My mother equated food with love and food that she cooked for her children with mother’s love. The more food, the more calories, the more trouble, the more time involved, the more pans used, the bigger mess made—the more love. So my mother’s love was messy, exhausting, and fattening.
All four of my mother’s sons have had weight issues. Most of the time I’ve been the leanest son since I periodically swear off sweets. I go on the wagon because I’m addicted to sugar. Just a few sweets crank up my sugar craving and I return to obsessively thinking about cookies, pies, pecan twirls, honey buns, and brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts. I also have an itchy-rash dairy allergy, which further stymied my mother. “Can you have eggs?” my mother asked nearly every visit. “Yes,” I’d say, “as long as it doesn’t come from a cow’s udder, I can have it, and cows don’t lay eggs.” Repeatedly, my mother fretted, “I wish I could figure out some dessert I could make for you.” A few years ago she made me Shoo-Fly pie and was proud that it contained “no sugar.” When I pointed out the cups of Karo syrup and molasses ingredients, she saw no connection and assured me that she had made it before for her diabetic neighbor. Another time when she was making my favorite supper—fried chicken—she delighted in telling me that she had taken the trouble to soak the chicken all afternoon in milk. When I searched her face for signs she was joking, I found none.
My brothers and I and our wives constantly fought to make my mother’s cooking life easier, but we failed. One brother bought her a microwave oven, which she refused to use even once during the twenty years she owned it. I praised her the first time she bought an already-cooked rotisserie chicken, but then she baked it at 350 degrees for an additional hour in her own oven in her own pan. It would have been juicier served directly from Piggly Wiggly, but what’s juicy Piggly Wiggly love compared to mother’s love no matter how dried up?
She refused to ever serve or eat leftovers (Who wants leftover love?) and she despised casseroles, possibly because they could be entirely made and served in just one dish. Early on, we all gave up trying to make cooking supper easier for her, but I drew the battle line at lunches. My usual cold-cut sandwich and chips required only one paper plate and one knife. But my mother always wanted to cook something: BLTs, grilled cheese sandwiches, or her takes-all-day homemade vegetable soup. I was sure I had outflanked her once when I told her, “All I want is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” Five minutes later when I entered the kitchen, there she stood awkwardly holding a mixing bowl, desperately struggling to stir together the jelly and stiffened-because-refrigerated peanut butter. I had lost the battle.
Another time she proudly showed me the small handful of tiny, tiny peas she’d gotten from an hour’s work shelling snow peas. We had lost the war.
My mother equated eating what she cooked with accepting her love, and that’s why I was her most problematic son. She was happiest when the massive amounts of food she cooked for a family feast were completely consumed, and she noted who ate how many helpings. She would tell me, “Kelly had three helpings of my spaghetti; did you see?”—offering Kelly to me as a good example, an enviable role model. Many years ago, with a large spoonful of mashed potatoes poised over my plate, she asked, “Would you like some more?” A second after I said, “No thank you,” plop went the potatoes onto my plate.
Despite my efforts to view my mother’s philosophy about cooking and eating with a certain detached sense of humor, I guess the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. While she was under Hospice care, I and her other caregivers devoted a lot of energy to demonstrating our love to her through food. I’m convinced that love—in the form of cheesy grits, homemade chicken and rice soup, and other tasty offerings—is what kept her alive eight months longer than anyone expected. And I found myself becoming competitive. After I heard that my sister-in-law Pam was “such a good cook” for the tenth time, I upped my game: made blueberry muffins, baked apple pies with apples from my own tree, grilled steaks and zucchini squash, learned how to cook two of her favorite tricky dishes—cornbread hoecakes and fried eggplant. (“I’ll be damned if Pam loves her more than I do.”)
I no longer dismiss my mother’s ideas about hands-on homemade nourishment. Ever since she died, I’ve been losing weight. My mother’s love is slowly melting away.
I have an image of my mother in my mind that I think will always stick with me. She’s standing in her kitchen, where flour, sugar, Karo syrup, and bacon grease have exploded all over the counters and the floor. Dirty pans, bowls, and utensils are scattered everywhere like shrapnel. She stands amidst this domestic war zone smiling an exhausted smile, an ounce of tiny peas in one hand and a big pot of mother’s love boiling over on the stove.