The best thing my mother made was fried chicken. She would plug in her Sunbeam electric skillet — square with rounded corners, a black plastic beaver tail handle, and a domed lid made of thinner gauge aluminum that rattled tinnily when seated — and in it melt, I swear, four sticks of butter. She’d put flour, salt, and pepper into a brown paper bag, and my job was to drop the breasts, thighs, and drumsticks in the bag and, holding it closed in one fist, shake the bag like a tambourine until the pieces were thoroughly coated. Into the pan the chicken would go, its powdered white surfaces almost instantly overcome by noisy waves of swirling golden foam. I have no idea how long it cooked, or whether she covered the pan (it strikes me now that a lid would generate unwanted steam, certainly more than could escape from its little pie slice vent), but the results were glorious.
The other dishes in her repertoire, not so much. Hamburgers she would brown for just a minute or two in the Revere ware frying pan and then clap on the lid so they puffed up and steamed to death. Halibut entered the oven as a frozen rectangular brick and exited warm but still white and in much the same shape. For exotic, Mom made chop suey, with lots of celery.
The miracle is two-fold: one, that she cooked at all, and two, that she managed, in spite of a few lapses and America’s post-war love affair with TV dinners, to introduce me to real food — fresh vegetables, honest cheeses, and balanced, unprocessed meals — and to instill in me a welcoming curiosity about what bounty the world might provide.
It can’t have been easy. Divorced at the age of 45 with a preschooler to feed and nothing in her disposition that might suit her to nursing or secretarial work, the other two choices, she became a teacher, earning $4,800/year. Our first apartment after the divorce was the second floor of a house in Birmingham, Michigan, that was covered in Spanish moss and owned by Mrs. Rogers, who smelled sour and had dark red horsehair couches in the room I’m sure she called a parlor. We had no kitchen, just a galley with a hotplate. Water came from the bathroom sink, and for refrigeration there was a porch. I remember milk, and watermelon, but Mom must have been depressed out of her mind, and the whole period is shrouded like the house in gray, coiling mystery.
In time she renewed her capacity for delight. She loved Northern Spy apples, kumquats, young sweet corn, curries, tarragon, blueberries, trout, and caramel. Lightyears away from Brooklyn delis, she experimented with beef tongue and heart and kidneys. She steamed fresh artichokes and ate them in the kitchen, dipping each leaf into lemon butter and scraping its pale green pulp with her teeth. This was an astonishing sight to my friends in the neighborhood, at whose homes macaroni and cheese was the norm.
While there were days when I longed for mac and cheese in my own home, and for Coke and chili dogs at the side of the road, I learned to appreciate her framework and am glad I never acquired a taste for soda or white bread. It’s not that I learned to cook from my mother: I lived on yogurt in college and was well into my 20s before I attempted to bake a potato. But she taught me to be open to taste and authenticity, and to fear no strangeness in the kitchen. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.