Ian Pike’s mother liked to read books and watch cooking shows with her two sons.
Illustration by <a href="http://www.brittanirosepaper.com/">Brittani Rose Gothard</a>
My mother doesn’t get as much space in my early memories as does my dad. She worked during the day and went to school at night for years that felt like decades in my little kid’s perception of time. My father cared for us at home. By dint of circumstance, Mom ends up unfairly cast as a peripheral figure.
I know now that my hard-working mother put in long, poorly paid hours at a utilities company where (to hear my parents tell it) she faced unrelenting discrimination on the basis of her womanhood. For years, she went to night school after work, chipping away at her undergraduate degree, eventually earning her MBA and the opportunity for better jobs. When my brother and I were little, she would tell us bedtime stories when dad’s band had a gig. We always laughed at how the stories devolved into nonsense when she started to fall asleep mid-telling. We didn’t understand her exhaustion. Of course, as an adult, I am grateful to her for busting her ass in the name of our provision. But my belated gratitude doesn’t change the fact that, as a little Ian, I wished she were around more.
I don’t mean to make things sound dire. Mom always made time for me. Because we lived in a geographically funky little valley, our TV received exactly one channel: New Hampshire’s local PBS station on channel 11, for which mom used the portmanteau, ch’eleven. I have wonderful memories of sitting down with mom and watching cooking shows on the weekend. The early ’90s were a great time for televised gastronomy. Cooking Secrets of the CIA provided glimpses into the glamorous world of America’s culinary elite, where academic chefs prepared meals before an amphitheater of spectators in aprons and toques. But my mother and I preferred the more personal shows. Jacques Pepin and Julia Child catechised the glories of French cuisine. Martin Yan, no doubt the greatest TV chef ever to swing an oversized cleaver, always made me laugh. Ciao Italia (filmed in New Hampshire!) and The Frugal Gourmet could show us four recipes in 12 minutes and a single take.
To this day, my mother is a force of cookery, a personality trait inherited from her mother and grandmother. In the instances that we gather as immediate or extended family, someone, often her, is always cooking, because meals glue us together. Even when I was young and she was so busy, I remember her cooking dinner every night that she was home in time to do so.
She was the kind of woman who put us first, even when it was hard for her. She made time.
The first thing I remember trying to bake “from scratch,” when I was a kid, was a rhubarb pie. I think I used Favorite Recipes from the Diary of a New England Cook, a cookbook that my great-grandmother had written in the ’70s, but it may have come from Imogene Walcott’s New England Yankee Cookbook, which I remember my mother owning. Regardless, I didn’t understand how to read a recipe, so I assumed that everything in the recipe other than rhubarb contributed to the dough. I mixed some brown sugar and a few tablespoons of flour together and smashed it into the edges of the pie plate. I heaped dry rhubarb in there, and splashed milk in to make it more wet, suspecting (correctly!) that the dry rhubarb wouldn’t work. Pie did not result.
When my mother came home from work, I showed her the “pie” and asked for an explanation. She couldn’t help laughing at my epic failure (for which she needlessly apologizes, even decades later). I had achieved my goal of “surprising mom,” but I hadn’t made a pie. Not even close. When her amusement faded, my mother explained to me that the “pastry crust” listed in the recipe actually referred to an entirely separate recipe for pie crust at the beginning of the chapter on pies, which blew my little mind wide open.
These days, I make beautiful pie crust. My mom taught me how, even though I’ll bet she came home from work that day just wanting to sit down and rest.