May 1st, 2014 by Alice Medrich
Some people were taught to cook by their mothers. I was not. My mother was not sure enough of herself in the kitchen to preach or teach, per se. You just had to hand around. She cooked simple food but was never adamant about her methods, although she was and is adamant about what she likes and doesn’t like. She doesn’t like foods that are sauced to death or fussed with. She doesn’t like mayonnaise on anything. She likes food to taste like what it is. She wants her green veggies bright green, al dente, as we all learned to say a few decades ago. Don’t give her any long-cooked southern veggies with pot licker; these would not be her style. She probably sounds unsophisticated and unadventuresome. She isn’t. She knows good food when she tastes it, and though she was brought up in New York, she has the palate of a Californian. When I’d come home from college in the 1970’s, there would always be a perfect ripe avocado. My dad thought avocados were for girls, and my brothers were not interested (!), so she didn’t buy any unless I was around to enjoy them with her. We’d catch up at lunch: the avocado would be sliced and fanned on toast, sprinkled with salt and pepper with a squeeze of lemon. I recently saw a “recipe” for “avocado toasts” that involve mashing an avocado with mayo and this and that. My mother and I just don’t get that: how to ruin an avocado, we would have said.
Several months ago, we had a late lunch at Mani Nial’s Sweet Bar Cafe in Oakland after a doctor’s appointment. She wanted to share the turkey sandwich with avo and cheddar. I thought that sounded boring, but I agreed anyway. It turned out to be a great sandwich. We fell silent for a while, just chewing and enjoying. When she emerged from her reverie, she sighed, “now I’m thinking about what (insert name of retirement community where she lives) would have done to these same ingredients”! At times like that I realize two things: first, my appreciation for good things to eat did not come out of nowhere, and second, we had better do something fast about institutional food, before we all go to live in (otherwise splendid) retirement communities!
My mother turned 91 recently. She is still big on vegetables and salads, and fresh fish. She and my father “discovered” Sushi 30 or 40 years ago, when you had to go to a Japanese community to get it.
Up until several months ago when my mother decided to stop drinking even the smallest glass of wine or beer, her “happy meal” might have been have been boiled edamame, a few pieces of super fresh sushi, and plenty of hot saki. Gelato for dessert, if possible. She doesn’t care that sophisticated people drink chilled sake of better quality than the type that is served hot or warm. She likes what she likes. If she weren’t my own mother, I would probably think she was the coolest sort of character. Instead I roll my eyes sometimes. I wish she were still drinking a little, because we tend to get along especially well over a glass of wine. At least we are still eating sushi and avocadoes. And rolling out eyes together over what other people do with food…
Eye rolls aside, I am who I am because of her. I don’t necessarily accept anyone’s rules about anything (especially food) unless I’ve proven them for myself. Of course I have my own rules, but those usually come after I’ve thoroughly (but privately) discredited someone else’s. I am more rigorous in my process and more adamant about my food rules than she was or is, but she was a home cook, not a professional, so she gets a pass there. Like her, I also have distinct preferences for good ingredients very simply prepared, I rarely eat a dish (other than dessert) with loads of creamy stuff in it or on it, and I like my food to taste like its ingredients.
PS. Since I wrote this post my mother has gone back to drinking a little wine. This makes us both happy.