somewhat irrational (I think) relationship with food—her scorn on one hand, her cravings on the other—might have its genesis in some inner turmoil about her body, its image, or its desires. I’ll never know. But I can suppose that the domestic burdens she faced each day, the planning, gathering, cooking, and cleaning, were just as likely the impetus of her angst. Moreover, my mother never required or even asked us to clear a table or wash a dish, which only added to the insurmountable work the thought of a meal must have invoked.
Since my mother didn’t drive, my father, already an unusually active parent for a man of his times— changing diapers, running baths, and serving as President of our grade school PTA—took her to the grocery store. As a rule, we all tagged along, allowed to choose our prepared dinner for that evening. My favorite, even given the excruciating hour I had to wait for it to cook, was Howard Johnson’s frozen macaroni and cheese. Still unaware that my Italian friends’ kitchens were ablaze with the frenzy of steam and sizzle and the battle of aromas, that their eyes were tearing up from cut onions and their sinuses cleared by garlic’s pungent smell, I found in that ice-cold box enough magic for a cozy Friday night supper.
Years later, standing at my own stove, I discovered the alchemy of tomatoes and fresh spices, the pleasure of dipping chunks of crusty Italian bread into my own gurgling sauce. But at that time, the mere thought of the frozen food aisle satiated me. My mother seemed equally pleased with her seafood croquettes in Newburg sauce or sometimes small glass jars of shrimp cocktail. My brothers and sisters found their own favorites.
Truth be told, food simply wasn’t the centerpiece of our lives. Laughter was. In our house, food had to acquiesce to humor, for we joked about it almost as often as we ate it, about the ingesting as much as the farcicality of it. My mother loves to tell the story of the time I stuffed coffee grinds in the turkey to “help her” (I was only four but already onto her) and the golf balls I must have sneaked into the oven for what reason we’ve yet to determine. They started popping like corn kernels while my parents tried to entertain my father’s boss.
My sister bewailed for years (in vain since we all just laughed) over the porcelain jewelry box she had left on the kitchen table, a gift from her adolescent boyfriend, which my brother used as a salad bowl. Her argument never changed: she understood that he needed a bowl, but couldn’t he have been considerate enough to use French dressing? It was the Wishbone Italian, was the refrain she would shriek as her story reached its climax, with its extra oily composition that was so impossible to wash out!
The humor that food and our own endless self-deprecating stories generated probably helped to soften heartaches we couldn’t escape. My maternal grandfather respected food, eating as if his life depended on it (as we all know now, it probably did). A vaudeville tap dancer, who, well into his seventies and long before it became trendy, ate health food and worked out at a gym, he succumbed to an unexpected coronary, an event triggered, I suspect, by the tragic death of his beloved adult daughter followed months later by the loss of his wife of more than forty years. His food, those healthy thought-out meals, the yogurt, the buttermilk, the fruit and nuts, could not save him from a heart starved for the ones he loved and lost.
But food lost its humor when my father fell ill. His love of food was as passionate as his father-in-law’s, though of a different caliber all together. He favored bloody rare roast beef, bologna and cheese on white bread, and peanut butter sandwiches late at night as he sat in the corner of the couch reading and waiting out a teenager’s curfew. He would bring home from work vivid descriptions of long business lunches shared with colleagues, detailing for us meals he planned to reproduce (but rarely did). But years later, chemotherapy hampered his passion for eating as he lost the ability to taste or to painlessly chew even the smallest bites of soft food. As we attempted to coax nourishment into him, food reared its ugly head once again at my mother whose, perhaps disproportionate, anger lay with the meal itself – an innocent sandwich she damned for its size rather than its futility to feed a body that could no longer be fed.
And, in time, my mother’s interest in eating as well as in cooking grew. She discovered food that I suspect she never had the time nor luxury to enjoy, now phoning to talk about it even though it means breaking her own erstwhile rule regarding culinary exchange. For a while she craved seafood Subways, then eggplant parmesan, and she is loyal to any kind of Cape Cod clam chowder. Much to our chagrin, she’s begun to experiment with different cultural concoctions: shrimp dipped in mayonnaise or Polish perogies smothered in Italian marinara sauce. She adds mushrooms to pasta fagiola, and she spreads cream cheese on slabs of cold roast beef (not bad actually). However, she has no patience, still, when we talk about food and chides us with contempt for the portions we stuff into our mouths. Ladies, my mother is convinced, do not eat huge meals. From what I can tell, they just nibble all day.
I adore food. I was a hungry kid, never attentive in math class because teachers metaphorically divided circles into pieces of pie, quitting Girl Scouts (and just about everything else) because I was too hungry to stay late at school, and finally discovering, as a young bride, oregano and homemade bread and variations in meals I invited into my kitchen and my life as animal lovers rescue strays: nurturing, cultivating, feeling as if they turned my house into a home. But, like my mother, countless years of feeding others eventually spoiled my enthusiasm for cooking, the mere thought of meal preparation triggering a physical inertia, a lethargy, I can only logically associate with the image I’ve carried all these years of my mother hunched over that demanding stove.
These days, I am a dependent vegetarian (my boyfriend is a master chef – as far as I’m concerned – who feeds me daily). I live for Indian cuisine and am willing to eat anything that will keep me healthy and fit. But in many ways, I’m still that starving child, always waiting for the next mouthful. I get cranky when I’m hungry, and, like my mother, I crave particular foods. I yearn for each meal, for the taste, and perhaps for something else. For even when my physical hunger has been satisfied, I often find myself reaching for more. At the same time, I remain nourished by those early childhood memories, the stories of those years when we believed that our mother’s kitchen, replete with our jokes about its mishaps, was the center of a safe and promising world. Bland or not, frozen or canned, her food was a part of our home, and with the accompanying laughter not such a bad place to be.
Professor Martha Phelan Hayes teaches English at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut. She is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including OyeDrum, Every Day Poems, Freshwater Literary Journal, Fresh Ink, Journey to Crone: A Book of Poems, Naugatuck River Review, Orpheus, OxMag, The Penmen Review, Slippery Elm, and Vermont Literary Review. Her poem “Elle Clare” won first prize in the 2010 Central Connecticut Poetry Contest sponsored by Altrusa International. Martha travels, teaches yoga, and enjoys spending time with her family and friends.