What I Learned Teaching My 70-Year-Old Mother to Cook
Our role reversal brought my family closer.
When my mother and I finally cracked open a cookbook together, it wasn’t Christmas, and we weren’t planning a festive holiday meal. This was no typical mother-daughter bonding session; in fact, the occasion was far from a celebration. At 70 years old, my mom could barely boil a potato. After an almost 40-year career at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, retiring as the associate director, she could identify a Masaccio, a Michelangelo, or a Luca della Robbia on sight, but she was squeamish around a squash.
Two months earlier, my dad had been swiftly hospitalized for a viral infection that led to encephalitis. I’d come home, first to sit by his bedside and hold his hand as he drifted in and out of consciousness, then to walk the dog, do the grocery shopping, and cook him three meals a day as he woke up and pined for anything other than hospital food.
A psychiatrist with a somewhat flexible schedule and a love for cooking inherited from his Russian-born mother, my dad had been the perennial cook of the family. Once he was home and recovering, but still too weak to do any heavy lifting, it was up to me. After ten weeks, though, both parents agreed it was time for me to get back to my own life, including a husband and a busy writing career. A simple bit of arithmetic revealed the inevitable: there would be only one of us left to cook, and it was the one person who didn’t really know how.
The book we turned to was Mark Bittman’s 496-page How to Cook Everything: The Basics. We paged through it looking for the simplest of simple recipes. Among the seared chicken breasts, pasta with tomato sauce, herb omelets, and baked salmon, we found it: pork chops with onions and apples. A recipe so easy it didn’t need a recipe. Something we could accomplish, together, while he was sleeping. One small, tasty step for man, one giant leap for our ravaged family.
I’d taken after my mother in childhood and early adulthood, interested in food but not in its preparation, only entering the kitchen during mealtimes and only willing to stand on a stepstool if a bowl of cookie dough awaited me on the counter.
In college, I hadn’t been much interested in cooking either, and anyway, there was nowhere to do it. Yet somewhere between my first boyfriend and my husband, I discovered the joy of preparing the right meal for someone you love. I like to think my father’s enthusiasm for peeling and chopping rubbed off on me, but I was out of the house by then and had systematically taught myself. But with every new experiment, my dad’s steady hand and nonjudgmental eye imbued me with a certain spirit that made me trust recipes would come out right, but take comfort in the possibility of each small mistake. It was this joy and comfort and steadiness I hoped to pass on to my mother as we sat at our kitchen table, poring over this book of recipes that, on any other day, at any other time in life, would have seemed laughably simplistic.
The next morning, while mom shopped (armed with a detailed list from me, of course), I occupied myself with figuring out the best method of imparting my knowledge. I didn’t have children of my own, but I’d successfully shepherded the girls I’d babysat through many happy baking sessions, during which I did most of the work and they pretended to help, proudly useless but adorable on those step stools, just as I had been.
Now, I wondered, would I be able to transfer these skills to someone I’d always assumed would be teaching me? We love to talk about the student becoming the teacher, as if by some natural force in the world, the river reverses its flow. Weeks of practically force-feeding my father had made me wary and weary of treating a parent like a child. My mother and I needed to approach this from equal planes, both teachers, both students, even if one clobbered the other with a rolling pin.
I’d always suspected her reluctance had something to do with coming of age during the first wave of 1960s feminism, when not knowing how to cook seemed like a badge of honor to those brilliant career women on track to burst through the glass ceiling. She continued to insist she’d just never liked it, and being married to a man who did made it all the more difficult to change.
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Now, I had to be firm but encouraging, stern but reassuring: what’s more, I had to stand there while she did it all, directing her while refusing to touch a single kitchen tool. I would be her eyes, and she would be my hands. Somehow, together, with my enthusiasm and her reluctance, we would add up to one semi-comfortable cook.
We turned our attention to the chops. I directed her to pepper and salt them. When I suggested pre-chopping the vegetables, she asked which cutting board, which knife? She tentatively sliced through half an onion and solicited my approval: Were the slices too thin? Just wide enough? Should she dice? We were really getting down to the basics. We debated using olive oil versus butter in the pan, before settling on the latter.
Overlooking the gas burners with my arms across my chest like a foreman, I instructed her on how to caramelize the onions, when to add the apples, and finally, how much the butter should sizzle when the pork hit the pan.
Once the three key ingredients were done, I improvised. I knew it might intimidate the budding master chef, but I couldn’t help myself. I instructed her to throw in some fresh thyme, a bit more butter, and a splash of vermouth to make a simple sauce. The alcohol spit and steamed, and I showed her how to tilt the pan quickly to catch all the little crispy bits.
The results were distributed among three plates. Bread was toasted. Wine was uncorked. I sat down between mom and dad, peering across the table at each other after 45 years of marriage and down at my mother’s first home-cooked meal. She looked proud but worried. After years of cooking to impress friends, boyfriends, and family members, I knew the feeling. My mother was on the stepstool and this was her first batch of cookie dough. She’d done a lot more than just crack the eggs and measure the sugar. Now she needed to know that her meal had been worth cooking and that my instructions had added up to what I had promised they would. She needed to know that this success could be replicated when I wasn’t around.
In the early days of his slow recovery, my dad knew from first-hand experience that every task accomplished, no matter how small, merited outsized praise and encouragement. “Delicious!” he said after the first bite, “I couldn’t have done it better myself!” My mom beamed, and I breathed a sigh of relief. There would be other recipes to work through – chicken breasts, pastas, and yes, even an avocado toast or two, but the first battle had been won. I could go back to my own life now. The kids would be all right.