My dad raved about my mother’s cooking growing up. He came to the table hungry and she fed more than his stomach, she fed his soul with the southern fare of his youth. Chicken fried steak, gumbo with a homemade roux, and heaping bowls of red beans and rice. She baked dessert every few nights, so our home always held the lingering scent of chocolate chip cookies or brownies made from scratch. He sipped from a glass of never-ending sweet tea, until it came time to switch to milk. Sweet tea isn’t nearly as satisfying for dunking cookies. Her food was pure comfort, a place to settle in and rest.
My mother-in-law liked to try new diet fads every few weeks on her unsuspecting children. She made healthy salads and sent them to school with my teenaged husband, while he sneaked a dozen donuts on the car ride there. She was a whiz in the kitchen, despite her love of elimination diets. For ten years, she convinced her husband the pork on his plate was actually chicken, and she believed if you didn’t like a particular food, it was because you hadn’t eaten enough of it. In spite of this, she kills conversation at parties with her steak and onion stromboli because everyone is too busy eating to engage with each other. Her Albanian gossar and her almond pound cake are the stuff legends and family folklore are made of, and we sigh in disappointment when she’s on a weird green leaf bender. She feeds us a surprise every time we see her.
Between my mom and my mother-in-law, I have a lot to live up to in the feeding of stomachs and souls department.
I have never been a “good” cook. I am a poor one some days, and a passable one on the rest. My children lived on a regular diet of frozen peas and chicken nuggets much longer than most parents deem acceptable. My husband has too. Last summer, I temporarily started working a part-time job, and cooking fell even further down my to-do list. My daughter secretly posted photos of our empty cupboards on social media, and after reading her tongue-in-cheek caption, I laughed, but I also realized I needed to attend to my family’s food needs better.
I signed up for an online service that delivers pre-measured ingredients along with a recipe right to my doorstep every Wednesday, and it has revolutionized our experience around the dinner table. I expected to fail at these recipes, if I’m totally honest. They’re far more complex than my standard “breakfast for dinner” stand-bys, but I am learning as I go. I will never be the woman who whips up a meal from five ingredients in the fridge and a smidge of something special from her organic garden.My meals will never be instagrammed. I will never be comfort food or delightful surprises or family folklore. But, I will be a hot meal cooked from scratch twice a week for dinner. I will find my own way around the family kitchen and it won’t look like my mother’s way or my mother-in-law’s or any other mother I know.
My kitchen and the offering I bring to the table will look like me, with a little help from a brilliant food service. If you pull up a chair to my table, you will find a meal served with love and the occasional burnt crust. I’ve learned that in feeding stomachs and souls, there are no rules. Only suggestions.