The last time I remember cooking with my mother, she tapped my hand with a wooden spoon and said, “Just let it cook, stop stirring.”
She was a force to reckon with in the kitchen.
Our kitchen was her artists’ palette, and she had a knack for keeping you away from the kitchen until she felt it was done, to perfection. Sneaking a taste before my mother served was akin to an act of family treason. It was as if you’re having a taste before the meal was served ruined it and If you did get caught you’d be relegated to being served last.
These days I’m left with her cookbook and my memories.
My mother’s recipes are handwritten in a simple, understated plastic bound recipe book that says, “Potenziano Family Cookbook”. I wish I could tell you that the collection is beautifully written, well-organized and easy to follow but that just isn’t the case. It’s not that my mother’s handwriting is messy. In fact, it is a cursive that is quite easy to read; it is void of those unnecessary loopy letter swirls that often confuse me.
No, these recipes are functionally written by a woman who showed her love for you by sharing her gift of cooking. She cooked by taste, smell and never measured the ingredients. Nowadays, I often try to recreate her dishes using care to follow her recipes. It reminds me of when I was a child; I would often try creating a piece of art by using a paint by numbers kit. I followed the directions, but it never resulted in a masterpiece.
One thing that surprised me about her cookbook was the fact that she didn’t include any recipes from other sources. There were no clipped recipes from magazines and thinking back; it doesn’t surprise me because what we ate growing up was what she called, “peasant food”. Simple and cheap recipes that tasted wonderfully delicious yet made from minimal ingredients; one such dish was potatoes and eggs. Seriously, who would have thought a one pan meal consisting of minimal ingredients was considered a delicacy.
I have a lot of fun trying to recreate her signature dishes, and my kids think they taste great but my mother’s recipes are written in what I call “Italian” shorthand. Here’s her recipe for Lemon Chicken:
Wash and cut chicken into pieces
Arrange pieces on a roasting pan
Marinate in lemon juice (fresh is better)
Salt and Pepper to taste
Can be broiled or baked
That is it. Nothing more nothing less. So simple yet so challenging to recreate.
The recipes have a way of shining a light on who she was and the utilitarian approach she took to her cooking and life. My mother was orphaned at an early age, split up from her sisters. She dropped out of high school after the ninth grade and met my father and was married young; I suspect as a mean to a better life.
I’m told by my sister; our mother learned how to cook from my father’s mother. My grandmother Louisa was quite a cook with one of her specialities being twice fried eggplant.
As I prepare to cook our family’s Thanksgiving meal, I am thankful for all the memories and recipes I only wish my mother had written the Thanksgiving stuffing recipe with a few more details.