My mother was a fifth-grade teacher. Sometimes Bruce, Susan, and I walked to school, and sometimes we drove with Mom in the big tan Chevrolet Impala, a majestic boat sailing the wide, shady streets and sliding slowly up the crest of the small hill and down again and rolling into the faculty parking lot. If I didn't feel like walking home after school, I would wait in her classroom, running a finger through the chalk dust, rummaging through her desk drawers until she was ready to leave, and together we would slowly sail home.
In that serene pause before dinner in her otherwise hectic days, she would pour a cup of coffee and light a cigarette, turn on The Mike Douglas Show or Merv Griffin, and collapse with an audible huff into her armchair. Douglas and Griffin were plump and avuncular, almost accidental celebrities, and now and then there were cooking segments. My mother and I rarely cooked together, but week after week for several years, we watched celebrities cook on daytime television. She'd smoke a cigarette and do a few desultory isometrics with a rubber-and-spring gadget bought from an ad in the back of Good Housekeeping while the nice people on television ate what they'd cooked, and then read her latest romance for a while as I watched Lost in Space.
My mother also did all the housework, laundry, grocery shopping, and cooking for a family of five. She was up before the rest of us each morning, bringing my silent father a little hair of the dog in their dark, stuffy bedroom, frying eggs and pouring out cereal, pouring coffee, and lighting cigarettesfor herself. When we still attended the primary school a few blocks from home, she often came home from work to meet us for lunchfried Velveeta-and-Miracle-Whip sandwiches with Campbell's chicken noodle soup, or Vienna sausages still glistening from the can.
Memory is often a matter of the convenient falsehoodchronologies invert, characters combine and reorient. The questions change, and our minds tend to make up answers as we go along. Childhood especially is like a silent film with the subtitles removeda jerky, dramatic story unfolding again and again before our eyes, the words lost, the meanings misconstrued. Even names become confused. After a time, memory and imagination weave together so tightly it's impossible to tell which is which. Why is that person laughing? Who is speaking? Whose hand is that, holding mine?
But this I remember clearly: how she would at last sigh in the late afternoon and put her book aside, and take a last sip from her coffee mug. "Well," she would say, rising heavily from her chair, "I guess I'll get started on dinner." Then she would go quietly into the kitchen, moving without complaint between one unending task and another, day in and day out.
I have never done anything like this. I have not cooked three meals a day, day in and day out. I have not been uncomplaining. I have not been silent. I love to eat, both in the bonhomie of the table and as a solitary delight. I love to cook, too, in rituals followed step by step, transformation, the merging and marbling of raw ingredients into something finished and new. I like this, though I was never taught how to cook by my mother or anyone else. In fact, one reason I like to cook is that I've never done it routinely for long, ever wary of creating the wrong impression, ever a bit unsure about how I want to fit into a kitchen.
When I've gone away from home, I've sometimes felt strained to the point of breaking. To sort out the varied and often conflicting requirements of my life, of all our lives, is a major part of my religious practice, even when it seems that following a religion creates conflict. One makes room for it and tries not to leave anything out, in a world of fragments and multiple demands. In my family, I've refused to act as though I had to fill a role, as though it was my duty to do so, even when guilt and uncertainty poisoned the freedom on which I insisted. I've been bound, in fact, more by my resistance to the traditions that bound my mother than by the traditions themselves.
At forty-two, I see how my own relationship to food and eating, to cooking and my place in the kitchen, has changed greatlyonly to change back, and change again. So many choices. When my mother went shopping, she had to choose between two markets, two bakeries, and one butcher. I have a dozen specialty markets in my neighborhood. She served roast beef every Sunday. I try to decide between Thai curry and fettucine Alfredo and fresh tomatillo chutney. She was bound by routine; I'm bound by change.
When I remember childhood meals, I remember how much the same everything was. Now and then there were sudden infusions of sharp, dramatic tastes: large trout fried over a wood fire just after dawn, in sight of their icy river; beef tongue cooked in a steaming kitchen for hours until it sliced like cream; fresh rhubarb baked into a tangy, sticky pie. But these were brief, almost shameful tastes in a world of instant mashed potatoes. We ate fritters now and then, and pickled pigs' feet and a bit of sauerkraut, but not much else you could identify with a given people, place, or time. It's no coincidence that the good, sharp tastes I remember best were those of fresh, wild things just killed, newly picked, full of the earth. The wild game and garden produce was at least as much a matter of economics as desire, in the strange equation that associated fresh food with poverty for a long time. When I was young, duck à l'orange was the ultimate urban sophisticate's dish. We sometimes dined on freshly killed ducks only a few hours out of the sky, and I loved their wilderness blood, their robust and masculine taste, their dark, fat flesh. But I wanted duck à l'orange, which I thought must be something special, indeed.
Sometimes, in the midst of the urban variety in which I shop now, I feel a strange obligationto partake, to use up, try it allnot in joy but with a weary sense of duty. I think I must buy the baby asparagus because it is there, undeniably and aggressively there at the little produce market around the corner from my houseright there, the treat my mother waited for most of the year. My mother seemed to cook the same seven meals over and overroast beef on Sunday, and Thursday-night hash. I seem never to have cooked the same meal twice.
