When I got married (more than twenty years ago!), my mom started signing her cards and letters to me with her name. As in “Jean.” Up until then she always signed “Mother,” but I always called her Mom, even after I was married. I never understood why she started signing her cards like that. Maybe since I was the youngest of her seven children, she was declaring her personal independence day from motherhood. Maybe she just wanted to be Jean again. Maybe it was her way of saying “you’re all grown up now.” I never asked, and just kept calling her Mom. She was creative, artistic, well-read, smart, insightful, and an excellent cook and baker. She passed away recently, quietly in her sleep, no illness or warning signs, just complete.
When my sisters and I were making her funeral arrangements, we talked about the food she made for us when we were growing up. She taught us how to cook and bake, but not because she instructed us in the kitchen on how to measure this or what temperature to cook that – although she did do some of that. She taught us by cooking every single day for her family – five girls, two boys, and a husband before he passed – and showing us how to manage a household by how she managed hers. Pizza night meant that mom was making pizza that night. On my birthday, the treat was to have a store bought birthday cake (from Van de Kamps with lots of big sugary flowers), because we had homemade cakes and treats around all the time – like lemon meringue pies, peanut butter cookies, German chocolate cakes, chocolate chip cookies, peach cobblers, popcorn balls, sugar cookies, cream puffs, pudding with ‘Nilla Wafers…
In “this day and age,” the idea of cooking every single day for a family that gathers together at the same time every night (that alone!) can seem like a fantasy. It’s definitely a high bar, and one that I don’t manage to meet. But I do cook several meals a week, and I’m definitely a baker. We think of food traditions as grand things, but they are just as often and, perhaps more importantly, created from the patterns of everyday living.
When we’re in the throes of that everyday living, with crazy conflicting schedules and never enough time in the day, we can forget that what we’re weaving together each day is our – and our family’s – life’s pattern and story. We can forget that taking a little time together each day is the most important thing we can do, or that the way we make our signature dish or favorite treat does matter to those around us – and they remember.
Here’s an enjoyable menu, inspired by America’s Midwest, and dedicated to moms, grandmothers, aunts, Godmothers, and mom-figures everywhere: