I am the last of four kids and, by the time I came along, my mom was done in the kitchen. None of us went hungry but she had zero interest in cooking. When I was dumb enough to ask her what was for dinner, she would say, “Close your eyes, what do you see?” And I would roll my eyes and say, “Nothing.” And she would nod and say, “That’s what’s for dinner.” All this usually happened without her looking up from the book she was reading.
To this day I think that was hilarious. I thought it was funny at the time but I didn’t tell her. Parental shenanigans should not be encouraged.
Again, my mom fed me. Regularly. But it was often frozen and packaged food she could get on the table in half an hour or less. No judgment. She worked full time, she had 4 kids, my dad worked full time and no one in their right mind would have ever lectured my mom about what she chose to put on her table. Or, in our case, TV trays.
When I was in junior high, my mom started working an insane schedule. Out of a seven day week, she worked three swing shifts and then she worked two graveyard shifts. On the three days my mom worked swing shift, my sister and I shared the chore of making dinner. I love my sister. She was a shiiiiiiity cook. Jamie made one thing: Shake and Bake pork chops. She made them every week. When it was her week to cook two days, she made them twice. My dad was in the Navy for 23 years. He did not notice what he was eating. If it was vile, he just added more ketchup. After a few months of this torture I threw my sister out of the kitchen and took over the feeding of her, me and my dad three nights a week (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday). Monday was usually a good night. I had had since Thursday to think of what to make. If my mom was in the mood, she would take me to the store and let me buy stuff to make some ambitious version of Hamburger Helper I found in one of her women’s magazines. Wednesday was fine as well because I had zero ambition left and my dad and sister would get what they got and like it or I would throw their singed toaster waffles in the trash.
Tuesday nights were the worst. I was out of ideas but I still had some ambition remaining. Because I was 12, I had no idea how to deal with the stress created by the tension between these two feelings. Also, remember how my mom didn’t cook much? Well, that means she never really taught me or my sister how to cook. I was such a bad cook, she bought me a fire extinguisher. In the 80’s. These days lots of people have fire extinguishers in their kitchens. We were the only family probably in our entire town to have one.
Anyway, Tuesday nights were the worst. I remember being in last period in 8th grade and stressing out about what I was going to make for dinner. I didn’t have money or a car or the internet. My mom didn’t have cookbooks, she had some weird plastic treasure chest of recipe cards she got from Time-Life but those were for special occasions, not Tuesday nights. The eating out budget was saved for when all 4 of us were together. At around 2pm I had roughly 3 hours to come up with something by 5pm so I could have dinner in front of my dad by 6. Side note here: My dad ate in front of the TV and he never noticed what I made and my sister didn’t care as long as she didn’t have to cook but their lack of interest didn’t matter. I wanted to be good at this thing my mom had handed off to me (well, to my sister and me but we never told her Jamie stopped cooking because my sister and I were scared she would be mad). She would not have been mad. If I had asked for her help, she would have helped. She would have given me a map to the freezer and her cabinet of packaged foods, taught me her greatest hits (and made my sister learn them as well) but it never occurred to me to ask for help.
My parents were working as hard as they could to keep the familial train on track and moving forward as smoothly as possible. I wanted to be a part of that work. I wanted to help, not ask for help.
I tried watching cooking shows but the recipes were complicated or gross or expensive. And their enthusiasm for cooking made no sense to me. They seemed so thrilled to be in the kitchen. No one I knew was thrilled to be in the kitchen. All the moms I knew worked and cooking was a chore on par with laundry or yard work. Wait, except for my friend Natercia. I don’t know if her mom was happy in the kitchen because I was a shallow teenager but her mom was an outstanding cook and everytime I went over to her house I spent a lot of time eating. Her mom was too polite to throw me out or ban me from their house.
I only ever saw my mom happy in the kitchen when she was frying chicken. Have I mentioned my mom’s fried chicken? It was delicious, everything fried chicken should be. That is the only thing she ever repeatedly tried to teach me. I was so nervous I was going to make a mistake I started a grease fire. Twice. Hence my mom buying me a fire extinguisher. Oh but that chicken. I wanted so much to be able to make it for her as well as for myself but I just didn’t have the depth of knowledge necessary to master it.
Here is my mom’s recipe for fried chicken, as I remember it. She got out a huge, heavy cast iron skillet her mom gave her. She put in some margarine and then added a bunch of crisco. Then she would get out a paper lunch sack, dump in some flour, dump in a sneezing fit inducing amount of pepper and then add some salt. She put chicken pieces in the bag, shook it around and then with her bare hands put the chicken in the hot fat. She let that fry while she put more chicken and flour and pepper (more sneezing, my mom had a hilariously loud sneeze) and salt in the bag until all the chicken was fried and the decimated bag was thrown in the trash and the grease was dumped in an empty coffee can. That was her recipe for making fried chicken. And the whole time she made it she liked to listen to Frank Sinatra. And she was happy.
Many people in my family have tried to replicate that chicken and everyone has failed. She had to make it. She had to be happy to make it. As far as I know, she never made the chicken when she was in a bad mood. When you work crappy hours, you shouldn’t have to fry chicken in a shitty mood.
That might be the best lesson regarding cooking my mom ever taught me. Oh, and keep a fire extinguisher under the sink for when your squirrelly daughter sets the kitchen on fire.