In the months since my mother died, I had been avoiding my kitchen. I perused fig, hazelnut and goat cheese salad recipes from Sunset Magazine or munched on pea shoots from the farmer’s market and declared them as sweet as honey. If all else failed, I ate dinner out.
Until I read Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Save Me the Plums.
During a previous visit to a local bookstore, her book cover of a single violet plum set against a white background had jumped out at me. The simplicity of the image shook me from my stupor of wandering the aisles and wondering if books I wrote would ever measure up to those sturdy ones now on the shelves.
The title, a reference to a William Carlos William poem, had drawn me in. I wanted to read something not dementia-related as per my field of endeavor, something not everybody else was reading so I had to wait to borrow it from the library or something I had to buy because I committed to reading it.
Ruth Reichl had been the last editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and so much more. In my left palm, I held her purple plum book. From my other hand, my fingers danced across the shelf to Ruth’s best-selling Tender at the Bone, her first memoir about food. Perhaps one was enough. My bookshelves were brimming and my husband, Mark, had warned that if I bought any more books, he would buy the same number of earbuds to match my collection.
I carried the book home and dug my teeth into a crunchy apple as if I were sinking them into Ruth’s world, the one she created for the reader, the world of her as a child who read cookbooks.
The Roots of My Cooking
As a young girl, I had done the same as Ruth, though I had leafed through my mother’s cookbooks of Italian recipes. I would also skim the recipes of the three Sunday newspapers delivered to our doorstep. And Good Housekeeping magazines. When I was finally on my own, then married in my late twenties, I no longer made Betty Crocker’s Suddenly Salad pasta helpers. I subscribed to Cooks Illustrated instead.
The subscription was my shot to break free from my mother’s Italian cooking. And her attempts to be American — hamburger pie, zucchini pancakes, Jello desserts layered in angel food or pound cake. Even her vegetable lasagna. I was in full rebellion mode.
As a young wife, I threw myself into cooking French onion soup, buying white ramekins from Williams-Sonoma. My mother would have never known a ramekin, right? I purchased a terra cotta garlic roaster from a catalog and threw a clambake party because Bon Apetitit told me I could. My first husband, Devin, had gifted me an electronic pasta maker. He thought I could replicate my mother’s revered ravioli. Instead, I churned out a new flavor of pappardelle once a week.
My mother had never strayed from her set of pasta recipes. It was her blessing — and her curse. But all I did was stray. My own blessing — and curse.
Uncovering the Truth
We always cook for our mothers, don’t we?
It was why I had stayed away from the kitchen for so long after my mother died. My husband and I traveled with our adult children from Cincinnati to Austin, so I wouldn’t be reminded of my mother dancing in the kitchen during Christmas, though she hadn’t cooked Christmas dinner since her dementia set in ten years prior. We took turns rolling tamales and spooning out large quantities of creamy guacamole, and scrambled to make a few other breakfasts in a rented kitchen. None of that counted. I knew what I was doing — or not doing.
Cooking on vacation was not like cooking in my own kitchen. I could mess up on vacation with a few easy excuses. But cooking in my kitchen, I could not run away from the truth. The truth of my mother’s death. It came to me in tablespoons and teaspoons — of a certain anise scent, the cut of a spring of oregano, the way I stirred with a wooden spoon just the way she did.
How I ladled the sauce on a piece of leftover bread and sprinkled the bread with Romano cheese “to taste what wasn’t absorbed,” she had always said.
My mother had never faltered in the kitchen. She never had a choice. She and my father didn’t have the money to waste food or always eat out. It wasn’t what my father expected. It wasn’t what she expected of herself. The kitchen was hers. It was where she went to grieve the death of her baby, her mother, the death of her in-laws, the heartache of children who left home, and those who never returned.
And hers was a kitchen that never stopped. Despite the number of times she pronounced, “The kitchen is closed for the night,” her words were mostly a signal to us to wash our own plates. She would never close the kitchen, until one day she forgot how.
The Mourning Ritual
As I began to read Ruth’s memoirs, my hip and thighs ached in a pain from the repetitive motions of sitting for long stretches while editing a manuscript written about by mother, for my mother. But her words had helped me forget about burning sensation in my hip flexors.
I was awed by Ruth’s challenges in establishing herself in the food world, risking employment at a co-op, and living through in the glorious days of Parisian food scenes and the raucous dinner parties she attended with access to the best chefs in New York City. When finished, I borrowed Tender at the Bone and Not Becoming My Mother from the library and feverishly read about her mother’s crazy ideas of buying a suckling pig on a whim, making refrigerator stew, or sickening an entire family of in-laws by serving them days-old deli salads surely inspired and prompted young Ruth to pursue her mastery in the kitchen.
Toward the end of Save Me the Plums, Ruth tried to replicate the one dish her mother had always ordered at the now-defunct New York City’s Lüchow’s — apple pancakes. She soothed herself as she peeled apples, finished the task and offered the concoction to her son. Her son took one bite and said, “I’m sure you can figure this out.” Ruth worked at the recipe from memory and began again.
Suddenly alive with hunger while seated my kitchen island, I pulled Save Me the Plums toward me. Something from inside the book beckoned me.
Taking a Risk
Food had always been my way of healing. But lately, I had put on too many pounds over the long winter of my mourning. I wasn’t enjoying food the way my mother had taught me — to relish in the process and the product. I was still rebelling, silently protesting without knowing it.
And I had failed in carrying on with my self-imposed tradition — that I would cook when my mother no longer could. Cooking was not only an extension of my mother, but by now, had become an extension of me.
Gradually, I paged to Ruth’s recipe for Thanksgiving Turkey Chili, a recipe she and dozens of volunteers made for first responders during the horrific days following September 11th. I was heartened by the intention with which she devoted her energies to food as recovery.
In my kitchen, the sun shone brilliantly on the peachy blossoms of a lone quince branch in white vase. I nearly knocked the vase on my counter as I grabbed a pen and drew out a shopping list on a post-it note. A small square of paper would never do for my mother. Her list had always been organized by aisle and coupon, cost and need. She needed lines, and plenty of them.
I retrieved spices and herbs from their hiding places and set out my collection of pots and pans, adding my mother’s iron skillet to the counter clutter. I spent the hours with just Ruth, a gurgling pot of chili, and another presence I recognized in the breath of steam coming off the pot.
After dinner that night, Mark offered to clean up. “It’s our agreement. You cooked.”
“It’s okay,” I said, “I’ll clean up. Besides, it felt good to cook again.”
Opening the lid on the chili had opened my heart. The flavors I tasted had melded into a singular emotion of loss. I wanted to eat to the bottom of the pot. It felt good to cook in a way that welcomed my mother back into my kitchen and my life.
My garlic roaster had been long replaced by tin foil. The ramekins were left behind at our former home. I never tried to host a clam-bake again because what I mostly remembered from that time was the hot tub party and the cleanup of shells from the bottom of the tub the next morning. The white plastic pasta machine went to a sister and I waited patiently to acquire my mother’s once she no longer knew to turn the crank on her metal one. The Cook’s Illustrated magazines were long gone. My mother’s recipe books stood in their place.
It felt good to want to cook — as if that last pinch of salt would finally produce the savory taste of my mother on my lips.
Annette Januzzi Wick is the author of I’ll Have Some of Yours: What my mother taught me about dementia, cookies, music, the outside, and her life inside a care home. She is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can read more at annettejwick.com.