Bittersweet: Lessons from My Mother's Kitchen

Bittersweet: Lessons from My Mother's Kitchen

by Matt McAllester

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Matt McAllester lost his mother, Ann, long before she died, as mental illness snatched the once-elegant woman away and destroyed his childhood. In this beautifully written memoir, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist chronicles the journey he took to forgiveness, which brought him straight to the place that evoked his happiest memories of his mother: the


Matt McAllester lost his mother, Ann, long before she died, as mental illness snatched the once-elegant woman away and destroyed his childhood. In this beautifully written memoir, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist chronicles the journey he took to forgiveness, which brought him straight to the place that evoked his happiest memories of his mother: the kitchen. Recounting the pleasures of his early days, culinary and otherwise, McAllester weaves an unforgettable tale of family, food, and love.


At first, Matt McAllester’s childhood was idyllic, a time when his mother placed heavenly, delicious food at the center of a family life brimming with fun and laughter. Then came the terrible years, years when he had to watch helplessly as his warm, quick-witted mother succumbed to an illness that was never properly diagnosed or understood. Desperate to escape, he eventually found work as a foreign correspondent, hiding in the terrors and tragedies of other people as he traveled to the most dangerous places in the world, from Beirut to Baghdad. But nothing he saw on the battlefield prepared him for his mother’s death—and his own overwhelming grief.

In the weeks and months that followed, Matt found himself poring over old family photos and letters, trying to reach out for the beautiful, caring woman who had now vanished for the second time. But as he looked anew at her long-cherished collection of cookbooks, it occurred to him that the best way to find her was through something they both loved: the food she had once lovingly prepared for him, food that introduced him to a thousand sources of joy—from spare ribs to the homemade strawberry ice cream that seemed in memory the very essence of happy times.

With a reporter’s precision and a storyteller’s grace, McAllester guides us through a long season of grief—cooking, eating, and remembering—at the same time describing his and his wife’s efforts to conceive and nourish a child of their own.

Complete with recipes to delight body and soul, Bittersweet is a memoir of extraordinary power, at once a moving tribute to his mother and a dazzling feast for the senses.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this eloquent tribute, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist McAllester (Blinded by the Sunlight: Surviving Abu Ghraib and Saddam's Iraq) takes a break from global conflict to address a much more intimate struggle, his late mother's descent into mental illness. After learning of her death, McAllester pores through his mother's old collection of cookbooks in an attempt to reconnect with the loving woman he remembers. Using the wise work of British celebrity chef Elizabeth David, his mother's true north in all things culinary, McAllester masters cassoulet, lobster, elaborate omelets, and steak with bordelaise sauce, gaining not only in confidence and ability but in understanding and acceptance. The process involves McAllester's touching descriptions of his mother's dishes and the memories they elicit: strawberry ice cream, homemade bread and a stolen taste of fresh parsley all provoke fond stories of his mother in her prime. As he tries to makes sense of his mother's declining years, visiting past residences and even requesting her medical files, McAllester loses some of his enthusiasm for cooking, but brings his mother's complicated, troubled soul into focus. With this memoir, McAllester makes a fine, food-centric testament to the redemptive power of grief and acceptance.
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Chapter One

My mother sat in her armchair by the window and asked me if I thought I was a good cook.

"Yeah," I said. "Not bad."

"Do you always leave the book open?"

"Yes," I said.

"Then you can't cook." She laughed, but she wasn't joking. "If you need to keep the book open, you're not really cooking."

We had had this conversation before. It had a companion piece that went like this:

"Have you read Elizabeth David yet?"

"No, Mum."

"If you want to know how to cook, read Elizabeth David. She'll tell you everything. Read French Provincial Cooking. They're marvelous books. We all learned to cook from Elizabeth David."

This conversation I had with my mother was our shared doorway into talking about food. There was so little we could share, so few topics I could introduce without risking her anger and delusions—my father, certain former friends, certain relatives, places we had lived, most of the past, politics, foreign affairs—or without wading into the oceans of forgetfulness and obliviousness that had built up around things she once cared about and I still did—books, movies, the news. But if I told her what I was cooking for friends over the weekend, we would fall into a safe place together, one where past, present, and future were full of afternoons in the kitchen with the radio on and with chocolate smeared mixing bowls in the sink, desserts cooling in the refrigerator, sauces simmering on the stove, a slowly crisping, caramelizing roast in the oven, and the house full of mingling, delicious smells.

