My mother was truly an abysmal cook, despite the fact that my grandmother was a wonder in the kitchen. Don’t these kinds of skills typically get handed down in families — mother to daughter, father to son, or whatever other combination you can come up with including extended, blended or “I have two mommies/daddies” families?

Regardless — despite her lack of ability, my mother was blissfully unaware of her culinary deficiencies and in fact seemed to actually enjoy the process. When Carol and I were first married and would come to visit my parents for a weekend, my mother would greet us and then let us know, “I’ve been cooking for days!” She would say this with tremendous excitement, which would prompt a response of “Oh, great!” from us, along with furtive glances meaning, “What in the hell has she made NOW?”

Adding stereotypical insult to injury, my mother’s side of the family is Jewish. Jewish mothers are supposed to be wonderful cooks, are they not? It’s part of their overbearing nature to browbeat their children, especially their sons, with psychological, emotional, and caloric overload. My mom was up to par on the first two but not the last one. She would cook a brisket (there’s a classic Jewish main course for you) for periods ranging from several days up to a week (hence her quite literal statement above), boiling it for a few hours, returning it to the refrigerator, and then repeating the process ad nauseam (again, literally). It resulted in a cut of meat that was not so much tender to the fork as separated into individual muscle fibers that could be twirled like spaghetti. This would be served with a side of carrots and onions that had suffered the same fate as the poor beef – all lingering firmness and flavor extracted and existing only as a gelatinous remnant of what they once were.

Now, some of you might be saying, “Hey, don’t be so rigid and sexist in your evaluation — what about your dad? Couldn’t he pick up some of the household responsibilities? Many fathers have excellent kitchen skills!” Yes, many do — but mine didn’t. When I was in the 6th grade my mother was in the hospital for several weeks. Every night she was away we had the same thing for dinner — frozen minute steaks, pound cake (which came in pre-cut slices), and (humorously) Dad’s Root Beer to wash it all down. Some fathers are lost in the kitchen but know their way around a grill. Not mine — he only made hot dogs and hamburgers, always reeking of lighter fluid. How do you like your burger: rare, medium, well-done, or the way my dad made them — 20 minutes per side?

Other crimes my mother committed against food:

  • She would burn Campbell’s tomato soup. Every. Single. Time. (And she always made it with water, never with milk.)
  • She would make stuffing from saltine crackers. Meaning, she would crumble saltine crackers and stuff them into the middle of… whatever.
  • One of her specialties was “baloney casserole”. Don’t ask.
  • She made chocolate chip drop cookies that had a strange sponge-y consistency and tasted slightly of lemon. The bargain-brand chocolate chips she used retained their original shape and shrapnel-like hardness since they were impervious to heat.
  • She would place slices of processed American cheese atop a roasting chicken. The cheese would remain there the entire time that poor bird was in the oven, resulting in two blackened squares devoid of any vestige of edibility. As was the rest of the meal.

Interestingly (and some might say “Freudishly”, if there were such a word to be said), I became very interested in cooking once I moved out of my parents’ house. I would cook for my college roommates and often contributed to or entirely prepared meals when Carol and I started seeing each other. As with any dating couple, we occasionally went to each other’s family’s house for dinner. My mother asked me to invite Carol over one night, and when I told her about the request she was silent for a moment and then asked, tentatively, “What is your mother going to make?” It was clear that she could not stomach (literally) another bite of my mother’s cooking, at least not at that stage in our relationship. I promised Carol I would work closely with my mother to come up with something edible. I found a recipe for chicken florentine (on the box of saltine crackers!) and all but told my mother that was what we’d be having for dinner the night Carol was coming over. I ended up taking control in the kitchen and preparing the dish on my own. I brought the plates out to the dining room table and we sat down to eat. My mother refused to take one single bite of what I’d made. Did I mention our Jewish heritage? Guilt was a prominent ingredient in my mother’s spice rack.

After my mom died, my dad married a woman named Gloria who was marginally better in the kitchen. She had a few stock recipes she would rotate through and most of them were at least edible. (Example: whole bone-in chicken breasts covered with a mixture of canned cranberry sauce and onion soup mix, baked a really long time until they were quite dry.) She often served a spinach salad with dinner, with sliced hard-boiled egg in it. I have a life-long aversion to hard-boiled eggs (something I never remember my mother making; go figure), so I would gingerly steer my fork around the discs of yolk and albumin and pick out the more salad-y parts to eat. Not wanting to be difficult I never asked her to make the salad without eggs and, despite always leaving them on my plate, she never did. Several years into their marriage, my dad was going to have major surgery and I spent a week visiting, making the ten-hour drive by myself, while he had the operation and until he was discharged. I stayed at Dad and Gloria’s place and she made dinner every night I was there — always serving that spinach salad. I suspected she was trying to express something subliminally, perhaps thinking my visit expressed a lack of confidence in her ability to tend to my father. After the first few nights I didn’t take any of the salad with my dinner. “You don’t want any salad?” “No, thank you; just not that hungry tonight.” The next evening when she brought dinner to the table, I declined to eat anything. “I don’t have any appetite,” I claimed. The following day I passed on breakfast and lunch as well. “Are you OK?” Gloria asked. “Is something wrong?” I said I was just concerned about my dad’s condition (which was true) and was anxious for him to come home from the hospital (which was also true), and I imagined my emotional tumult had squelched my appetite (which was true only insofar as it involved any food Gloria put in front of me). If my mother and Gloria could use food as a weapon, then so could I. Never mind that I was only punishing myself since I was withering away without taking any sustenance.

My dad was discharged and came home, and I stayed for a couple more days to make sure he was settling in and Gloria was comfortable taking care of him. They got into their routine, so I drove back. I walked in the door at home that evening, greeted by the smells of a delicious dinner (did I mention Carol is a wonderful cook — as was her mother?). “Poor baby,” Carol cooed. “After your long trip, you must be starving!” She didn’t know the half of it. I told her I really hadn’t eaten much of anything for the last few days. When she asked me why not… I really couldn’t come up with an answer. I suddenly felt ashamed that I’d proved to be such a difficult guest in response to Gloria’s hospitality, and felt foolish for thinking her menu choices were somehow designed to express resentment. In addition to the meal Carol was serving, I also had some food for thought.

Thank God there weren’t any cheese slices melted on it.