Why it’s never “just like Mom used to make”

On Wednesday evening, we had a Rosh Hashanah dinner on our enclosed back porch that – aside from the addition of some Hebrew prayers, and challah, apples and honey, and candles on the table – resembled a typical (read: maddening) family dinner involving an infant and a 3 year old: Lily immediately started whining about not wanting to eat what was on her plate; when we coerced her into trying a bite, she cried, red-faced, with her food-stuffed mouth hanging open, and she wailed that she didn’t like it just before she spit it out; Neve woke up halfway through the meal, grumpy and hungry, so Joe held her while I shoveled the rest of my dinner into my mouth and left to feed the baby in a more comfortable chair; Lily started negotiating how many bites of each part of her dinner she needed to eat to qualify for dessert, and asked Joe to put some peanut butter on a piece of challah; and finally, when Joe and Lily had had their dessert, I finished feeding Neve, handed her off to Joe, and headed to the porch to have my dessert course alone.

“What did you get?” I asked Joe, who’d picked up various items at the Franklin Cider Mill the night before.

“A pumpkin pie. For you.”

I popped open the plastic container and cut a slice for myself, resuming my place at the table. The candles were burning down, the world was rainy and dark outside the windows, and the littered, abandoned battlefield of the dinner table, which I would soon need to clean up, lay before me.

But then I tasted the pie and thought of my mother.

She usually made the crust herself, pinching the dough around the glass pie plate’s border (and the leftover dough, cut away from the pie’s circumference, was then draped in long pieces on a cookie sheet, covered with cinnamon and sugar, and baked in the oven). There’d be an emptied can of Libby’s pumpkin filling on the counter, and even though the smell of the pie baking was wonderful, it mostly made me look forward to the time when the leftovers would be refrigerated, and I’d grab a cold slice of pie after dinner for a few days to come.

I loved these pies so much that, at age 6 or so, I ate nearly half of one by myself (and consequently got really sick later that night – I remember going into my parents’ room in my pajamas and not quite making it through the sentence “I don’t feel good”).

My mother wasn’t a master chef or anything; she made relatively simple meals, using old, classic cookbooks, or the recipes found on the label of a bag or can. And I’ve had some terrific pumpkin pie since her death in January 2009. (My grandmother-in-law, for instance, makes a fantastic whipped pumpkin pie that’s light as air.) But I’ve never again tasted pie that was like hers: shallow and dense, with nothing on top (to please the picky eaters in her own family), and a thin crust that was subtle, allowing the filling to be the star.

Was it the best pumpkin pie I ever had? No. But it’s the one I find myself yearning for nonetheless, because it tasted like love and comfort. It tasted like home. (It’s a cosmic irony that just as I was having my first experiences with the endless, all-consuming, and often externally invisible tasks of childrearing – Lily was 8 months old when my mother died – I lost the chance to convey my gratitude to the person most engaged in those same pursuits while I was growing up.)

As a child, I occasionally helped my mom make the pies, but I’ve never attempted to make one myself. I generally resisted learning to cook, because even at a young age, I figured out that if I mainly just “got by” in a kitchen, no one would expect me to host and prepare big meals. And frankly, I just wasn’t interested in cooking.

So although I enjoy good food as much as the next person, the whole “foodie”-frenzy thing is a bit lost on me – something summed up well by Dominique Browning in her recent memoir, “Slow Love”: “By the time I’ve gotten through all the preparations for cooking – the scrubbing and scraping and grating and chopping and rubbing and coating and whatever else is required – I feel like I’ve been playing with my food for an hour. I’m tired of it. I’ve lost my appetite. And I find it appalling to see all my hard work, sometimes hours of it, disappear down people’s throats in two minutes.” Indeed. (Fortunately, Joe doesn’t feel this way; though this was more true before we had children, the process still, to some degree, is a means of winding down from the work day for him. Plus, his love of food easily outweighs my own.)

And staring down the sisyphean task of cleaning up all the pans and dishes used to prepare a meal only discourages me from joining the cooking ranks even more.