It was the lovely afternoon of May 4, 2005. The pink bunched flowers of the horse chestnut tree outside her window in Swiss Cottage swayed gently in a spring breeze. She had not cooked for a long time, having moved from a studio apartment where she would at best fry some bacon, to a locked mental ward in an industrial corner of Northwest London, and then to this charming, sunlit room on the top floor of an old folks' home (called Rathmore House), where she was a teenager compared to the dying bodies who sat immobile in the hallway. She was closer in age to some of the staff than to the other residents, and she didn't socialize with the bent over old ladies who stared into their ever dimming memories. Unlike them, she would walk along the street to the local stores and cafes, sitting with a cup of coffee and making friends with the local misfits who also spent their days over coffee. She kept to her room when in the home. She read the occasional novel, watched television, and waited for phone calls and visits from my sister and me.

She hated the food there, that was the only thing, and loved to be taken out. A few days earlier, on a walk to the shops of nearby Primrose Hill with my sister, she had bought me a present. It was a zester, and she handed it to me now without wrapping paper or reason. She knew I would like it. I had another zester already, but immediately I liked this one more. It had a solid ball of steel for a handle. She had bought an identical one for my sister.

She stood up from her armchair and we kissed and I hugged her, smiling. It was an unplanned visit, an hour snatched because I happened to be at home in London rather than in a war zone and I was passing by. It had been an hour without my getting irritated, one in which I asked for and received rare maternal advice about things I have already forgotten because it was the unwonted feeling of being looked after by my mother that mattered. The zester, bought by chance in a shop on the same street as the apartment where a young Elizabeth David, my mother's cooking guru, first began to cook for herself, was in my hand as I hugged her.

I put it into my pocket and left.

She died two days later, in the morning, in that room. She fell forward onto the floor in front of her armchair, her heart stopping without warning.

Chapter Two

By the time I was eighteen years old, I wanted my mother, who had brought me into the world and deluged me with love, to die. And I said so, out loud.

I stood in the kitchen of my aunt's apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, where I was staying for the summer, saving my tips and paychecks from the job I'd gotten as a busboy so that I could spend the fall and winter traveling around the United States on Greyhound buses. It was the summer of 1988. My aunt Jennifer was two years older than my mother. They were the oldest of four siblings and had been extremely close when they were children. My aunt emigrated from Scotland to the United States, to Boston, the year John Kennedy was assassinated. I had just graduated from high school in Scotland, and when I joined my aunt in this fresh, exciting country, I found in her something that I had not known for years. She was like my mother in so many ways—her voice, her eyes, her sporadic disdain for decorum. When she had met me fresh off the bus in Providence on my first day in the States, she had parked illegally, and when we rushed back to her car she began an argument with the meek looking uniformed attendant who must have been pulling in just over minimum wage in his middle years and whom my lovely aunt loudly called "a Nazi." My mother would have done that. But they were different in other ways. Unlike my mother, Jennifer did actually come to pick me up from the bus station; she would do my laundry, watch movies with me, make me coffee, share my jokes, treat me to dinner out. She did not fight with me. I could talk with her without constantly censoring myself. When my cousin Christian pierced my ear with a needle and thread and a block of ice, my aunt handed me a brandy from her freezer.

And now, in the afternoon before my evening shift at the wharf side restaurant in Newport where I worked, as illegal as my Salvadoran buddies, we were talking about my mother.

"I don't think I've ever told anyone this," I said, "but I think she'd be better off dead."

"So do I," she said.

There was a moment of quiet.

"Matthew," she said, reaching for the freezer, "would you like a brandy?"

"I think she'd be happier dead," I said, taking the glass. "She's never going to get better. She just suffers. Her life is worthless."

And it was unspoken, but understood, that it would be easier and better for me, and for everyone else in the family.

"You shouldn't feel guilty for feeling that, you know," Jennifer said.

"I don't," I said.

My mother did not die then. But many years later she said to me: "I'm ready to die now, Matty. I've been married, I've had my children. I'm ready to die."

She was not depressed when she said this. She wasn't drunk or ranting. We were having a cup of tea in her small basement studio flat in Kilburn, in Northwest London, a five minute amble from my sister's place, the last place she would live without full time caregivers on hand. She repeated it to me at other times, in moments of calm and relative serenity. My sister, Jane, told me she had heard the same. "I've read enough books," she said. "I've planted enough flowers and cooked enough meals. I'm not interested in that stuff anymore."

By then I no longer considered her life worthless, but I respected her readiness to die. She had reached an end, I supposed. So it was fine with me.

And then she died on a Friday morning, while I was having breakfast alone in a cafe, reading the newspaper. I walked home and Jane called, her voice afraid and small. "Mum's dead," she said. And after I called my father, who had not spoken with my mother for many years, and her siblings, and a funeral director I plucked from the yellow pages, and the coroner's office to ask where my mother actually was—an ambulance and police officers had come to the home to take her away—and when her body would be available for collection by the funeral director, I sat at the table in my flat and my body began to shake. It was absolutely not fine for my mother to be dead. The feeling began at the base of my torso, to the rear, and moved up like nausea through my chest. When it hit my head, it distorted my face and contracted my throat into wails and squeezed my eyes. And it stayed there for about two hours, the waves of its storm growing taller each time, so that I had to drink glasses of water to compensate for the stuff pouring out of my eyes and nose. It left me exhausted and staring at nothing, until I began to feel I was recovering, and then it came back up from the base of my spine, again and again and again. For days. For weeks. For months.

