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At the Table

I grew up in a single-parent household, amid the stucco houses and smooth sidewalks of 1980’s inland California. My siblings and I were a small, disparate band of adolescent pirates; in a constant state of mutiny against my mother, and at odds with each other. Our home life was highly-disciplined but fractured and shipwrecked, out-of-place in a sunny suburban neighborhood of two-parent families. They were doctors and businessmen, and real estate agents. Mom was a part-time grad student and full time librarian. They had green lawns, manicured weekly by the resident males. We had what my mother called, a rock garden, which we occasionally hosed down to remove the dust. They had back patios, with a Weber and lawn furniture. We had a fenced-in forest of  towering redwoods that served as my outdoor bedroom, and which leaked tannin-y needles over the neighbors’ back lawns. They had fathers that barbecued on Saturdays and coached little league baseball after work. We had a deadbeat dad and a stepfather who had the courtesy to leave us the dog and his beloved avocado tree, which never really took root among the redwoods. 

I spent much of my adolescence setting booby traps for my older sister in our shared bedroom, stealthily avoiding my mother, or ditching my big brother at an event to which he was ordered to accompany me. Perhaps in an effort to instill some normalcy in a home life that seemed so often awry, mom insisted that, every night, we eat dinner together. 

It was torture. We were called to the table for a square, but gag-inducing meal prepared by my mother as soon as she got home from work. Bony chicken breasts stewed in canned tomatoes. Boiled lima beans from the freezer. Leathery pork chops, ice berg lettuce, canned peas. And a Friday “meatloaf” made from the week’s pulverized leftovers, forced into a bread pan and baked beyond recognition. And everything accompanied with jalapeño peppers (another legacy of the avocado-loving stepfather).When our plates were clean, and we were excused, my siblings and I were expected to clear the table, put away the leftovers, and wash the dishes. I resented this interruption to my daily life of adolescent misadventures. And I dreaded my mother’s “cooking”. But showing up for dinner was nonnegotiable. And to this day, I can not remember a single occasion when any of us dared not to.

I began to take my mother’s place in the kitchen when I was 11. Not because I had a change of heart about eating dinner together, but because, in a plot to escape mealtime, I had suddenly declared myself a vegetarian. The emphatic announcement, which came to me in a spontaneous revelation one night over cube steak and stewed jalapeños, was received by my older brother and sister with raucous exclamations of betrayal. Mom merely sipped her wine, calmly insisted that I finish my dinner, and gave me leave to become a vegetarian tomorrow.

Over the next few weeks, my mother brought home vegetarian cookbooks from the library—The Vegetarian Epicure, Diet for a Small Planet—and fresh produce from the grocery store. When she came home from work, she poured herself a glass of wine and left the kitchen. Her message was clear: if I was going to be a vegetarian, then I would learn to cook. 

And so I did. 

And while the vegetarianism didn’t last, the lessons I learned from those first cookbooks did. Wash, chop, prepare with intention. 

I eventually spent my Saturdays at the library with my mother, foraging the shelves for more lessons in cookery—Julia Child, Jeff Smith, Irma Rombauer, Fannie Farmer. I made grocery lists for my mother that included things like gruyere, bok choy, arborio, and saffron. At fifteen, after my brother and and sister had left home and it was just the two of us, I took over the shopping altogether. 

For most of my adult life, I have thought of my mother’s cooking—her hatred, really, of the kitchen—as one of the many ways she failed us as a parent. It sounds petty, I know. But as a tender-spirited girl, I craved hugs, a kind guiding hand, hot chocolate, and comfort. Instead, I received harsh discipline, reference books, silent lessons, and…well… jalepeños. You get the picture. 

And yet, I have had a beautiful, varied, adventurous career in food. Half a lifetime of feeding strangers, friends, and family alike. A love—a need (perhaps much like my mother)—of calling people to the table.   

And lately I’ve realized that the very best memories from my childhood were from events that took place at mealtime. My brother cracking jokes that had me spraying milk out of my nose. My ecstatic delight for a fondue party on my 10th birthday. My family’s dubious and hilarious reception of my first all-vegetarian dinner. And the unexpected affection and pride I felt for them when they created a French cafe in our living room for my prom night. 

The dinner table, and the requirement to be there, gave me a reason to learn how to cook. I learned the ways of  butter, broth, and salt; and I learned from those things, not only how to make food taste good, but also how to feed a hunger that my mother could not.

I came to our family meals a wild thing, resentful and unguided. But I left having made those meals my own, with purpose and a path. Whether by accident or design, I see that my mother gave me these gifts by vacating a space she could not love. She did it selflessly, and without ego. All I had to do in return was show up at the table.

Comments

CG:

Brava, Kate. You got it just right. Hugs, CG

May 02, 2020

Kate :

Thank you all for reading and reaching out! I truly appreciate your stories and your insights. Connecting in this way feels important – especially these days.

All my very best to you and yours,
Kate

May 01, 2020

Kimberly Poulton:

Oh…thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on your relationship with your mother. I, too, have a COMPLICATED relationship with mine. She grew up with a mentally imbalanced mother who was more wrapped up in herself than in nurturing or providing for her children
(I have four other siblings). Thus, my mother did not have any self confidence and never learned how to nurture within her own family – giving that to her many classes of young children she taught over the years, whose families raved about my mother. I went through years of anger at not having the mother daughter relationship I so craved – but through therapy I realized her inadequacies and now we have a better relationship because I can separate and understand. I can lift up the good (she was an awesome baker but terrible meal planner and cook!). The sad part is she now has dementia so it’s hard to really connect. And, like you, I have always looked at Mother’s Day and Father’s Day with difficult emotions – staring at the sentimental cards and wondering which one made sense to buy (my father died when I was 9 and my mom married twice after that – believing in the romantic fantasy of happily ever after but not understanding the importance of communication).
Thank you!!! I just love your chocolates and often send them as special gifts to people.

Apr 30, 2020

EILEEN D CARVER:

Thank you for your thought-provoking post. Ah, the relationship between mothers and daughters – so complex and wrought with emotion. I say this as the daughter of a mother whose own childhood was extremely difficult, but who did her best to raise her 8 children and the mother of a 37-year-old daughter. As is natural, when I was young, I only saw that my family was extremely dysfunctional, and I yearned for the feeling of love and normalcy that other families appeared to have. What I did not realize then was how much better my life was than the life both my parents had had and that they were doing their best to survive and to keep their children alive. My dad, although a good man, was an alcoholic, so for all intents and purposes, we lived in a single-parent household. I say this only because it wasn’t until my dad had passed and my mother was elderly that I learned to look at my parents objectively and to see them as people, without judging them so harshly through the lens of resentment for what my life lacked and my feeling of not being loved. If you are fortunate enough to still have a living parent that you love, perhaps you will take a moment to think about him/her being a human being struggling with their own demons and childhoods that were far less than ideal. I hope you can forge a closer emotional bond to that parent, but only if they truly deserve you opening your heart to them. Thanks for “listening.” Best wishes, and thank you for your lovely and delicious chocolate. My daughter really enjoys the occasional surprise box I send to her in Chicago. We might not always communicate well, but chocolate is the universal language which conveys love.

Apr 30, 2020

Deborah S. Reed:

another career as a writer? Many of us have similar backgrounds – single mother etc. My mother thought she was the world’s best and we never had the opportunity to not eat anything she cooked which led to constant confrontation. My children? if you don’t like what I am serving, go into the kitchen and make your own but we sit at the same table. You are a delight and I really enjoyed reading this.

Apr 30, 2020

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