I have a meat cleaver aimed directly at my mother. She and I lock eyes. Despite my mother’s attempts at fixing my hair (“You’re not wearing it like that, are you?”) and her inability to let me decorate my house without input (“You’re keeping the wood trim? Susie’s Macomber’s daughter has a Victorian house and she painted it all white inside – it looks lovely!”), I am not trying to slay her. Rather, we are in a vast industrial kitchen, trying to cleave hunks of beef, sauté scallions, whip up a Sauce Robert for the class I’ve given her for her birthday. My kids are at home with their dad. It’s my turn to be the child again.
“Watch the knife,” my mother warns, ignoring the tenderloins I’ve set in front of her for seasoning.
“It’s a cleaver,” I correct and wish I hadn’t. No matter where we are, our familiar pattern of mutual correcting and fixing creeps in.
I set the knife down and shoulder up to my mother, the first person to teach me to stir or sauté anything, and ask her, “What do you want to do first?” She wields her pen like the best-trained butcher, assigning for each of us tasks that will enable us to complete our part of the class – she measures Dijon mustard, veal stock, wine, while I clarify butter, chop shallots and onion. We will fashion all of these items into a rich sauce to accompany tenderloin – if we don’t annoy each other to death first.
We are here – here being the culinary institute – because my mother, despite her decades of cooking, her owning and running an organic farm that doubled as bed and breakfast in Cornwall, England, feels inadequate. It started a while back, with the traditional turkey. My husband and I would trudge through the proverbial woods to her house, the kids in holiday gear, only to be greeted by “Hi! Happy Thanksgiving! I need help with the gravy.” This became a regular feature at all holidays, increasing with frequency. I’d be stirring risotto with my four kids clustered around my waist, tugging at me with needs for spelling practice, piano, princess drawings, teething object and my mother would call. “I have salmon and no idea what to do with it,” she’d say, “Tell me a sauce.”
And so, tired of talking her through balsamic reductions, simple syrups, vinaigrettes, and hollandaise, I brought her here, where someone else can teach her, teach us both, the fine art of the Mother Sauces. We are eager learners, with our notebooks and pens, bright-eyed amidst the class of chefs-in-training, enthusiastic home cooks, caterers taking a refresher course. My mother is never shy. “We’re here because I can’t make sauces!” she exclaims to the entire room. “And my daughter…” she points to me as though they can’t figure it out, “Gave me this class a birthday gift!” Other parents in the class make suitable oohs and ahhs. I smile like I did when I was fourteen- pleasant but please stop looking at me.
Everyone in the class has to pair up, choose a partner with whom to create a part of our meal – someone to do hollandaise and salmon, another pair for béchamel sauce to accompany asparagus. We are already a duo, an inseparable force.
“It’s your present,” I tell my mother. She is elegant in her pressed cotton pants, her unblemished shirt. I have come from parenting duty and despite my best efforts, I have toddler drool on my shoulder, coffee and graham cracker stain on my thigh. “You choose which to make.”
“Well, I’ve made Hollandaise before…how about this?” She points to the lengthy list of ingredients for Sauce Robert.
“It looks complicated,” I say, wishing she’d picked something easy, some sauce that we couldn’t mess up.
“We’ll do it!” my mother says to the teacher and we follow everyone in to the giant kitchen with its sixteen-burner stove, the expansive work tables, the cleaver set up at our station.
A confession: I am a better cook than my mother. This is not something that makes me proud. Rather, it pains me. I want to be in awe of her vegetables (which tend to be overcooked) and her lamb (which I don’t really eat), but the truth is, the food itself isn’t what brings me nourishment. What compels me back to my mother’s kitchen is this: within the walls of her kitchen she is free. My mother takes care in everything she does, gives new definition to the word tidy, and as an interior designer, has living spaces that are sometimes more fit for magazine spreads than they are for, well, living in. She shows up at my chaotic household with her make-up on, her car vacuumed, her purse in order. I live in a Victorian house perpetually in need of repairs, often ones I wasn’t even aware of until she brings them to my attention. “Doesn’t it bother you with the shutters like that?” she asked this spring when I thought we were playing a game of harmless catch with the kids in the yard. In truth, the green shutter was more than off its hinge and needed to be replaced, but I took umbrage with her tactics. “No, I don’t mind it,” I’d said. But then I’d called the shutter company a few days later because yes, it did bother me, but not enough to do anything about until my mother mentioned it.
Ah…but the kitchen! The kitchen! Land of the free, home of the brave enough to grill peaches with ginger, fling together leftover jams and Worcestershire sauce to slather on chicken. In the kitchen, my mother has more abandon, her guard down, her outfit potentially sloshed. She’d taught me how to poach pears in red wine, serve them hot or chilled with English custard and caramel, and we’d improvised a lack of enough dessert bowls by handing them out at various family dinners or to her guests in wine glasses. My mother might not be as good a cook as I am now but I have her to thank for any of my successes in the kitchen.
Laurie Colwin wrote that “no one who cooks, cooks alone.” I am usually surrounded by four kids or my husband, but no matter who is physically in the kitchen with me, I always have my mother there, just as, I suspect, she had hers. My mother taught me how to measure, how to stir batter and how to lick the spoon. She gave me my first cookbook, Fannie Farmer’s Junior Cookbook, and brought me others when I lived with the boy she disapproved of post-college. She’d arrived for her first visit armed with a mop (which let me know that she expected the apartment to need a cleaning) and two cookbooks (which let me know that even though she might not love my living situation, she respected my chef job).
