Clearly, it isn’t easy to encapsulate all that I’ve learned in the kitchen and in life from my Mom in one paltry series of blog posts. I feel a bit below par just for recording them here rather than with pen and paper. However, what matters is that the thoughts and memories are captured, rather than wishing someday that they had been.
And so, as I type away and attempt to get to the heart of the matter, I sit near my pantry, which is well-stocked with cookbooks new and well-loved. A dear friend knew that I should soak in the greatness that was her grandfather, and when I visited his cozy, cluttered and eccentric home without a surface to spare (all of these attributes conveyed with much admiration), I saw that his life was captured in cookbooks.
It changed my outlook on what could easily be conveyed as part of the past, a Fahrenheit-451-esque view that cookbooks are easily replaced by searchable, digital recipes.
Today, I enjoy collecting grimy recipe cards and dog-eared cookbooks. To (I suspect) my mother’s horror, I write enthusiastically in the margins of each cookbook, noting when I made a dish for the first time and how it went. If some future offspring a few generations down the line chooses to keep one of my cookbooks and find comfort in the notations, so be it – and if they are lost to the sands of time, there is no harm done.
While my Mom is not any more enthusiastic about dog-earing a book by turning down pages to keep your place than she is affronting the body with a tattoo, here I think we agree: cookbooks are a source of inspiration. And herein lies life lesson four: one must seek ample inspiration and then embellish and experiment.
In retrospect, she might be surprised that she taught me these traits. However, Mom’s well-worn and time-loved cookbooks beg to differ. The recipes torn from the newspaper or pulled from periodicals and shared belie her appreciation for print publications. I received many a manila envelope full of newspaper clippings in my developing years. Sometimes, an article on a place I’d visited (or ought to visit). Others, a recipe or Dear Abby column (not so) subtly conveying an opinion. But always, the true epitome of a “care” package. And of course, Dad slipped in a column or two on financial security and investing. Mom might or might not be surprised to know that I interpret cookbooks and travel tomes as an interpretation of inspiration and experimentation. Bite-sized but still life-altering in their own context.
In 1997, I shipped off for France and five months of backpacking through Europe. Boarding the plane and setting off into the American view of the sun setting over my left shoulder as the flight bore East, I slowly opened a package in my carry-on bag from Mom – she has a habit of slipping little things into our bags or spots we won’t discover for a while. It held a a little sterling silver charm that I recognized from an antiqueing excursion earlier that summer in Ellensburg, Washington.
Just as Mark Twain discovered that his father was far less hapless than he had imagined (“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”), I had learned that a relationship with my Mom was inexplicable, but highly desirable. In fact, that excursion was fraught with the turmoil of a young woman in transition and the strain of our developing connection, which has thankfully evolved to the point that I consider a conversation with my Mom to be a non-negotiable part of every week of my life.
The charm on a slender chain was a cowboy inside a little fence, with a gate that read “Don’t Fence Me In” – a not-so-subtle encouragement from my Mom to see the world. She thought, in fact, that five months as a twenty year old exploring Europe completely alone was far too little, and that I should stay a year.
The package also held a bookmark, obviously. Mom gave me countless bookmarks through the years, conveying her appreciation of a well-read life and so many other virtues in the process. This one read:
Look with open eyes.
See a new world.
Open your heart to a new world.
Mom – love
Honestly, you can’t possibly understand all that – unless you do. Suffice it to say that in the kitchen, and in life, Mom adequately conveyed that I must seek inspiration and experiment.
And so, obvious or not, I consider simply embellishing a recipe with my own life experiences and the inspiration that strikes in the moment to substitute an ingredient with my own embellishment and see what transpires to be the highest form of admiration and respect.