But every once in a while, I bake a batch of snickerdoodles, drawing the recipe from one of my mom’s decades-old cookbooks, which now sits on my shelf. Or I make chocolate chip cookies, making the two key adjustments my mother always did to the recipe found on the crinkly yellow Tollhouse package. And both come pretty close to tasting the way my mother’s did.

Generally, though, I tend to focus on the experience I had last Christmas. Each December, my mom would always make a recipe called Ethel’s Sugar Cookies, along with homemade icing that she’d split up into four bowls, adding food coloring so that we had green, pink, yellow, or white icing to choose from for the cookies, along with various candied toppings for decoration. We sat around the kitchen table and helped her ice and decorate them as kids, placing each completed cookie on a sheet of wax paper, and in recent years, the grandkids had learned to perform this task with her, too.

In hopes of keeping up this Christmas cookie tradition, this past year, I mixed together the recipe’s ingredients, used the same tin cookie cutters we’d used as kids, and baked the dough. The cookies themselves were fine, but the icing recipe I used didn’t achieve a product with same consistency as my mother’s. It was more clear, and didn’t harden and thicken in the same way.

Maybe I had used the wrong icing recipe; or maybe it just didn’t turn out so well my first time, and it will get better. But I thought then that ultimately, my goal isn’t to duplicate my mother’s efforts. No matter what, my own execution will stray from hers a certain degree, because we’re not the same person. And that’s fine. My mother is gone, and so it simply makes sense that the distinct tastes that she created throughout her life are gone, too, leaving only elusive traces, the way the objects she created or owned or love do now.

In the same way, because I’m her child, I necessarily share some physical and non-physical characteristics with her; but we weren’t really even close to being the same person. I am a mix of her, my father, and various other external factors, and therefore, my own creations won’t be like hers, but will rather build loosely on the foundation of what she made. Genetically, as well as in the kitchen, some of her ingredients and methods will live on in me and sisters, and we’ll bring some of our own to the table.

I thought about all this as I sat on my own family’s porch, eating the (quite good) pumpkin pie Joe bought at the cider mill, after we had celebrated the Jewish New Year – a time of clean slates and renenwal. I listened to Lily sing while drawing, and watched Joe rocking Neve in his arms, and thought that if there is such a thing as immortality, that’s the closest we can come: single strands of those who came before us being braided, and enduring, within the souls of our progeny, carrying a few little pieces of each of us forward into the future, to be mixed with yet more pieces.

Yes, I miss the distinct taste of my mother’s pumpkin pie. But that craving is ultimately a cause of both grief and joy: grief for what’s lost, but joy in the occasional jolt of otherwise forgotten memories that instantly arrives whenever I place a bite of pumpkin pie in my mouth. It made me think of the last part of Donald Hall’s poem “Maple Syrup,” wherein he and his wife discover a jar that his long-dead grandfather had tapped:

We take my grandfather’s last
quart of syrup
upstairs, holding it gingerly,
and we wash off twenty-five years
of dirt, and we pull
and pry the lid up, cutting the stiff,
dried rubber gasket, and dip our fingers
in, you and I both, and taste
the sweetness, you for the first time,
the sweetness preserved, of a dead man
in the kitchen he left
when his body slid
like anyone’s into the ground.

In the end, before re-joining the chaotic hubbub of my own family, I cut a second, small slice of pie, sat back down in my chair, and gave myself permission to linger in memory for just a few minutes more. Such opportunities are rare these days, so the moment had the feel of a New Year’s gift to myself.

And when the moment passed, I blew out the two candles and started clearing the table, taking care of my loved ones in one of the small ways my mother taught me to.

One thought on “Why it’s never “just like Mom used to make”

  1. Erik Kuszynski says:

    Apologies to the writers of ‘Ratatouille”, but I believe anyone can cook. And although your food may not be exactly what your Mom made, but it will be EXACTLY what Lily’s Mom made when she looks back at her childhood 30 years from now. The important thing is to just do it.
    I believe cooking for your family is one of the purest expressions of love that one can make.
    If we are what we eat, would you rather have food made by your Mother, or by Marie Callender?

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