My mother turned 72 this weekend. To celebrate, I gathered all the Matriarchs of the tribe (my mother, my Tia Tere, my godmother Carmita and my cousin Teri) for an appropriate celebration. For the first time in my journey to turn myself into a viable cook, I felt nervous about the reception. I don’t come from a line of women who dominated the kitchen and necessarily hinged their femininity on their ability to prepare a meal, but I do come from a line of women who have opinions, attitude and volume.
When the Matriarchs arrived they were warm and loud in their greeting. They celebrated the look the table I had arranged, the quesadilla grill I used to make the Tres Leches French Toast and my apron. They giggled with irony (and mimosas) at the idea that this girl had somehow embraced cooking when in fact, for me the idea of home and hearth was rarely associated with the kitchen.
My mother left Cuba over 50 years ago with only a box of cigars and a cook book. The cigars were meant to be a source of income. Each cigar could sell for upwards of $20 and in the late 50’s that’s a good deal and obviously an important resource for a band of immigrants trying to make their way in a new world.
But a cook book?!?
That bit of information sent me into a tailspin. With all the books available in the midst of a regime change, all that would be lost, forbidden and attacked, my mom left armed with tobacco and a cook book?
At first I was offended, thinking how small minded my grandmother was, a lady who tackled domestic chores with the grace of a bull. I saw her in the kitchen quite often but it was always in ferocious contempt.
I kept thinking about why this was her choice. Why not the poets of Cuba? Why not political writers? A law book or Orwell? I honestly couldn’t reconcile it in my brain other than they had no idea what the world and the second half of the 20th century were to hold. Maybe she was concerned about preserving the culture and the hearth. Or maybe all she knew was that her young beautiful unmarried daughter had to leave home, and somehow and somewhere she had to find money and…love.
Cigars and a cook book.
This got me thinking about the attractive power of food. It so often used in our culture as a means to an end, that end being some form of expression of love. From first dates to the Last Supper, food is at the center of a lot of what we consider a show of affection or a desire to unite. After all, it was my mom’s birthday and I knew that along with a mani-pedi at our usual salon, the perfect gift would be to gather for a meal.
So does no food mean no love?
I grew up in a home where my mother rarely cooked. She was a working mom and a widow with three children by the time she was only 43. She heated, drove thru and boiled, but she didn’t really cook. I never even associated the maternal role with fresh baked cookies and steaming pot pies until I went to college. As care packages filled with brownies and cookies flooded the dorm mailroom, I started to see motherhood and affection in a different way. I recognized that it brought my dormmates a sense of home and of nostalgia.
I didn’t get care packages, nor does the smell of fresh baked anything remind me of home or my mother, but I was never deprived of love. I wasn’t deprived when she first dyed my hair purple at 14. Or when she drove me two hours north to catch a wave and practice long boarding. Nor was I deprived when I told her I was moving in with my boyfriend or later when my I told her my marriage was over.
The subtleties and grandeur of that love can’t be put on a plate or in a box, but at so many other times it is.
My mother’s birthday breakfast was an example of that. There was a meal and there was love. As pick up began, I set aside a piece of French Toast and a dollop of homemade whipped cream drizzled with dulce de leche in the hopes of seeing my good friend. He and I have been somewhat estranged lately. Work has made our seeing each other nearly impossible, still I think of him often. In the midst of the storm of being a mom, working and cooking, I miss sitting across from him. There’s always a calm there. So I’d planned on showing him just how much I still care about him by sharing with him the breakfast I’d made with some much – love. When I heard from him later that morning, it became clear we weren’t going to see each other. I wouldn’t get a chance to tell him about my morning, the stories about my brothers, my odd night before at a country bar. He wouldn’t get a chance to eat the breakfast I spent so much time preparing not only with the Matriarchs and my kids in mind, but him.
Later the next day my kids came back home from their dad’s house. They ran into the kitchen right away looking for something to eat and even though it was 6 p.m., I said, want some French Toast?
So, Sofi and Max sat at the dinner table and I served them breakfast. I sat in the family room on my computer, watching them from afar. I was sitting at my computer reflecting on the last 48 hours, about the gestures of love that make us feel connected to one another and the gestures that stay stowed away in the back of fridges. Just then my teenage son Max stood up, came to the sofa and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
Sofi said “I can’t believe you actually gave her a kiss over French Toast.”
Maybe there’s something to this cookbook thing.