Some people look in the mirror and become aware of genetically familiar crows feet, a double chin, or pattern baldness. Some people hear a generational echo when chastising their mischievous spawn in frustration.
But me? I see reflections of my mother in my own handwriting, in my tendency toward workaholicism, in a love of inappropriate jokes, and an obsession with dessert at breakfast.
Mom didn’t like to cook so we ate out. I ordered pancakes with butter and maple syrup. If the syrup were served cold, even better, because that’s how it had been in grandma’s kitchen. Utilitarian, fridge to table. Mom’s favorite breakfast by contrast was fluffy blueberry pancakes with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.
For thirty years my narrow palette preferred all foods in their plain and simple state. Hot dogs should be naked in the bun. Mashed potatoes should swim in a pool of butter. Hamburgers might be allowed to have ketchup and mustard, but forget the PB of PB&J. Just make mine with Welch’s grape jelly on plain white pasty bread.
When mom fled an abusive marriage with my infant self, she retreated to her parents’ home in West Virginia. My grandparents functioned as my “parents” while mom worked multiple jobs to support us. Grandma’s cooking was plentiful and delicious, but consisted of a few staple meat dishes and fresh vegetables, and was chased down with 2-liters of generic soda or milk and Oreos.
Mom remarried and after elementary school I moved with them away from grandma’s kitchen. We ate Hamburger Helper with deer meat, spaghetti and meat sauce made with deer meat, and Chef Boyardee pizza topped with pepperoni, sausage, and you-guessed-it… deer meat.
How had I gotten to be 13 without ever trying mac-and-cheese, pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, or french fries that weren’t made by Ore Ida? Never mind the wonder of Chinese takeout or the delicacy of the Klondike Bar. The idea of cheesecake was absurd. Cheese came in sharp cheddar blocks and under no circumstances ought to be associated with strawberries. Mom’s idea of food just didn’t match mine. I would never be anything like her.
Fast-forward fifteen years and discover her horror at being served fried chicken coated in Old Bay in my kitchen. What was wrong with good old Shake-n-Bake?
Fast-forward another five years and mom’s gone. Stolen by colon cancer at age 60.
I sometimes marvel at my son’s limited cuisine choices, yet secretly empathize when he doesn’t want to try new foods. How would I have approached raw sushi, falafel, or tandoori at age fourteen? Never mind a simple Philly cheesesteak.
Now at age forty-four I feel like celebrating a bit of mom-solidarity. Peanut butter fudge. White chocolate macadamia cookies. Homemade Chex mix. Garlic mashed potatoes with sour cream. And turtle cheesecake.
I don’t eat breakfast frequently, but my cooking selections always skew to mom’s influence: Belgian waffles heaped with strawberries and Vanilla Bean ice cream, blueberry pancakes under a dome of French Vanilla – or my favorite – chocolate chip pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse with a scoop of Cookies and Cream on each ear.
Wish she could see me now.