Today is my mother’s birthday. To my knowledge, she hasn’t burned anything yet.
While that may sound a vaguely harsh criticism of her cooking abilities, or perhaps insinuating arsonist tendencies, you have to know first that this is a good thing. My mom can cook, I can’t argue that. She was a fantastic provider. She raised three of us on a creative buffet of inexpensive delights and potpourri leftover bathed-in-cheese-casserole type things. She fished, bringing home fresh flounder, sea bass, and shrimp. She stocked the freezer with mountains of peaches and blueberries she picked herself (which is not entirely true, unless “picking” them out at roadside produce markets count, which would practically qualify her as a farmer). She taught us the one million ways in which eggs can be eaten, cost effective uses of ground beef, why macaroni and cheese is the most underrated vegetable on the planet, how anything can sound appetizing if you just name it properly (Shit on a Shingle, no thanks–Hamburger Gravy on Toast, LINE ME UP!), and why come chocolate tastes better when it’s an appetizer.
Most importantly, she learned us the value of properly cooked/baked/toasted bread. Whether toast, biscuits, muffins, grilled sandwiches, it was vitally important to get the bread cooked perfectly. Mess up the bread and the entire meal unravels faster than a cheating politician’s career. Or something like that. I’ve forgotten all references appropriate to the 80’s or earlier. If you can’t deal with that, build me a time machine so I can go back, learn them again, find myself and hand over a list of things it will be necessary to forget. Wait, why does that sound more like a memory than an idea?
Well, anyway, mom was very specific about the importance of learning to cook. Actually, she was very specific about the importance of learning to do dishes, clean counters, mop floors, vacuum, and do your own laundry. She said she was raising adults, not children, which may well be the most clever thing I’ve heard in my life. I mean, not only is it a sage perspective on raising kids, but it’s the biggest Get Out of Jail Free card ever invented.
Don’t have clean jeans? Well, whose fault is that? Roaches in your bedroom? Maybe you should try vacuuming once in a while. Want a sandwich? Go for it. I’ll just be over here gutting this Flounder I caught so you won’t starve tonight.
Really, it’s genius. By age thirteen, I had no excuses. We each had weeks in which we were supposed to create a menu, build a shopping list, hunt for coupons for the products we needed, shop, then take charge of the Chef’s hat. If you’ve never heard a twelve-year-old boy shout, “I don’t care if you don’t want it. You’ll eat your dinner and you’ll like it!” you’re truly missing out.
She did this with everything, tutoring us in a way that specifically stated, “You’ll need to know how to do this when you move out at eighteen, please.” And we, the blissfully ignorant triumvirate we were, marched onward, somewhat certain we were fine with it, but always a bit shy on complete confidence we weren’t being duped.
Then something happened that changed everything. Something that turned our world on its end, shook us free to float away in zero gravity, and scoffed at our hapless attempts to fight our way back. Mom burned the bread. At first it was just toast. Nothing trivial, but hardly catastrophic. We came to terms with it. We started making our own toast. No big deal. Then she burned our grilled cheese. Ok, so this was getting a bit serious. Not only was she ruining the bread, but she was putting cheese in the line of fire. Unacceptable. Move over, woman, you’re off the line. No more grilled sandwiches.
Then the coup de grâce. The unforgivable. The misstep that gets you whooped in the shed. Or, if it’s your mother, of whom you will not be whooping in the shed, a stern look of both disappointment and shock.
Mom burned the biscuits.
Not just burned, mind you. All but reduced to ash. “Blackened” and “charred” ran for cover in fear of being tabbed. This was apocalyptic darkness. Meal. Ruined. Oh sure, there was something else on the plate, who even knows what now. Does it really matter? It probably had a sauce of some kind, though. A SAUCE BUT NO BISCUIT! What do you do? You’re just left with all of this uneaten sauce all over your plate and nothing to sop it up with. Food gets soggy, you can’t tilt your plate. There were vegetable on the plate, for crying out loud! How do you mask the horrific taste of sprouts without the buttery bliss of golden brown biscuits? YOU CAN’T!
My brother, sister, and I shared looks at the table. No words were spoken, but we knew the awful truth. We knew what it meant. We knew this was the end of an Era. We could never let her near any bread product again. Ever. Oh, she would offer. We knew she would always offer. But, no mom, no thanks, have a seat, we’ll get the bread. Unwritten, unspoken, forever protected.
True to our pact, we made the bread. And things were good. Dinners were fine. We were content.
Then she left water boiling too long. She burned the popcorn, nearly blazing the eyebrows off my face when I made the less-than-intelligent lift of the lid to see what she had done (for the record, do not do this. Oxygen gets scared of burnt popcorn and turns to flame out of absolute disbelief anyone would render such a wonderful treat to blackened nubs.). She overcooked the chicken, leaving us with a dry-to-the-bone bird. There was probably no sauce, given she cooked the meal and was disallowed to make biscuits. Just dry chicken and, I don’t know, something green I didn’t like.
Inexplicably, time had taken mom’s ability to cook. She couldn’t be trusted. She was too forgetful. It was time to set aside our sibling banter and do what needed to be done. We started cooking the meals. Mom, again true to her nature as a kind and loving woman, protested, but we politely declined.
It was some years later, Thanksgiving as I recall, the three of us busting our asses to get the meal ready, my mom sitting calmly at the table reading a magazine, glancing up periodically to offer help, smiling her way back to her articles when we shushed her, that it finally occurred to me we had been duped by a master. I remember wanting to call her out on it, but I was stunned by the revelation. In a state of disbelief that we had so easily been snookered. Not only had we been blindsided, we were happy with it. We wanted to cook.
I probably should have bowed to her then. It would have been more appropriate.
So, I suppose this serves a dual purpose. One the one side, to the kids of the world who are not only not reading this but entirely unaware I exist, it’s a cautionary tale. Beware a mother’s trickery. On the other, for the mothers of young children, I beg of you, I plead, I offer whatever it is I must: Do this to your kids. I don’t want us to be the only group of kids this has happened to. The shame is unbearable.
Happy birthday to most clever, trixy, mother I know.