Friday, August 22, 2008

Just Like Mom Used To Make

Like more than a few late blooming moms, I don't have my own mom around, but I think about her every day.

Her absence is felt acutely at moments when I watch my kids do something sweet, or try something for the first time, and I don't have her by me to see it. I can't even pick up the phone to tell her about it.

But one way I make sure my kids connect with her -- a grandma they'll never know in person -- is through food.

Today I did something my mom did about once a year, as a treat: I made fried chicken. Like mom, I soaked it in milk first, though I improved upon her recipe a wee bit: I soaked it in buttermilk. Mom's recipes are great but not sacrosanct, and if Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, says to use buttermilk, I use buttermilk (you can find Ina's recipe here). Like mom AND Ina, I only fried the chicken briefly, and finished it off in the oven. And I hope my kids'll dig into it tonight the way my brother, father and I used to dig into my mom's.

Fried chicken was a rarity in mom's repertoire, which was generally more reflective of our Jewish heritage. From her I learned to make a rich and life-restoring chicken soup. Because of her, I developed a taste for home-made chopped chicken liver. I ate home-made latkes at Chanukah. And I've several times duplicated her two-tone cream cheese pie, which is topped with a layer of sweetened sour cream (we grew up in New York City, where cheesecake was a popular dessert at Jewish delis).

Mom also passed on to me an appreciation of home-made lasagna, though made only with meat sauce: bechamel, though typical in Italian-American homes, never made an appearance in ours. She improvised a pretty good faux barbecue chicken utilizing Heinz chili sauce (we lived in an apartment and never had access to a grill). She taught me to make ricotta-stuffed manicotti, home-made chocolate chip cookies, and summer fruit salad.

Occasionally mom's more adventurous attempts at cooking didn't quite work out. She was always cutting recipes out of the New York Times Sunday magazine, and when pesto became all the rage, she attempted a home version that wound up having the consistency of sand.

But she was a good home cook and she took joy in feeding her family, as well as herself. She was something of a foodie long before the term was coined. To her, life was a banquet and she was here to savor it.

When I got old enough to cook with her, she let me help. I still remember one New Year's Eve when we made crab cakes together and filled the apartment with the appetizing smell of just-fried food. They went great with the champagne we drank with dad to ring in the new year.

Mom's food is comfort food to me now. I miss my mom everyday, but when I cook her food for my kids, I feel a connection. I remember the tastes and smells of home, and I want to leave my kids the same kind of yummy memories I hold onto that make me feel mom isn't entirely gone from the world ... and is, in her own way, feeding the grandkids she's never met.

1 comment:

Professor Wagstaff said...


Buttermilk is acidy enough to help tenderize the chicken. (Yogurt marinades do the same thing in Indian recipes). I also like to add some paprika & finely chopped sage to the flour mix, along with a little cayenne to taste.

Try it next time! :-)