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Within twenty four hours, I had left my husband and our three young children to be at her side and take care of her at her home in Toronto. I didn't say it out loud, but secretly I believed I might cure her. With my own strange, grief-crazed brand of magical thinking, I knew how I'd do it. I'd cook for her.
Cooking and Mother. Mother and food. Food and love. They were all tied up together, like multiple definitions in the thesaurus, under the umbrella heading "Sustenance." Or simply: Life. Little wonder, maybe, than when life itself was threatened, I would see food as the miracle cure.
My mother was many things in life: a teacher and a writer, a brilliant lecturer, a storyteller, an entertainer. Even on occasion a television talk show host. But when I picture my mother, it's never her big accomplishments I think about.
I see her cooking. The image that comes to me always features her offering up some good thing to eat -- setting a steaming casserole on the table, sliding a tray of cookies in the oven, running her finger around the rim of a bowl to test the sauce, ladling the soup, chopping the vegetables, munching on an apple. (She ate in the same manner she tackled life: with a big, zestful appetite, and nothing wasted. Give my mother a Cortland or a Mac, and she'd devour it, right down to and including the core.) Never a fancy cook so much as a hearty, instinctual one, she seldom followed recipes, and tended to rich, spicy, hearty foods, served up in abundance. She was a messy cook (as opposed to that other type, who cleans up as she goes along) and a joyful one -- a woman who could never quite believe that good food could come out of an immaculate kitchen. She prepared food as if she were making love -- with passion and imagination. She was a woman who could take whatever lay in the bottom of her refrigerator crisper drawer and turn it into soup. I never tasted more wonderful roast chicken than hers.
Of all the foods my mother whipped up in her kitchen, though, one item remained her trademark. Give her a little flour, a little salt, sugar, water, cinnamon, fruit, and her trade secret box of Minute Tapioca -- and fifteen minutes later, she'd be pinching the crust on one of her incomparable pies and brushing on the milk. For her, baking was an expression of love. Eating, an expression of acceptance. And something else: in a home filled with hidden sorrows, disappointment, anxiety and pain, mealtime represented safety, security, comfort.
Ours was a household divided down the middle -- one Jewish parent, one gentile; one sober, one drunk; one in the master bedroom, one down the hall. In a single place, we came together as a family -- around the dining room table. For us, meals were a kind of communion. My mother's pie the sacrament.
This was not an easy family to grow up in, filled as it was with a mix of big love and big pressure -- to please our parents, to lay at their feet the successes that had eluded them in their own lives. My role in our household was to make my parents happy, and I tried my darnedest to do it. If my sister was salt, I was sugar.
I was a baker, from a young age. I loved to hang out in the kitchen with my mother, eating cookie dough straight out of the bowl and talking with her. She never actually instructed me in her method for making pie crust, but I took it in the way a baby learns speech, from life. I knew all my mother's mantras: Crisco for flakiness, butter for flavor. Use as little water as possible. Don't cut up the apples so small you'll end up with applesauce. Never overhandle the dough.
In our house, the words "packaged pie crust" or "Pillsbury mix" were as unthinkable to utter as obscenities.
It didn't last. Maintaining skinniness was my job. Somewhere along the line -- very early -- I became the designated thin person in the family (along with our father, who favored liquor over food), and as much as my mother lamented the way I turned away from the wonderful meals she prepared, there was a part of her that delighted in my thinness, too. I, for my part, recognized it as a source of power. Whole mealtimes were dedicated to the project of getting me to try some food, or clean my plate of vegetables.
I picked at the foods my mother offered up, my goal to consume as little as possible. She cooked me special meals -- swept me away from school for a half hour at lunchtime (as late as junior high) so she could serve me one of the two foods I would agree to eat (a souffle' of nothing but milk, flour and eggs, put in the oven to rise for the six minutes of the drive to school to get me. Twenty minutes later -- souffle' consumed -- she'd whisk me back to class.)
We had a dance around food, eating, weight: my mother the supplicant, begging me to eat, I the withholding one, fork resting on the placemat, meal untouched. I never articulated the thought, but considering my behavior now, I wonder if I wasn't taking onto myself all the attention that might otherwise have been focused on my father, as he brooded at the end of the table, with a couple of shots of vodka in him, headed for more.
There was a message in every decision. Herself the daughter of a baking, cooking, soup-making mother, my mother was carrying on an old family pattern, learned in her own mother's kitchen, no doubt. Feed me, own me. Deny food, reject love. Eat as you want, feel guilty, and squeeze yourself into that girdle. Or deprive yourself, feel virtuous, and be slim. Though in my mother's case, neither alternative held true. She deprived herself endlessly. And still, did battle with the bathroom scale, basking in her daughter's thinness, as she mournfully surveyed her own ripe curves.
