“A table!” my mother would yell from the front door. Her voice with the perfect Parisian accent carried to us no matter whose yard we were playing in, and everyone knew that it was time for my sister and me to go eat dinner. Torn between wanting to stay and play with our friends or leaving to go home for a home-cooked meal, Annie and I would hesitate before scampering home to the dinner table.
Meals were rarely anything fancy, unless my parents were entertaining, in which case out came Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and either my mom or my dad would fearlessly dive into the complicated recipe book. My mom never worried about simplifying things, whereas my dad, a theoretical physicist, had a way of making the complicated even more so. I fell somewhere between the two, a little bit messy as a chef but elegant and clean in the final presentation.
My dad’s version of everything was over the top and sloppy. He cooked army-style, in big pots with enough servings to feed an entire continent. The one Christmas he made a stollen, it was so long it didn’t fit on the table! My mom, on the other hand, cooked less extravagantly, but I’m convinced there was magic in her meals. Even her easy-to-make vinaigrette tasted like the best salad dressing ever made. Her recipe? Oil, vinegar, garlic and salt. When she showed me exactly how she made this delicious dressing, mine did not came out as good as hers. No, it had to be magic she put in there.
Everything she made was like that -- simple yet delectable. Her french fries were nothing but cut potatoes cooked in hot oil with a little bit of salt sprinkled on top, but I could never replicate the perfect texture: crispy on the outside but moist on the inside. I liked mine with large amounts of catsup.
When a birthday would roll around, my mom cooked whatever the birthday child wanted, usually shrimp tempura with rice. Sometimes she would make a birthday cake too. At other times, one of us would request a chocolate torte or some other kind of store-bought creation. On one special occasion, she made a coffee-flavored tiger cake for me. She cut pieces of the cooked cake and rearranged them to look like a tiger before frosting it in all the right colors, stripes and all.
Because my mother was born in France, my siblings and I were introduced to unusual foods at a very young age. I never found it odd that I liked the taste of Brie while my friends preferred packaged American singles. Little did I know that this was just the tip of the iceberg. Years later, I would stick my nose into some potent Pont L’eveque while traveling in France, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I became a chocolate snob early. How could I not when my grandmother, who still lived in France, sent extraordinary chocolates every holiday season?
Despite our early introduction to gourmet and imported foods, we all still loved whatever was being served at our friends’ houses. Oddly enough, my sister and I were guilty of buying these obnoxious green frosted cakes made to look like frogs available at our local supermarket’s bakery. The overly sweet, bright-green frosting sat atop a small round of chocolate cake. It was piled high into a pyramid with white and black frosting piped on for the eyes and a red gel for its tongue. This was about as far from gourmet as one could get.
Another strange thing was that my mother actually didn’t like to cook. She often cooked hamburgers, pizza or stuffed peppers, because these dishes were easy to make and didn’t require a lot of time in the kitchen. Years later, my mother would write and illustrate a funny cartoon book called Divorcing the Kitchen, a tale of kitchen woes.
Part of the reason my mother didn’t like cooking was that it brought up bad memories of her childhood. Her father, whom I never met, was a perfectionist, especially in the kitchen. If every green bean wasn’t perfectly prepared and arranged, the entire pot would end up on the floor. You see, my grandfather had also been in a factory accident that left him partially deaf and possibly with other problems related to brain trauma.
The worst part about all of this was that my grandfather became an increasingly violent man and took his frustration and anger out on my mom and my grandmother, brutalizing them both to the point where he nearly beat them to death. In fact, as an infant and youngster, my mother often stayed with my great-grandmother, because everyone was afraid her father would kill her when she cried. It was there that she enjoyed life in the country, eating cottage cheese in cabbage leaves and hearty breads, breathing in the fresh air, and helping my great-grandmother wash clothing in the river.
Eventually, when my mother was older and back living in Paris, she and my grandmother devised a plan to escape my grandfather that involved a good friend of my mother’s offering an extra bag of rationed potatoes to him in an effort to get him away from their home. This way, my mom and grandmother could quickly pack their belongings and flee while he was off getting the much-needed food. This was all right before World War II. Needless to say, my mom’s life was not easy. She went hungry a lot during the war and even ate an occasional raw egg when her hunger overcame her, but she is a survivor. To see one of her children struggle to eat due to an eating disorder later in life was perplexing, frustrating and heartbreaking for her.
My mother was resolute about not inflicting her traumatic past on her own children. As a result, we all grew up with many wonderful food-related memories, none of which ended up with food angrily thrown on the floor.
One of my favorite food-related memories is of my sister and me waiting with our plates held out as my mom made crepe. She would flip one onto my plate, and I would first sprinkle it with sugar and then fold it into a triangle. My sister would do the same when she got hers, and we would continue eating until the batter was gone. When we were finished, my mom would make a second batch to be used for making blintzes. Those were filled with a ricotta filling and served at breakfast with either blueberry compote or maple syrup.
On holidays, my mom became terribly stressed out, but everything always ended up just fine. Our entire family would sit down to dinner, and we are a talkative, opinionated, headstrong bunch. My older half-brothers would arrive early. My dad would start drinking early, and by the dessert round, which for us was often the main event, everyone would be comfortably full and relieved that any previous tension had dissipated, at least to some extent and for a little while.
My mom and I are still creating memories. We sample cheeses and chocolates together, eat an occasional lunch together and discuss modern cuisine, GMOs and the environment. As she approaches her 90th birthday, I know my search for the perfect birthday gift will likely include something imported from France. Maybe this year it will be some Poilane bread, pain d’epices or pate des fruits.