92: In My Mother’s Kitchen

92: In My Mother’s Kitchen

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

In My Mother’s Kitchen

As a restaurateur, my job is to basically control the chaos and the drama. There’s always going to be chaos in the restaurant business.

~Rocco DiSpirito

“Pick up!” I hear her scream from the kitchen as the bell chimes. Instinctively, my feet start to move across the tile floor, passing the bar on my left and the other servers moving swiftly, filling glasses and wiping counters. I turn left, into the bright lights of the kitchen.

In front of me is the rack where I pick up one bowl of pasta with pesto, lusciously green on a spotless white plate, and a steak, drizzled with chimichurri sauce and settled on French fries. I pull both plates down, one in each hand, and now I can see her. She is framed by the metal rack. Her hair is pulled back by a red bandana, but her gray roots are evident — unsurprising, since she hardly has time to eat, let alone color her hair. There is moisture on her face, a little sweat, and her eyeliner is smudged. Again, I am not surprised. I heard her put her make-up on at five o’clock this morning. We’re well into dinner service now.

“Hot, hot, hot!” she yells, at no one in particular, as she hauls a sizzling pan from one burner to another. She is running on pure adrenaline and kitchen fumes at this point, and I hurry into the dining room, afraid of what exhaustion might bring out of her if I let the food get cold.

This is my mother.

Many peoples’ moms cook for them, their families, and occasional guests. They make brownies for school birthdays and banana bread for bake sales. When I was very young, that’s how it was. My mom didn’t go to cooking school until after her divorce from my dad when I was seven, and so I have memories of broccoli steamed only for me, lasagna made just for our dinner, and Christmas cookies for holiday gifts instead of throngs of customers.

But that wasn’t what my mom wanted to do. Cooking, she realized, was her gift, and it was one she wanted to give to more than just our little brood. She opened her first business, a bakery, when I was in high school, and there she made café food — egg sandwiches on fresh-baked croissants, simple salads, and omelets — while her partner handled the baking. I worked for her, enjoying the edges of the brownies and admiring the beautifully crafted pastries. Her partnership with the baker, however, was not so beautifully crafted, and she soon left the business.

Her next venture was her own restaurant — a place that was really hers. I remember spending hours in the space before it opened, watching it take form. The wall sconces, the artwork, the placemats. The glistening red bar with flecks that sparkled — just enough flare for it to belong to my mother. It was a sensuous place, dramatic and well made. It was my mom, in a restaurant.

I worked there too, but not willingly. By the time I was in college, I had realized that though I grew up in the restaurant business, I didn’t love it. In fact, I hated it. I hated how my mom was never home and was always exhausted. I hated that our own refrigerator at our house was consistently bare unless she brought home leftovers. I hated the grueling pace of the restaurant, the customers with nothing nice to say, and the feeling that if I failed in the restaurant, then somehow I failed my mother too.

Because my feelings were so conflicted about her restaurant and her choices, and because I subsisted on leftovers and family meals at the café, I never cooked for myself. I didn’t really want to. I had no desire to do what she did.

That changed when I moved into my first college apartment with a kitchen. Wanting to save money and make what I considered a move into adulthood, I decided to cook something my mom always made — pasta with sautéed broccoli and sausage. A simple dish I figured I could make.

I boiled some water to blanch the broccoli, and got out my only cutting board. I began chopping the garlic, and something came over me — a strange, instinctual knowledge. I had never really done this before — chopped garlic — but how many times had I watched it done? How many nights had the scent of chopped garlic filled the kitchen while I did my homework? How often had I seen my mom or her employees fill plastic containers with garlic to use for dinner service? The answer was too many to count.

I looked down at my hand. I was holding the knife the proper way, lowering the blade front to back the way my mom always did. Why wouldn’t I? Hadn’t I sat on my mother’s bed, quizzing her with flashcards on knife techniques while she was in cooking school? I was a good student. No matter how hard I had tried to stay away, somehow I had learned.

That night, I made a fine pasta dish. It didn’t taste quite like Mom’s, but I realized right away that I wasn’t culinary-challenged. It came naturally to me to cook, and I did enjoy it. Since that night, I have done a lot of cooking, and especially baking. My mom, enamored with the hot line, didn’t have time for slow, pretty decorations. I like to sit and decorate fluffy cupcakes, one by one, for an hour. You might call it a rebellion of sorts.

I tell people that I grew up in Connecticut, but I really grew up in the kitchen. For me, food is intertwined with love, but also loneliness, resentment, and forgiveness — blood, sweat, and tears. Food has made me cry, but food has also forced me to learn. Now, whenever I seem to feel, instinctually, that it is time to let the steak rest or take the chicken out of the oven, I know why and where those instincts come from. I am still learning from my mother. And my mother, of course, is still cooking.

~Madeline Clapps

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