At seventeen, I gained ten pounds, and watched how my mother suffered the weight gain. At eighteen, I dieted away thirty pounds, and noted her relief. Letters she wrote to my sister and grandmother, over the next few years, feature regular assessments of my weight, with ups and downs. Extra pounds, a signal of trouble.
At twenty three, I married, and started baking for my own little family. I took a photograph of the contents of my freezer, the winter I was pregnant -- compelled to document the rows of baked goods I'd stockpiled, to guard against the wolf who seemed to hover just outside our door. That winter, I barely let my husband taste the brownies, before wrapping up every new batch for the freezer. Food was security. Food was protection. The one thing I could control, in a life of uncertainty. I gained fifty pounds with that pregnancy. Basking in the knowledge that for once in my life, I didn't need to have -- couldn't, in fact -- a flat, hollowed-out stomach.
Two days after the birth of that baby -- the first of our three -- my mother came to visit. She was easy to spot, as she made her way down the ramp from the plane, carrying Tupperware containers with four different kinds of homemade cookies, and a whole roast chicken.
I was thrilled to see her, knowing how she'd take care of me -- a talent my husband never mastered. But he -- raised in a very different kind of household, where the parents kept a polite distance and stayed in hotels when they visited, and took you out to dinner at their country club, instead of whipping up casseroles -- felt crowded, overwhelmed, and stressed. Within hours of my mother's arrival, he had a migraine headache. "She's staying for two weeks?" he asked, holding his throbbing head.
I fixed a pot of tea and sat there in our kitchen, new baby in my arms, trying to explain, to each of these two people I loved, how it was for the other. I thought I did a good job, but when the heart-to-heart was over, my mother made the baffling announcement that something unexpected had come up back home in Toronto, and she'd have to leave. Two days later -- with all trace of my mother gone now, but the last of the cookies -- I called her (collect, as always). Only this time, she didn't accept the charges.
"I think it's best if Joyce and I discontinue our relationship," she told my husband, when he called her up (while I lay on the couch, gasping for breath). "It's clear she doesn't want me around."
At thirty, unhappy in my marriage, I got very thin again: my body a message to my mother, signaling my sense of deprivation, my hunger for far more than food. My mother -- still beautiful at sixty six, but dieting as always, continued her endless struggle, love of good food on one side, longing to be slim on the other.
"I'll tell you one thing," she had written, in a letter to a friend, more than twenty years earlier. "If I ever get a brain tumor, I'm going to stop counting calories." Nothing but death would release her from this struggle. And ultimately, it was death that would.
With my mother facing death, the idea came to me that despite the terminal prognosis given by the doctors, I might once again provide, for my mother, what was needed to make everything OK -- just as she had once believed she could do, for me. With food of course.
Now I'd be the one providing sustenance. From the day of my arrival at her house in Toronto, I viewed a crucial part of my role there as that of the maker of wonderful meals.
I shopped, that summer, with the obsessiveness of an addict -- travelling to three different produce markets to locate the best raspberries for my mother's breakfast tray, riding the bus to the particular Jewish bakery on the other side of the city where they baked the best challah bread. My mother had always been not simply a great cook, but a great hostess, with legions of devoted friends, so now, with the news of her illness spreading, they came to see her.
I tried to make the visits into something resembling the parties of before. Only now, I'd be the cook. I made carrot ginger soup and salad with goat cheese and roasted pine nuts, pasta with fresh tomato sauce, and, for her birthday in July, salmon encrusted in brioche dough, with creamy lemon sauce and fresh dill on the side, the brioche sculpted into the shape of a smiling baby.
Nearly every day that summer, I baked a pie for my mother and her friends to eat, during their farewell visits in her garden. One day it might be strawberry rhubarb. Next day, blueberry, or apple. Sometimes, late at night, when she was sleeping, I made my way downstairs to the kitchen and took out the rolling pin, the pastry blender, the red Minute Tapioca box. In the quiet of midnight, tears streaming down my cheeks, the kitchen in shambles, I rolled out the dough. Part of me still believed, she couldn't die, so long as I kept feeding her.
Here's the thing about pie crust, I told them. It's not about the recipe. (Nearly every recipe for pie crust is identical.) It's about how you handle the dough. And the only way to learn is to stand as I did once, at the elbow of a baker who knows what she's doing. Once that was my mother. Now it was myself.
