I loved to watch my mother slice apples for pies. I don’t think I knew then that she made them for us. I saw it as tradition – standard practice at holidays – but we had grown used to them, so she kept up the work. I would watch as she drew the blade through the fruit, juice trickling across her knuckles. Pulling the edge towards her thumb, but never slicing the skin. This magic trick was the stuff of mother’s and I longed to be so grown.
Our family meals were nightly rituals stretching hours beyond the meal with conversation, sharing, and laughter. On rare occasions we would journey out for dinner, a treat I welcomed. I loved to pick out my own special dish and waited impatiently to try bites of everything on the table. I came to enjoy the business of going out. My first jobs were in restaurant, and in my college years I depended upon staff meals for dinner, bar-back friends for late night drinks, and tips for breakfast. I loved happy hours and dressing up and candlelight. The thought of cleaning up or making a mistake was too much for a wild heart, and I preferred the impermanence of a delicious meal out with its perfect bites and forgotten servers. I became fearful of the kitchen, and allowed myself to believe it was too late to try now, settling my mind on a life of takeout, frozen lunches, and coffee from the corner bodega. Family dinners are the stuff of mothers, and I resisted being so grown.
What would you do if I wasn’t here?
These words echo over me still, though I tossed them aside at the time, never imagining a time might come that they’d be true. He lit the grill, walking me step by step along the process while I daydreamed of cooler weather.
When we met, I was in awe of his culinary skill. He was confident about spices and timing, and he enjoyed the look of people loving his food. Happy to oblige the personal chef, I indulged in home cooked meals for the first time in years, and marveled at my luck to find someone as happy to provide as I was to partake. Some recipes became familiar favorites, others were adventurous attempts, and most were bits and pieces of our city or his mother wrapped into a cast iron pot. I loved those meals in our tiny apartment under the covers.
Months and years of togetherness tarnished the rosy glow of new love. I can’t picture when the shift change took place, but slowly the care of our home and meals became work. There were still weekend barbecues with their half-hearted tutorials on starting the coals, and the big spreads when friends came to town, but the kitchen smelled of bitterness now. Perhaps because our jobs changed, or our hearts, but the room like us had grown cold, empty, and untouched. Soon, we were picking up meals on the way home – quick, greasy bites void of romance or nutritional value.
My new kitchen has an open layout allowing me to watch my daughter play as I fuss about. The walls hold onto the rosemary and orange as if waiting for seconds. Here in this space I am unafraid of change, or handling meat, and speaking truths. Here in this space I make plans to treat myself, and well. Sometime, when she tires of rustling the paper grocery bags, or banging blocks, or has grown frustrated with mama’s tied-up hands, I wear her against me. In those moments, I whisper to her as I draw the knife across brightly colored fruits and vegetables. I offer her bites and I promise her she won’t have to wonder what she’d do if I wasn’t there. I promise her I always will be.
I love to watch my mother in the kitchen still. I see now the ease and command she exhibits have been built on decades of trial and error. Her gracefulness with spice and tenderness of heart are linked through the years of vulnerable, open living, of willingness to start over, and a love of herself. Delicious meals – at my family table, across dim rooms with friends, or side by side with my child – are a constant source of calm for me. Sharing food and breaking bread are a symbol of love, peacefulness, and togetherness. Each time I make a meal, I open myself up for renewal and grace. I fill our home with the scent of fearlessness and love. This is the stuff of mothers, and I embrace being so grown.
Once, in the thick of my changing world, on a visit home to clear my head and heart, my mother attempted to make a dish she’d never tried before. We’ll see, she said. And we will.
Stuffed Cornish Hen
1/2 uncooked wild rice
1 1/2 cups water
10-12 fresh mushrooms, sliced
4 tablespoons butter
1 Cornish game hen
1/2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
salt & pepper to taste
1. Bring the rice, pinch of salt, and approximately 6 cups water to boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce the heat, cover, and summer until the kernels seem to burst or one episode of Winnie the Pooh. Fluff and let stand for 5-10 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 425°F. Grease baking dish. I like to use aluminum foil to keep the meat juicy while still getting the crispy top. I use a coconut oil spray which withstands the high heat with minimal taste. Have a little snack like almonds or whatever your toddler is handing you from the floor.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium saucepan, stirring in the mushrooms until the begin to really sweat. Combine the mushrooms into the rice. Consider stopping now, but forge ahead.
4. Give the bird a good rub down of butter inside and out. Think of it like sunscreen, and be sure to get all the nooks. Then, sprinkle your seasoning about. I like the Herbes de Provence, but you might use rosemary, mint, a bit of garlic, lemon, basil, thyme, tumeric, or a little dash of anything that suits your fancy. Remember: the meal will be a success because you took the time to make it, thoughtfully and with love.
5. Send your mother or best friend a couple pictures. Prep your veggies. I stay away from cooking carbs because I’m just one woman with a small kitchen making an actual Cornish game hen after a twelve-hour day – what more can I do? Wait for your mom to reply with an emoji she’s recently discovered and press on.
6. Stuff the bird with your rice mixture. It’s ok if it falls out, or you could tie the legs together with string for that professional look.
7. Bake the bird until the juice runs clear. Recognize this means you’ll have to cut the precious thing, so either take final product pictures first, or plan on 45-60 minutes depending on bird size.
8. Be your own judge on veggies. I don’t know your life.
9. Sit back with a glass of wine and marvel at your ability to be true to your heart and a recipe simultaneously. Then, look at a clock, realize the time, and allow the entire meal to go cold while you prepare baths, fight a squirming toddler into pajamas, rock her to sleep, lovingly stare at her wondrous perfection, and nearly fall asleep yourself. Don’t worry – the meal will keep as long as your pride because you are a woman unafraid of the unknown.
Adrienne Oliver is a teacher and mother living in the swampy bayous of New Orleans with her daughter. Between classes and cuddles, she blogs at Lotta Boutte and her work has been featured in anthologies on parenting including Mama, Bare and forthcoming issues of Tribe de Mama & The Village Magazine, as well as several online publications.