When I was about ten, my father remodeled our small kitchen. My beefy, unpredictable father could miter a corner to perfection in one hour and pass out on the couch the next. He taught industrial arts at the high school and was an electrician on the side, a bit of a carpenter, a good draftsman. He had a shop behind our house, which smelled of beer and sawdust and was filled with lovely, lethal hand tools hung on a Peg-Board marked with each tool's outline in black felt pen. The floor held a maze of beer-can pyramids and piles of Popular Mechanics, True, and Argosy, and the walls were decorated with old calendar pinups, leggy and breasty girls in swimsuits and halter tops, prone on bales of hay and leaning on fences in gator-bait cutoffs. Near the ceiling hung his old balsa-wood plane models, spinning slowly in the brief eddies of air.
The kitchen was a cramped and narrow room. We were always going in and out, and so we were always shoving our way past each other to the refrigerator or the stove or the sink. The counters were crammedcoffeemaker, blender, toaster oven, soft loaves of bread, boxes of cereal, medicine and vitamin bottles, storage jars filled with sugar, crackers, and stale flour. The front door of the refrigerator (inside, more crammingiceberg lettuce, Miracle Whip, ketchup, bologna, Velveeta) was covered with lists and reminders. On top and on the shelves beside it were draped piles of paper bags, plastic wrap, and placemats. The cupboards held everything from pots and pans to BBQ tools to TV trays, Dad's liquor stash, and Mom's cookies. So much, too much.
My father took my mother's kitchen apart and put it together again, to please her. America was on fire with its imaginary bounty, its tinned fantasy of postindustrial success, and she wanted some, too. He started at the top, with white ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights circling the room behind opaque blue plastic panels. He put in a garbage disposal, cupboards with knubbly blue plastic windows, and a white Formica countertop flecked with gold. The room was still too small. My mother picked out a ridiculously tiny round glass table and two uncomfortable wrought-iron chairs for one corner. She sewed curtains with blue trim and put up blue cornflower wallpaper and bought a new refrigerator, a burly beast that seemed the height of sophistication to me because it had an ice maker. For the rest of the years I lived in that house, a periodic mechanical squeal would erupt from the kitchen without warningthe tray of hardened ice turning over on its automatic arm and raining cubes into the freezer bin. It never worked quite right. I learned to open the freezer with care, prepared for an avalanche of ice falling onto my feet, hard as rocks.
The last grand addition in my mother's new kitchen was a double oven with a microwave on top. She bought one of the first ones on the market, which must have taken all the spare money she had.
I say the remodel happened in the late sixties, but in fact I'm not sure exactly. No one in the family remembers for surememory is such a slippery thing. My childhood is a dream to me, but it was my mother's clearly remembered past. When I wanted to know about something that had happened when I was young, I asked my mother. After I moved away she wrote me cheerful letters in her neat handwriting, telling me the news of so-and-so getting married, divorced, pregnant, dead. She sent newspaper clippings and the occasional recipe, and tips on getting my kids to eat right. When I was thirty, she died, and the news stopped.
For a long time I was drawn to simple stories, the kind with obvious narrative devices and clear morals. But a lot of my questions can't be answered at all now, and in the end, that has to be the story. I remember my mother vividlyher voice, the tilt of her headbut I will never be sure if what I remember is her, or only my misshapen belief in her.
I want to know exactly when we got the microwave because I want to know when her endless labor of cooking ceased. The microwave changed everythingthough everything was bound to go, anyway. It was the beginning of real change for my thrilled, my gleeful, my silently guilty mother, who was more than ready to plunge into this particular shiny, beeping future.
As a child, I was required to come to the table when called and join the family circle for dinner. We looked, arrayed around the table, like all the families in all the magazines she readthe ones in the advertisements for new appliances and cars and vinyl sidingMother at one end and Father at the other, Big Brother and Little Sister and me on either side, the golden retriever sleeping on the rug. But dinner was the dread hour of my day, tense and demanding in ways I could hardly stand. As soon as I was old enough to get away with it, I ditched the dinner hour and snacked my way through the day, and Mom didn't try very hard to stop me.
Our freezer gradually filled with little pizzas and tamales and individual-serving-sized boxes of pasta, tubs of ready-made macaroni and cheese and pepperoni pizza rolls and uniformly chopped stew vegetables and chicken pot pies and lots of neatly ordered TV trays of spaghetti-and-meatball dinners and Salisbury steak dinners and fried chicken dinners. Meatloaf was my favorite, with its perfectly symmetrical piece of chopped, formed hamburger in sweet tomato syrup, the neat cubicles of buttered peas and calm mashed potatoes, a place for each, and each in its place. As time went by, I seemed to eat more and more of my meals standing up in the kitchen, reading in my room, going out the doorelsewhere, as my own children have done in their time.
Mom even learned to make peanut brittle in the microwave. After weeks of gooey, syrupy messes and the rank smell of burning peanut butter, she got it right. That it took her far longer to figure out how to make her favorite candy in the microwave than it would have taken her to do it the old-fashioned way was irrelevant. The microwave was a labor-saving device, she was saving her labor, and the facts were less important than the dream. They always are when we're dreaming.
I found a recipe for microwave peanut brittle a few years ago. My adolescent daughter helped stir the goo as it grew hotter and hotter and began to bubble alarmingly. My towering son and his taciturn girlfriend arrived and decided, with much whispering, to wait for the results. I spread the candy out to cool and we stood there, waiting, silent, afraid to break the spell, the thin and delicate spell. When we finally broke off big chunks and chewed together ruminatively, I realized I couldn't remember the last time we'd eaten the same food from scratch, eaten at the same time, in one room.