As a food writer and sometime culinary student, I'm used to people having expectations of me around the holidays. They assume that I'll cook (or at least eat) some fancy or unusual take on the classic dishes. And once upon a time, this was true.
In the early 2000s, just as I was beginning to get serious about my love of food and cooking, I was enamored of the new and the novel. Eschewing the holiday food traditions of my childhood — the only two times of the year when my mom spent any significant amount of time in the kitchen — I'd labor over turkey breast roulades with pancetta and chestnuts, Moroccan carrots, and roast cauliflower with feta and oregano.
But that all changed after my mom died.
The world without my mom in it was, to me, harsh and bright, all sharp angles with no anchor and no comfort.
I didn't see her that last Thanksgiving; I didn't know it would be the last. I had just moved to Baltimore, and I was still busy unpacking and getting settled. My mom and I agreed it was no big deal this one time, and that we would see one another at Christmas.
By then, though, she was in the hospital, wasting away to nothing as the lung cancer slowly and horrifically took every piece of the beautiful, funny, smart mom I knew and replaced her, bit-by-bit, with a dazed, sad, skeletal shadow. She was gone by January 2006.
My memories of that following year are mostly dark and fuzzy. I tried to drink away my grief; when that didn't work I took pills to sleep, and when that didn't work I tried both together. Not surprisingly, that didn't help much either.
Eventually I clawed and scraped myself out of that black hole, but the world without my mom in it was, to me, harsh and bright, all sharp angles with no anchor and no comfort. And the thought of those first holidays without my mom were almost incomprehensible in their crushing emptiness.
As an only child with a small extended family and less-than-stellar father figure, my mom was everything to me. As an adult, my mom was still everything to me. Holidays spent at home were about spending time with her, watching her cook (she was a neat freak and wouldn't let anyone touch anything in the kitchen because she was convinced they would make an Uncleanable Mess), drinking a bit too much, and laughing together over late-night leftovers.
And so, faced with the gaping chasm of her absence, I sought to somehow feel her presence through the foods she used to cook. I embraced the traditions I used to eschew, and I came to understand the true power of the link between food, comfort, and memory.
Now, my mom had always been notorious for her dislike of the culinary arts, and her holiday dishes were primarily assembled from things that came in boxes, bags, or cans. I used to lovingly tease her about her abhorrence for chopping things, although I loved her dependable casseroles none the less for it.
In a fit of prescience or nostalgia — I'm not sure what — I had asked for her recipes a couple of years before her death. I wrote them down dutifully in a notebook as she read them to me over the phone. Those crinkled sheets of paper are now among my most precious documents.
Making, smelling, and tasting the food she cooked year in and year out made her memory more tangible to me than any photograph or object ever could.
That first year after her death, I made every side dish from her repertoire that I could manage (my mom's mains were fairly unmemorable). There were (frozen) baby lima beans in cream; jiggly (canned creamed) corn pudding; a seven-layer salad of peas, cheese, red pepper, bacon (bits), and two kinds of lettuce with a dressing of powdered Hidden Valley ranch, mayo, and sour cream; acorn squash stuffed with walnuts and brown sugar; potatoes "Marjory;" and the king of all holiday casseroles, the Green Bean, made, naturally, with cream of mushroom soup, bagged shredded cheese, and crispy onions from a can.
Every single step in preparing these dishes — buying the ingredients, putting them together, the smell of them cooking, and finally, the actual sitting down and eating — made me feel closer to her. Making, smelling, and tasting the food she cooked year in and year out made her memory more tangible to me than any photograph or object ever could.
A lot has changed in my life since that first holiday without my mom. I got married and divorced (thereby gaining and losing a set of in-laws). I moved. And I've become a much better cook than I was 10 years ago.
But no matter whom I celebrate Thanksgiving with — this year, it will be my childhood friend Danny who loved my mom nearly as much as I did — I honor tradition by making sure to make at least one dish from my mom's repertoire. In that way, I always keep her with me at the table.