My mother didn’t leave much behind when she died in 1997; I have two of her rings, a few pieces of pottery, two wooden chests, scattered letters and photos, and three cookbooks. From what my grandmother and father say, and my meager memories of living with her, she was a wonderful cook. I was only five years old when my parents separated, however, and my mother never cooked much again. I do credit her with teaching my sister and me how to eat with chopsticks (my dad did not like Chinese food, so we often went out while visiting her) and to appreciate the over-the-top treats she placed in our Easter baskets and Christmas morning stockings. Mom always made sure we felt celebrated on our birthdays, too, including our favorite cakes, the flavors of which she declared when we were infants. She insisted that my sister Meaghan was like her, and therefore had to wear her hair long, preferred fine china and jewelry, and favored chocolate cake, while I was, without question, to sport the Dorothy Hamill hairdo until my teenage years (jealous? I thought so), enjoy pottery and casual crafts, and receive a freshly-baked lemon-lime cake every birthday.
When Mom asked for a bite of whatever you were eating, it behooved you to consider the request carefully. One time, as I graciously held up my slice of pizza, her mouth suddenly seemed too cavernous for her small face, and I watched in horror as she bit down on both the pizza and my finger. I shrieked in pain, Meaghan screamed with laughter, and Mom just shrugged and looked at me apologetically. I knew she loved pizza, right? Yes. And my finger was technically still attached? Check. But she kept us guessing, too, because she was also one of those people who asked for a taste of ice cream and then did not eat the entire bite, but just politely skimmed the surface of the spoon. I still occasionally take a nibble of Meaghan’s food in this manner; she loves it.
My mother’s copy of The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas is one of the cookbooks I inherited. I wish something other than the “Baked Walnut and Cheddar Balls Bechamel” were annotated, but there it is. This recipe has too much dairy in it for my taste, but perhaps I’ll try to recreate it sometime, just to feel closer to Mom. I do respect her for trying to master a higher level of vegetarian cooking than baked potatoes, side salads, and grilled cheese sandwiches — the extent of most restaurant menu offerings in the 1980s. She loved to make complex soups, bean and grain dishes, curries, bran muffins, and delicious salads. I remember her eating leftover vegetable quiche with a heaping spoonful of cottage cheese on the side, sprinkled liberally with pepper. She peppered everything. It took me years not to tear up whenever I put pepper on my plate; I still often think of her when I use it.
Flavors and smells are embedded deep in our memories. Spices such as sage trigger a craving for my grandmother’s veggie burgers, and the smell of chocolate pudding immediately conjures up images of my dad standing at the stove, book in hand, stirring and stirring. Buttered popcorn reminds me of living near my sisters and watching movies late into the night. And fresh brewed coffee, my favorite smell of all, will forever be linked to leisurely pajama-clad morning visits with my closest friends and family.
And now I’m making new traditions with some of my favorite spices –smoked paprika, ginger, thyme, cumin, cinnamon. . .wonderful flavors that I hope one day will remind my children, and my grandchildren, of my kitchen, and of time spent with me.
Perhaps my mother left me more than I realize, after all.
Back by popular demand: Baked Walnut and Cheddar Balls Béchamel
1 ½ cups ground walnuts
4 oz. grated, mild (Mom: “medium”) cheddar
½ cup breadcrumbs
½ cup wheat germ
½ onion (Mom: 1)
¾ cup milk
2 Tbs. parsley (Mom: “fresh”)
fresh ground pepper
3 cups Sauce Bechamel (butter, flour, minced onion, hot half and half, peppercorns, thyme, bay leaf, salt, “fresh” nutmeg)
In a large bowl, mix all of the ingredients together. Add well-beaten eggs last. Roll the mixture into balls, slightly smaller than eggs in size, and arrange in a buttered baking dish. Pour sauce over walnut balls and bake at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes. Serve very hot, with pepper.