My college friend Sara had the same sort of cooking training as I, and together, away from our mothers, the two of us often found our way into the nearest kitchen to cook for friends. During our junior year I lived in a house off campus, and the house had a (most likely deplorable) kitchen, and in that kitchen Sara taught me her mother’s chicken curry, which I still make from time to time, three decades later.
That same year 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 I told my mother I was 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 but instead allowed me to flex my own kitchen muscle. As a concession, I made Sara’s chicken curry, to my mother’s delight.
She and my sister were living in a very small carriage house that had a tiny galley kitchen with scarcely enough room for two people to maneuver at the same time. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but the house was tidy and charming and safe, and she was still living there the next summer, in between my junior and senior years. My only work that summer was babysitting, and I was usually home in time for the two of us, my mother and I, to listen to the last half hour of All Things Considered while we cooked dinner together.
A year later, after I graduated, she had moved into a cute three-bedroom house that had an enormous back yard. I was home only for the summer, having accepted a job teaching photography at a boarding school outside of Boston. We planted a garden with basil and tomatoes and zinnias, and I’m certain that we cooked, though I don’t remember it.
What I do remember is sitting in the floor of that kitchen helping my sister make a last-minute switch from NYU to Indiana University. My sister graduated from high school a year early, at 16, and she was accepted at NYU. But when it came time to start moving to New York, New York seemed overwhelming and Indiana was accommodating, and after a slew of faxes and phone calls and transcript discussions, the trade was arranged, all from the kitchen floor.
My sister went to college; I moved to Dedham; our mother, who had sold the children’s clothing store, took a job writing technical manuals for a telecom company and taught writing at a local community college.
The owner of that cute, three-bedroom house got an irresistible offer from a developer and sold the house, sending my mother once again into search mode. She moved, with no help from her girls, into a small condominium that had just enough dirt by the back door for a patch of snapdragons.
We talked weekly, my mother and I. When I ran short on cash (the pay for a teaching intern was $6,000 a year), I started 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.
I set my copies of the Nantucket Open House Cookbook, The Silver Palate Cookbook, The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, and Martha Stewart’s Entertaining in line with my mother’s most treasured cookbooks: The Art of French Cooking, Thoughts for Buffet, Party Potpourri, and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. I anchored the stack with the green metal box that contained the real treasures of family recipes, all handwritten on index cards. “You know she stole those recipes from Junior League cookbooks,” my mother said, gesturing to Martha, “as if she could have gotten in to the Junior League.”
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. Taking turns, we decided, would be a good way to start. We alternated cooking on week-nights, and on weekends we were 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, affirming our preference for Chablis. In the high heat of August we dined on simple Bibb lettuce salads, chased with pints of Ben & Jerry’s.
We lived together for about a year and a half, until the time I started dating someone seriously (for a 20-something) and decided to get an apartment of my own. After I moved, I still visited her for dinner once or twice a week. My mother cooked; I brought wine. We sat in the small eating area, an awkward extension of an awkward, small kitchen. My mother set the table as if serving royalty. We used the good china, the Coalport “Arcadia” pattern that had been part of my father’s mother’s wedding China and that would, many years later, grace the annual Christmas brunch gatherings in my own house.
I remember standing in that small, generic kitchen one night after dinner, washing dishes while my mother talked to my sister on the phone. Margaret called to say she’d gotten a job teaching ballet, which was surprising but not surprising, considering she had just finished graduate studies in criminal justice. She was moving to a small town, my sister told our mother, and she was curious to know what I knew about it. My mother handed me the phone.
“Have you ever heard of a place called Jackson Hole?” my sister asked.
This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”