A half dozen times at least, that summer, I stood in my mother's kitchen with one or another of her old friends, teaching the lessons of pie, reciting her advice. I had thought the exercise was for them, but I found, as I baked, an unexpected comfort. For all the uneasiness and trouble of my history with my marvelous, difficult mother, on this subject at least, no trace of ambivalence existed, only love.
My mother died that October, having hung on longer than any of the doctors could have expected. The same week she died, my marriage -- so long troubled -- finally ended, and I found myself moving out of the home I'd shared with my husband for more than a dozen years, to a town a half hour's drive away. I slept in an unfamiliar bedroom then. Cooked in a strange kitchen -- though in fact, for a while there, I hardly cooked at all. No baking for me. No smell of soup on the stove. Of all the seasons of my life, this was the darkest, and the hungriest.
My children were spending Thanksgiving that year with their father and his parents -- making this the first year of my life I'd mark the fourth Thurday in November away from family, and the first year, in over a decade, when I wouldn't be preparing a holiday meal.
Thinking about all those afternoons teaching my mother's friends how to make pie, an idea came to me, to do the thing my mother always did so brilliantly -- throw a party. I invited everyone I knew (many of them women heading off to family celebrations of their own a few days later) to come over for a pie lesson.
Over a dozen showed up, that first time (though later the guest list would double). They brought their own pie tins and rolling pins and pastry blenders, but the rest I provided. We spread our materials out over every available surface -- not only the kitchen, but the dining room table too -- and got to work. When the afternoon was over, everyone went home with a pie. We had left them unbaked, not simply because I didn't have space in my oven, but so each person's own house could be filled with the smell of the apples as they baked, and so every baker would know the pleasure of reaching into her own oven and lifting out her own golden pie.
For years, when we were living in New Hampshire, and perilously close to being broke, I had delivered this line to my children: "Even the richest man in America isn't eating a better pie than we are, tonight." Then a man who was, briefly, the richest, paid several thousand dollars to a charity I liked, so I would teach his wife to bake a pie. But some things in life, I knew, could not truly be bought, and a good pie is one of them.
I've baked pies to raise money for deaf children, baked for the homeless, for the scholarship program at my children's school, for a presidential candidate (who lost). I like to think of how, in states all over America, in kitchens like mine, pie bakers reach for the Minute Tapioca box on my mother's say-so, reminding themselves "Crisco for flakiness; butter for flavor." Almost two decades since my mother uttered her last words, her mantra endures.
So does the old family pattern. The good part anyway -- that belief in the value of food made with one's own hand, a sit-down home cooked meal you share with those you love.
All three of my children are grown and gone from home now -- a fact of my life that still stabs at my heart sometimes, I miss them so achingly. But it is a source of pleasure that though I never set out to instruct them, any more than my mother did, with me, each of them knows how to make great pie. I reside in their kitchens, in some small way, same as my mother does, in mine.
Now and then, one of them calls me up, mid-crust, with a question: "What do I think about peaches, cranberries and raspberries as a combination, for filling?" my older son asks. (I think it's a terrific idea. "Just remember," I say, "to throw in extra tapioca, to keep the filling from getting runny.") "I ran out of Crisco," my younger son tells me. "Do you think it's OK to throw in a little extra butter to substitute?" (No problem, is the answer. One great thing about pie crust is how forgiving it is. More than one road leads to great pie.)
These days, apart from when I teach pie, I only bake one if friends are coming over. But sometimes, at night, alone in my kitchen, I still take out my rolling pin and pastry blender and my tins of sugar, flour and salt, and get to work. It is a kind of meditation for me -- cutting the butter into the flour, rolling out the dough, and that one risky moment, when you flip the top crust over the fruit, and for one brief second, the circle of dough is neither on the counter, nor on the pie, but in midair. It's a moment I still hear my mother's voice in my ear. Performing the act correctly is about confidence, and faith. Two qualities I have somehow acquired and retained, over the years.
In the end, of course, I did not save my mother's life with pie. And though it would be overstating things a little, to tell you pie saved mine, this much is true: It is with the small act of making a pie -- a handful of ingredients, twelve minutes of preparation, max -- that I most consistently locate peace of mind. Something happens, when I make a pie, and something else happens, when I take out my pie server and cut a piece, and set it on a plate for a person I care about to eat, with French vanilla ice cream on the side. It is a small act, but in its way, one of the more satisfying parts of life.
My mother was a complicated and frequently difficult woman, and it was a complicated, difficult thing, being her daughter -- the same words my own daughter might use, come to think of it, about being mine. But about the pie part, I feel no ambivalence. Pie is simple. (Easy as pie.) Pie is something a person can count on, when so much else in life may seem to be in question. Pie is the place I go where I know I will feel nothing but love.
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