Momma’s Life-Cooking Lessons

A piece I’d written sometime ago, but never published, and decided to dust it off in remembrance of my mom on Mother’s Day!

Momma-smallSeveral years ago, I found myself without a job, for a year and a half. The road of life was unclear and foggy. Many uncertain moments surfaced threatening my ability to find a way out of darkness. During those moments, I reflected upon my late mother, and wondered what advice she would give me. Would she tell me to persevere, keep trying, and never give up? As I sat in hopeless despair, I remembered all the wonderful life lessons my mother gave me through her cooking.

Momma was like a musical director in the kitchen; orchestrating the pots, pans and food in perfect harmony, to create a lip-smacking meal like a melodious jazz tune composed of notes on a music sheet.  Like musical instruments, each ingredient followed her direction, while she tossed, mixed, and stirred towards a symphonic encore for her impatiently waiting guests.  At the first taste, they were all singing in unison “mmm mmm good.”  Momma’s meals always had that effect on everyone who tasted her food. During her lifetime, family and friends admired her soulful, home cooked meals; always seasoned just right, with a touch of perfection.

Every Sunday at momma’s house, during football season, was the week’s conversation among her friends.  They all pretended to come every Sunday to watch the game, but I knew they were there for her cooking — who wouldn’t be?  I am sure she knew they were there for her food, as well. She always looked forward to planning her menu for the football party.  There was always a huge pan of golden, fried chicken for her guests to devour: a honey golden mound of moist, crispy legs, wings, and thighs waiting to be eaten with or without hot sauce.  I marveled at the perfection of her chicken and the meticulous way she floured, seasoned and fried each piece.  There had to be a secret to this culinary masterpiece, and I was right, as she revealed her secret before she passed: a partially covered skillet fries and steams the chicken; keeping it crispy and moist.

The other highlight on her menu was the potato salad — an exquisite blend of just five simple ingredients: potatoes, eggs, mayo, relish, and mustard, with the right amount of seasonings, and yet again, another secret: apple cider vinegar. This salad was her signature mark, which she mixed with her hands. I remember as a young girl impatiently waiting by her side, as she finished mixing the salad – – licking her fingers of any remaining salad.

As I neared the brink of hopelessness, from my futile efforts to find employment, I questioned whether I was made from the same cloth as momma. Despite the fact that I looked exactly like her, I wasn’t convinced that I had her strength and endurance. She was a strong woman – withstanding the trials of life like a mighty oak in a turbulent storm. No matter what life threw her way, she persevered, never allowing obstacles to interfere with her love of cooking.  She created her best meals when she had little to work with.

I have fond memories of those meals and my childhood in the housing projects of Washington, DC. It never dawned on me that we were poor.  My perception of being poor was not having enough food.  By this standard, I would say that we were quite wealthy because I always remember going to bed with a full stomach.  Never a day would pass by that a huge stockpot wasn’t on the stove filled with meat, beans, or potatoes that filled the house with an aroma, of which one sniff would make even the most disciplined stomach growl.

After my dad passed, and having little money to feed five mouths, momma managed to take the simplest ingredients and turn them into meals my siblings and I looked forward to every day.  We were always curious as to what we were having for dinner.  Unlike other children who argued over toys or cartoon shows, we debated over whether mom had cooked meatloaf or hamburger helper.  Our mother’s meals were the highlight of our day.

Momma kept our small pantry stocked with can goods and other items she called “staples”.  These were food items she said no household should ever be without, such as rice, beans, potatoes, dry milk, and canned vegetables.

Through her determination and will to be self-reliant, momma found employment with the federal government, as a catering supervisor.  She worked for nearly 30 years in a catering department on Capitol Hill, preparing food for the numerous receptions hosted by United States congressmen and senators, for their constituents.  There was also the occasional photographic session with former presidents. She loved her work and everyone who tasted her cooking knew that as well.

Momma prepared every meal, whether fruit salad, vegetables or meats to perfection.  The fruits for the salads had to be properly hand-cut into unique shapes and designs to display on the reception tables, and the meats cooked until they were succulent and nearly falling away from the bone. She did not allow her employees to prepare food that did not meet her high culinary standards.  Her meals were a reflection and extension of her character.  You could taste the energy, love and passion in everything she prepared. Anything less than perfection was unacceptable.

When momma passed, so many of her co-workers and acquaintances spoke of how much they would miss her cooking.  I was honored to hear their words, which were only confirmations of what I had always admired about her — teaching life lessons on love, patience, persistence and hard work through cooking.  Since that dark moment in my life, I’ve persevered over the uncertainty of unemployment. I carry momma’s life-cooking lessons with me every day. They’ve helped me to overcome life’s challenges. And best of all; not only do I look like momma, I cook like her too!