For a handful of years in my early 20s my mother was my favorite date. She was divorced; I was yet to be either tethered or anchored. I had no boyfriend, no apartment, no career track, and no plans. Memphis was a temporary stop – a train station transfer, perhaps, if only I could figure out what line I needed to board. I had no college friends living in Memphis and no Memphis friends who remained connected through college. Since we shared many interests, my mother and I, she was a natural companion. Also, I was temporarily her roommate. Sometimes we ventured out; sometimes we spent quiet evenings at home. It was easy to find things we enjoyed doing together.
One of the things we enjoyed was cooking, a joint venture that started when I was three-ish and we made sugar cookies at Christmas time to take to the runaway shelter. By 10 I’d picked up enough skills to make pancakes and eggs, mostly without supervision, for Mother’s Day breakfast in bed, albeit with an avalanche of flour in my wake. While high school pals went to Forty Carrots for classes, I studied at the elbow of my mother, who never once measured milk for the béchamel that magically became cheese soufflé. It was not a forced education. The notion that I would require cooking skills for later married life never crossed her lips, or her mind. She enjoyed cooking, and I enjoyed being with her in the kitchen. It was that simple.
My college friend Sara had this same sort of training, and together, away from our mothers, the two of us often found our way into the nearest kitchen to cook for friends. Along that particular road I met a boy, a handsome and dangerous one who also loved to cook and who introduced me to The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and The Moosewood Cookbook. At Christmas break that year I told my mother I was going to be vegetarian, and though she suggested that a petite filet was both tastier and less fattening than a potato kugel, she did not discourage my experiment, my flexing of my own kitchen muscle.
When I was teaching art and photography in Boston I needed to earn some extra money and decided to put my cooking skills to work with a catering business, cooking in other people’s homes for small dinner parties. I had a set menu from which my clients could choose, and every item listed first had to pass my mother’s approval. “Don’t cook anything weird,” she counseled. “People like food that tastes good.” Years later I would learn that this was exactly the same advice that Julia Reed’s mother dispensed. If nothing else, Southern mothers know their food.
The teaching stint was a two-year gig, and when it ended I came home to regroup. The only boxes I unpacked were my summer clothes and my kitchen things, fancy matching wine glasses and gadgets I acquired on shopping trips to the Crate & Barrel in the Chestnut Hill mall. “A dish towel works just fine, you know,” my mother said. “Yes, Mama, but a salad spinner is faster,” I replied. This was one of our many minor disagreements about the tools and tricks of the dinner trade. I rolled my eyes at her stained aluminum baking sheets; my mother rolled hers at my white Circo kettle.
In the sliver of time she’d had alone, without my sister or me around, my mother had developed her own independent kitchen routine, and it took a minute to accommodate my intrusion. Our only experience was history, in which she clearly led the way and I followed along. Now we were doing a delicate two-step, each wanting to respect the other’s wishes and autonomy. Taking turns, we decided, would be a good way to start. We would alternate cooking on week-nights, and on weekends we would each be free to go out with friends or whatever. More often than not, the friends we chose were each other. Looking back I realize that I chose her because I had, at the time, very limited other choices; she chose me knowing our window was small and closing.
Dining at trendy new restaurants, we found a few ideas that we wanted to try at home. The routine of taking turns evolved into co-cooking, testing ways to prepare linguine con gamberetti and molten chocolate cakes. We debated the merits of olive oil, butter and eggs (she was staunch defender of all three) and the hazards of Lean Cuisine. We tried pink zinfandel and Zima, confirming our preference for French Chablis. In the high heat of August we often had Bibb lettuce salad, chased with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
The rhythm we developed was seamless. Somehow we were never on top of one another, never in conflict for the oven or the counter. For years afterward, long after I moved out and on my own, we would fall right into step any time we were both in the kitchen for holidays or birthdays or whatever occasion brought us back together.
This, of course, is how good dancing works, leader and follower keen to each other’s cues, giving the impression of weightlessness. In this particular dance, we went from being a dancing couple to a dancing duet, from Fred and Ginger to Fred and Bing. She led; I followed, until I could dance on my own.
It is supposed to be a secret, I know, but my daughter will be making pancakes for me tomorrow for Mother’s Day. I know this is true because on Monday at dinner she asked if she could cook on Tuesday and if we could please make pancakes and if I would please remind her where the recipe was and help her get started. And then when Tuesday came and we were making pancakes, she asked if I liked pancakes and how long did I think it would take to make them and what time, by the way, was I planning to wake up on Sunday morning. Also, please, did I like syrup on the pancakes or just on the side the way I serve it for her.
I anticipate an avalanche of flour in her wake, a step in our shared choreography. I suspect we’ll have less waltzing and more samba, perhaps with some crazy disco thrown in. I hope I can lead as gently as I was led, and that we can be as joyful.
Betty’s Cheese Soufflé
Once again, it just wouldn’t be right to write about my growing-up kitchen and not include my mother’s cheese soufflé recipe (again). There are plenty of recipes online if you want more specifics; but I make it the way my mother did, and it works every time: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter a soufflé dish and coat with grated cheese (Parmesan works well). Make a white sauce: butter, flour, milk (give or take, it’s 3 Tablespoons butter, 3 Tablespoons of flour (melt butter; stir in flour to make a roux), 1 1/2 cups hot milk (whisk hot milk into roux to make sauce)). Remove sauce from heat and stir in cheese, grated or cubed (Gruyere is the standard; I use whatever we have, which is often just cheddar, let’s call it 6-8 ounces). Separate 5 eggs, preferably ones that have come to room temperature. Stir a couple of spoonfuls of the cheese sauce into the yolks to warm them up, then add warmed yolks into saucepan and mix well. Season with salt, and a bit of cayenne pepper. Beat eggs whites until stiff. Add half of the whites to the cheese base and mix well. Fold in the other half of the whites (you’ll see egg white showing), then transfer to souffle dish. Put it in the oven and reduce heat to 375/380 degrees. Cook for about 30 minutes, depending on your oven. It (the soufflé , not the oven) will fall before you have time to serve, but it will be delicious.