My mother has never taught me to cook.
Not in the traditional sense, or even in a non-traditional sense; I think the best way to describe the relationship between food, my mother, and me, is that she taught me how to eat. Mayonnaise on french fries, cold tabouli salad, burgers from breakfast joints, and garlic (the good kind) on everything.
It is the pride of a Southern woman, even now, to be able to whip something up in the kitchen from a modge-podge of farmer’s market goodies, although it must be noted, that back when my mom was learning to cook, vegetables from a small local garden weren’t something so out of the norm. But whip away she does, every night, some homemade goodness that fills spirits and not just hungry bellies. I cannot do this, not from a recipe, and not from memory. In this, I am a novice, a victim of my mother’s easy, perfect hand in the kitchen.
I ate yams as a kid. In the age of Lunchables, Fruit Gushers and boxed macaroni and cheese, I consumed yards and yards of fruit leather, made from dried prunes and apples. My dad loves to tell the story of one of my early checkups at the dinner table: When my doctor asked my mother what she fed me (noticing my many leg rolls, and my hearty healthiness) and she responding simply, “avocados.” In the story, the doctor doesn’t know what an avocado is. And while that doctor didn’t last, the avocados did.
I find myself three thousand miles away from home thinking about her most often when I am in the grocery store. I can’t count the hours she spent flipping through paper adverts announcing sales, and me watching, circling organic strawberries here, obscure-sounding greens there. I only remember my hand on the side of the buggy, my sister finally not crying in the kid’s seat up front, mouth full of fresh loaves from the bakery. Here, we broke bread. And in the religion of my mom, great empty spaces, tree-covered hills, and most importantly, food, were the answers to growing bodies and souls.
I will knock on the wooden table where I type before I say this (as a superstitious precaution I learned from her hand): It was the constant worrying of my mother that kept me out of the doctor’s office for most of my life. My careful consumption of only water, heaping ounces of fresh yogurt, and plenty of leafy greens have been my medicine. In a world that is just now becoming obsessed with the clean life, she was an early revolutionary, one who took the scoffing of doctors in stride as her children grew up healthy, happy, and strong.
Food is a personal story. The likes, dislikes, and palatable lusts of each person a window into their world. And while I travel and consume amazing dishes — fresh fish from Malta, overflowing tajines in Morocco, pain au chocolat from Paris — the meals that fill my dreams come from the stove and wooden spoon of my mom, who’s heaping plates of oven-roasted chicken, spinach orzo, and savory okra and tomatoes weren’t just about feeding hungry mouths but delivering her love to hungry hearts.