Growing up, my mom’s cooking was undoubtedly one of the best parts of life. Holidays were feasts and weeknights were sprinkled with elegant dishes like Croquette St Jacques, all the more impressive as a) my mom worked full-time, and b) I grew up in Thunder Bay, try finding Croquette St Jacques on a menu in the 1990s and early aughts.
My mom also cooked very healthy meals, packed with fresh ingredients and vegetables, which as a finicky toddler I didn’t necessarily appreciate. At babysitters’, I’d eat canned Heinz Zoodles and other processed foods laced with toddler cocaine, a.k.a. sugar. “Why can’t you cook like Auntie Karen?” I once asked my mom, perplexed why her homemade pasta sauce didn’t give me that crazy high like Aunt Karen’s Chef Boyardee.
Abysmally, as an adolescent, I never took the opportunity to learn how to cook from my mom. I got her to buy Easy Mac as something I could whip up as an after-school snack. Easy Mac. Normal Kraft Dinner was too hard. Boiling and draining pasta, mixing in milk, margarine, and cheese powder, were not skills within my culinary reach, never mind patience. However, I was able to master the dumbed-down version of KD, which simply required some tap water and a zap in the microwave. Best of all, it’d be ready before the commercial break was over. I could get my snack on without missing any ReBoot on YTV.
Needless to say, I was ill-prepared to move out of my parents’ house at eighteen to go to school on the other side of the province. My mom provided a crash course in dormitory cooking, pulled out an electric wok from a box under the stairs, and taught the basics of making stir fry, which I relied on as my primary source of sustenance that year apart from tuna cakes and chicken fingers. Transitioning from my mom’s cooking to taking care of myself was tough. Equally as difficult was going from a small high school, where everyone knew my name, to a campus of forty thousand where I was an anonymous, overwhelmed soul. I broke down and called my mom at times, asking for her classic recipes for comfort. “What’s your chili recipe?” was code for “I’m lonely.”
Mom helped abate my homesickness by cooking all my favourite meals when I came home on holidays and study breaks. Tradition developed. My mom would kick off trips back home with App Night, where we’d snack on homemade stuffed jalapeno peppers, bean dip, chicken wings, and crispy quesadillas, while we caught up. Wine was added to the equation, lots of wine, once I reached Ontario drinking age.
At the height of my loneliness, home for reading week in my first year of undergrad, my mom drove to M&M Meat Shops and stocked my suitcase with frozen finger foods. “You can have your own App Night in Ottawa!” she may have suggested. The food would last for a month; no small security for a poor student who considered cereal a luxury. It was February, the cargo hold would act as a fridge on the short plane ride. When I landed in Ottawa and discovered my luggage was lost, I fell apart. Three days later, I was delivered my suitcase, full of spoiled meat and a Shampoo bottle that exploded over everything. I ended up transferring schools, finishing my undergrad in my hometown, eating my mom’s cooking the whole way through.
About a decade later, when I met the man I wanted to marry, I decided to bestow our household with the same blessing my mom gifted our family: delicious, love-filled, home-cooked food. My mom must have psychically understood my intention (this happens a lot, my mom’s freaky psychic, which made getting away with anything incredibly difficult, if not impossible, as a teenager). Christmas, the same year I met Kory, I was given what I consider the best gift I’ve ever received: a recipe book, handwritten by mom, containing all my favourite recipes from my childhood. Fried pickerel. Finnish pancakes. Mom’s chili. Hashbrown casserole.
I navigated the book, trying the recipes on Kory. Along the way, I had to call my mom for an emergency or two. “I put too many dried chilies in the puree, what do I do? Kory tried it. He’s breathing fire!”
“The secret to cooking is following the recipes, exactly,” Kory advised, introducing his measuring spoons to our relationship. “Are you following the recipe?” he’d ask, inspecting the sauté pan, as though he was part of The Gazpacho Police.
Ultimately, I won Kory over. “You’re really getting good at cooking,” became “Wow, you’re a good cook.” Lo and behold, Kory and I are officially wedding in August. I thank my mom, in advance, for doing the cooking.