Chapter Three

In the first days after my mother's death, before her funeral, much of my brain seemed to close down, my thoughts reduced to two simple sentences, which repeated themselves over and over. "Where are you? Please come back."

I ran through the parks of Northwest London, through the long grass of May, and one morning, midway through a lap of the nearby Queen's Park, I found myself repeating a third sentence, an unexpected mantra of panic, speaking it aloud through my tears as I ran. "Dad, please don't die."

The last defense I had left in the world. I needed someone, after all, to look after me. It was inconceivable, unimaginable, that I could be left to fend for myself. I was surprised at my terror. I had been self sufficient, in a relatively intense way, for many years. And I had been in some alarming places and situations. But I had never been so afraid as now.

I ran back home and stood in my living room, sweating in my T-shirt and shorts, trying to keep my voice under control, dialing my father's number.

"Hi, Matt," he said, his voice at its gentlest. "How are you doing?"

"Dad," I said, "I don't want you to die."

I was thirty five years old and I felt like a very small boy. My mother had not looked after me, had not protected me, for about a quarter of a century. She had been worse than useless for nearly as long as I could recall. And yet I knew with a terrifying certainty that half of the protective field that some part of me relied on instinctively to keep me safe and to make sense of the world had been wiped out forever. At the age of seven I had sat with her on a rock overlooking the sea near our house on the West Coast of Scotland. The gray waves heaved in from the Atlantic, whitening on the barnacle studded shelf of rock along the coast, an outcrop that would rip apart any boat that came close to it, any sailor who fell in. The place still scares me, the hidden depths of kelp and power churning unseen beneath the rock shelf. I leaned against the green canvas coat my mother wore. "What would you do if I fell in?" I asked.

"I'd go in after you," she said, without hesitating.

"But you'd die," I said, not entirely believing her because it simply didn't make sense. "You would drown too."

"Maybe. But I'd still go in after you." She squeezed me in her arms. I stared at the waves for a little longer and then held open her hands, comparing their size to mine, liking the grit under her fingernails and the chafing and cuts and toughness she picked up when we were in Ardnamurchan for several weeks.

"I wouldn't go in after you," I said, looking back at the impossible walls of water whose spray reached our Wellington boots.

That woman had been long gone. By the time my mother died, she had not been in a position to jump in after me for many years. But her love was just as furious and unremitting. Without it, it seemed, I was useless. The initial burst of phone calls I made after hearing about my mother's death was followed by paralysis.

Jane had to call the lawyer and the priest. She had to design and print the order of service for the funeral and choose the hymns. She had to get movers to take away my mother's possessions from the home and put them in storage somewhere. She had to return calls to the coroner, who was making sure our mother hadn't been murdered in her old folks' home; indeed, she had died only of a heart attack, my sister reported. My sister had to fetch some clothes—a denim dress—for my mother to wear in her coffin. My sister was dynamic; I was stuck. I couldn't call people back. I couldn't write thank you notes when letters of condolence arrived. I couldn't look after my girlfriend, who was in the hospital recovering from an operation when my mother died. I could go to the pub and embarrass myself in public with my tears. I could choose a song for the end of the funeral. I could write a eulogy. That was about it.

"It's like walking along the road and someone walking up to you and punching you in the face, really hard, for no reason," I told friends who had not had a parent die. "I'm telling you, I just want you to know, when it happens it'll take you by surprise. It will totally shock you." They nodded, but I knew they had no idea of what lay ahead, for the death of a parent is an event for which there is no preparation. You can't lose your mother or father twice.

But the punch analogy was slightly off. It was more like a scene from a Robin Hood movie. You're trotting along through the forest on your horse when a swinging sack of wheat sweeps silently through the trees and broadsides you. And then you are utterly winded, motionless, undefended, staring at the insects and the pinecones on the forest floor. All the life and breath gone from you.

On the Saturday morning after my mother died, I went with my sister to the funeral director's in Notting Hill. The man, John, was kind in a studied fashion: Like his coworker on the phone the night before, he referred to my mother, a woman he had never met, as "Mum." As in: "We'll get Mum from the coroner on Monday." And: "What sort of coffin would you like for Mum?" And: "Did Mum want to be buried or cremated?"

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Matt McAllester is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for Newsday before returning to London, where he now lives with his wife, Pernilla. Winner of a number of other awards, including the Osborn Elliott Award for Excellence for his coverage of Nepal in 2006 and several overseas Press Club citations for his international reporting, he is currently a contributing editor at Details.

From the Hardcover edition.

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