Every Christmas, I try to visit my mother. The visits are short because they are hard. And though we are decades past festivities or more traditional gift giving, I’ll take flowers, pain au chocolats from Tartine, and my two children. The past few years, I’ve left her house with a black and white composition book as my “gift” from her. She cuts out recipes from cooking magazines, then glues them onto the lined pages. There are Mexican, French, Chinese recipes without order. She calls them her “cookbooks.” She has probably around one hundred, clustered on the floor of a closet, stacked on top of the bookshelf, some of them moldering.
I call her weekly, mostly to make sure she’s alive. I ask the only safe question: “What are you making for dinner?”
In March of 2020, as the country sporadically locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my mother fell and broke her upper leg, just below the hip. She had been deteriorating for a long time (I wrote about her brain aneurysm and its aftermath in my memoir, and you can read a relevant excerpt at the Sewanee Review). As a result of an aneurysm in 2005, she had briefly been paralyzed on her right side; fifteen years later, she only rarely put weight on that foot. She was completely reliant upon a walker, even to stand. She never went outside the house—not to sit in a slant of sun or even check the mail—because to do so would require her to hazard a stair.
Her fall then, in the early months of the pandemic, felt inevitable. She required immediate surgery to reset the bone with screws. When I got the call that she was recovering in the hospital, I felt relief. Not that she was all right, but that we were back in the tenor of crisis, which is where I hover regardless of my mother’s physical capabilities. In the moments before her fall, she had gone to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get what her companion calls “booze” but I know to be wine or vodka. She stepped away from her walker. She had lain on the floor until morning. The paramedics reported that when they picked her up, she was extremely intoxicated. She had to be given Valium to come down without seizures. I knew she would never take a step again.
Nearly every morning since that injury three years ago, my mother’s companion (who she calls her “boyfriend”) lifts her from her bed, changes her diaper, and wheels her to the dining room table. At her chair—ever ready—are scissors, glue sticks, tape, and stacks of magazines. She has current subscriptions to Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and Sunset magazine, but my sister and I also purchased bundles of back issues from eBay. Apart from her personal hygiene needs, which do not include bathing, showering, or teeth brushing (her body is cleaned with wipes, her hair is an oil slick, and her teeth are, quite literally, rotting out of her mouth—I found a dentist who will make house calls but my mother has steadfastly refused), she sits at her table until she is wheeled back to bed at the end of the day. Turner Classic Movies plays on a loop through her waking hours. She has no idea what year it is.
Inside her refrigerator are deli selections and prepared foods from Gelson’s. Her stove is spotless. When I visit, her trash is always empty (as if it had just been carried out, which is, of course, suspicious). Her copper pans—some of which she gave me after her aneurysm, some of which are still on open shelves—are coated in dust and untarnished by heat.
“Shrimp scampi,” she tells me. “I like a lot of butter. Do you like butter?”
“Oh man, I love butter. My kids are always trying to eat pieces of it like it’s cheese.”
“Don’t let them do that,” she says. “They’ll get chubby.”
Sometimes she tells me she’s making baked ziti, a familiar Sunday specialty. Sometimes it’s tuna or chicken salad. Carbonara, or Mahi tacos with mango salsa. In my mind, I see the kaleidoscope of plates that colored my childhood. She has limited short-term memory, and her long-term is little better. But these meals—the recollection of them, at least—puncture the haze, hers and mine. I see the flour creased into her palm lines, caked under her nails, as she cranks steel rollers to make sheets of pasta. I see her, standing at the grill, with the wind off the Pacific whipping sand onto the deck, tugging the hem of her dress.
I started seeing a new therapist at the end of 2022, which required going back through my history, a task unavoidable for only so long. I was more than a little unnerved by how quickly and easily the therapist read my mother. “Like a textbook,” I told her.
My therapist said that it was in fact textbook—the relationship I was describing between an abuser and the abused.
I didn’t like it when she said “abused.”
I said, “That’s not quite right.” I offered instead qualifying statements about my mother’s behavior: her alcoholism made her rages worse. Her depression made her alcoholism worse. Her own mother abused her. It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t have the capacity to mother me. And it wasn’t her fault that I was such a bad kid. It was mine. She didn’t really start hitting me until I was a teenager, so it wasn’t like abuse abuse.
“All right.” My therapist said, impassive. “What is abuse abuse?”
In Ruby Tandoh’s Cook as You Are, her highly personal collection of musings and recipes, she has a piece called “Food for the Thirty-Second of Neverember,” which is what she calls the food we daydream about but will never cook. Tandoh is drawn to this habit because of how aspirational it feels, to the “pleasure in the dream itself.” She also explains that “this wishful thinking is . . . how we get acquainted with our appetites and, by extension, ourselves.” This explains the sumptuous photography of most cookbooks, the highly stylized still life that might be your own life. If only all of it were different.
“What are you making for dinner?” she asks me in response.
“Risotto,” I say.
