Fresh Ideas: Cooking with mom
February 13, 2013
My mother is in my kitchen cooking with me this winter. This would be unremarkable, except that Mom passed away 13 years ago after a long, slow slide into dementia. Losing mom to dementia was a gradual, insidious process. It is like watching someone wade into the ocean. The water is swirling around their ankles as they test the water. Read a page of a beach book and look up again. The water is neck-high, the waves are in control, and no lifeguard comes to the rescue. There is no turning back, only thinking back.Mom was a talented cook and an accomplished teacher. Hard-wired in my brain are her step-by-step instructions for making turkey gravy from the pan juices. Her Hungarian chicken will feed visitors, no matter how many or what time they straggle in from the road. Mom’s lasagna is the centerpiece of our Christmas Eve celebration. I know the recipe by heart but treasure the tomato sauce-stained index card in her round hand, written in faded ball-point pen. When I was in junior high, Mom and I mixed up a spice blend for family and friends at Christmas. It was called “Far Eastern Exotic Seasoning” and compared to fruit cake, it did seem exotic and risqu. Following a Gourmet Magazine recipe, we ground spices by hand, one at a time, using a wooden coffee grinder. We poured the pungent blend through a warped tin funnel into small glass bottles with clear stoppers. Mom affixed labels, hand-written with blue Flair-tip pen. I’m sure she never imagined that a bottle of spice blend would bring us together again in 50 years. This winter, I tried a hearty vegetable soup recipe from one of the ubiquitous newspaper inserts, usually long on commemorative plate offers and short on content. Butternut squash and spinach are anchor veggies; allspice and thyme season the winter soup. Allspice alone was not potent enough to bring out the sweetness of the squash. I searched the back row of the spice cabinet and pulled out the (last remaining) dusty bottle of Far Eastern Exotic Seasoning. The recipe is lost to time, but the magic combination of allspice, nutmeg, cardamom, turmeric and not-sure-what still smells like a Moroccan market. What could be more exotic? The spice blend and a dollop of maple syrup bring out the best of the root and leaf veggies in sublime combination. Mom and I have a new family recipe.The recipes are one of the most tangible reminders of my mother. They are a wrinkle in time, leaping over decades of illness and sadness to help me remember the loving and accomplished person who was my mom. • Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.