I say that I have a smattering of yellow chanterelles, some oyster mushrooms, a jar of dried porcinis I’ve been saving. After I rehydrate the porcinis, I’ll add the water to the broth, as Marcella Hazan would. I’ll stir, without rushing, I’ll stand at the stove for twenty minutes or so and think of nothing. I’ll finish with a tiny dollop of crème fraîche. This is a meal I made my husband in our first month of dating, and Matt ate it so quickly I couldn’t tell if he enjoyed it. He didn’t even know what a porcini was.
I can make risotto with my eyes closed. I just don’t. What my mother and I don’t talk about is that neither of us cooks anymore. And though I don’t make “cookbooks,” all around me are notebooks filled with lists:
Persian Market: dried shallots, rose water, dried mint.
Rib eyes and baked potatoes with caviar - martinis?
Blueberry cornmeal cake (w/ kids?)
I haven’t really cooked—I mean in a sensual, specific, triumphant way—since my son was born four years ago. And since my husband, Matt, has been back at work (after three years of caretaking, during which he became an excellent cook), we’ve stopped cooking during the week almost completely. That isn’t to say that occasionally I don’t throw together a soup, or my inauthentic version of kitchari, or rice bowls. We still sporadically do Bolognese on a Sunday. But I haven’t knotted twine around a roast, stewed tough cuts of meat to ribbony shreds, pickled onions for tacos. I haven’t been to a farmer’s market. We regularly run out of kitchen staples because we haven’t had time to shop. I haven’t bought a fucking donabe.
I eat Annie’s mac and cheese with steamed broccoli quite often. A couple of times a week I eat some vanilla-scented cereal or scrambled eggs on toast after the children have fallen asleep. Sometimes I fall asleep with them. On the weekends, I’ll cook. But it is begrudging. Stressful. I burn the oil or garlic, char cauliflower in the oven. I forget the salt. I don’t have preserved lemons or saffron or heavy cream that I once always had on hand. There are cookbooks devoted to off-the-cuff, from-the-pantry cooking, libraries of meals deemed perfect for the half-hour we have each night before the gauntlet of toddler transitions detonate—I have them, I’ve read them. They are not explicit about the most essential ingredient: a sense of play. Play takes energy. Humor. Wonder.
I have never cared less about what I eat. But then littered around my desk are these lists. And there’s a stack of cookbooks—tagged, noted, and beloved—by my bed. I cling to the cooking I’ll do in a vague and forgiving future. As soon as work slows down. As soon as we go on vacation. As soon as my children are a bit older. As soon as I become a better mother, accountant, housekeeper, writer, friend, and wife, I will once again be a magnificent cook. When my children are grown, they’ll cook for new lovers and friends and when complimented on their risotto, they’ll say, “My mom was a great cook.”
This has only happened twice, but on those two occasions, I see my children playing with Matt’s parents, and I feel a relentless, nagging hurt, like of a splinter. Then, there it is: She was just like me. Bodily, creative, hungry. Her children clamored to be close to her. She was needed and loved, albeit never in the way she wanted. She was interdependent on a small group of people. She preferred a tan and sunbathed. She ate too much at lunch and had to unbutton her pants while she drove. What alternate reality exists in which she’s a grandparent to my children? In which she managed to sidestep the various traps in her mind? What kind of cruelty keeps us from each other in this life?
The answer to that last question is unfortunately simple. It’s hers. Her cruelty. The abused spends their adult life waiting for the abuser. Waiting not for an apology but simply to be recognized as a person with worth. All they want—all I want—is for the abuser to look up from her cutting and gluing and say, “Oh. There you are.” If M. F. K. Fisher reminds me that when we talk about food we talk about love, then Ruby Tandoh’s “neverember” reminds me that when I plan my pretend meals, it’s for a Sunday dinner with my mother that doesn’t exist. We can only meet each other in the make-believe where we both cook, where we are the aspirational version of mother and daughter. I wasn’t crazy, sick, troubled, or evil. What I did—what every child does to their mother—is thwart her desire to die. And for that, I took the blame for her suffering thereafter. There are no risottos for us, no pumpkin pies or snickerdoodles. She will never, not for one second of neverember, see that I grew up to do everything she couldn’t. By which I mean, I don’t hurt my children.
“Lobster, huh?” I ask, during one of our calls. What is she signaling when she says “lobster” to me? That she was familiar with rarefied things? I wonder if she remembers how things taste. I don’t imagine so. “How are you doing them?”
“I just buy the tails now,” she explains. “And I’ll poach them, pretty quickly, they don’t need much time.”
“That’s smart to buy the tails. So much easier.”
“Yes,” she says. “I always hate when they scream.”
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There is an episode of the podcast Ten Percent Happier (#497 How to deal with emotionally immature people including maybe your own parents). The fantasy of being seen is actually textbook. You are really on to something - but of course -brilliant in the way you’ve shaped this narrative around love & food & motherhood. PS - when the kids get older and they are busy with their own plans (which is middle school - not college like I naively assumed) you will cook again.
This piece was so incredibly beautiful and moved me to tears. It resonated deeply, albeit in somewhat different ways. Thank you for sharing it here.