My mother might attempt to assassinate broccoli, steaming it lifeless, but she passed on the idea that the kitchen is a creative playspace, a palette with edible art in which we have to find our own way. In the kitchen, tastes can differ, conformity isn’t demanded, and each person can whisk or broil, salt or pepper as they like. When I cook by myself these days, I know she is in the spices, lurking in the vegetable bin or hiding in the pantry. Without her, I might not have fed my kids gazpacho as toddlers, mango curry, or coconut lassi yogurt drinks. I might have lacked the comfort level to jumble dinner together from the farmer’s market, to expand my own culinary landscape while leading the way for them.
Back in the industrial kitchen my mother puts parsley stem, thyme and a bay leaf into cheesecloth. “The bouquet garni is ready.”
“Can you bring it over to me? We have to put it into the stock,” I tell her from my position at the stove. We’re sharing space with the others in the class, but can communicate entire sentences without speaking.
My mother hears someone wondering where her water cup went. She looks at me and we crack up, both of us instantly brought back to one of our age-old arguments about her house. My mother will invite me over to “relax” and then, the minute I’ve put my glass down, it disappears. This happens with water or soda, wine or juice. It’s organization to the point of fanaticism. And it’s not the way I work. Here, though, we’ve hit our stride. She can’t over-correct me and I can’t resent it. Stripped of our powers, we can actually enjoy the process. My mother has the strainer set over a metal bowl for the sauce and the meat on a baking sheet, watching me season the fillets on both sides.
“Now you won’t have to call me about what to do with salmon,” I tell her. “You can use the wine court bouillon recipe.” With a sinking feeling, I realize perhaps I’ve taken the task of “fixing” my mother’s sauce problem one step too far. Maybe that is what’s at the core of our mother-daughter corrections: we fix and peck at each other in order to feel connected, in order to feel we have impacted each other’s lives now that our lives are not conducted in the same house.
“Well, I might have to call about the espagnole,” my mother says. “Or is that actually Sauce Robert?”
“Espagnole is the mother sauce,” I say. My mother cooked for me and my brothers, passed along the whimsy and delicious possibilities that come with flour, butter, salt, chocolate, and pears, continues to be a big part of my life as my mother and as my children’s grandmother, but still can’t fully comprehend the five sauces we’re making today. I shake my head and laugh. She comes over to the stove and watches me stir. Apparently, Sauce Robert requires endless reduction – I’ve spent half the class over the stove top and have open pores and frizzy hair because of this. My mother, of course, is not only spotless, but even her apron betrays the splashing and chopping.
We look at each other over the pot of what now looks like yellow-beige mush – soon the butter and flour and vegetables will turn mahogany and we’ll be nearly done. I kiss my mother’s cheek and she studies my face. She might be wondering if I’ll finally get a hair cut this week – or month- or she might be amazed at how the same little girl who wanted to lick the cake batter from the spoon is not only capable of cooking, but teaches her own four kids how to love the kitchen. And that’s what my mother did, I realize as the sauce thickens. She made the kitchen easy and fun, a place where splashing orange juice in soy sauce or substituting marmalade for honey was okay. Even though she might want my shutters fixed now or my hair immaculate, in the kitchen, there was peace. That while my mother might appear pressed, pleated, and perfect, her gift to me was also that of the sauces: that we do not need to know how to do everything well. That no matter how confident we are with our kids or our jobs or our houses, there are always weak spots, always places we need support, even if it means calling in the middle of dinner to query, “What’s missing from my Asian marinade?”
As the class finishes, we plate our medallions of beef, artfully spoon the sauce around the meat, delight in trying our dish and the other sauces. I will take my class notes home and add them to my growing pile of cookbooks and recipe cards, many of which come from my mother. She will take them home, store them neatly in her kitchen, and call me in a week to ask me “what to do with the chicken breasts” she just bought. “The sauces are great – but they’re awfully complex,” my mother will say. We will recount how long the sauce took to reduce, how flavorful the shallots and onions were, how nice it was not to have to clean up.
“Thank you for this,” my mother says as we sample not only the Sauce Robert but the crème Anglaise and caramel. “Whenever I make sauce – or don’t – I can think of you.”
We talk a bit more, and I blush when my mother tells the others in the class that I’m a writer, that they should buy my books. Then I tuck my blushing away, knowing that my mother is doing what parents do, showing the world how proud she is, how when she voices her opinions about my house or my hair, she is, at the core, being the chef – showing the food how much she loves it by making it into the best it could be.
The class was called simply “sauces for beginners” but the instructor tells us what I already know. “These are the Mother Sauces. It’s from these sauces that all the other sauces – the smaller sauces – are made.”
Outside, my mother and I stand in the bright midday sunlight, full from lunch. “The mother sauces,” she chuckles. “Funny name.” I open my car door and see her bristle at the kid-detritus on the floor – animal crackers, a flip-flop, someone’s dog-eared book. I shoot her a look. “Don’t even start,” I warn.
She holds up her hands like I could mug her. “I wasn’t going to say anything…” she breathes in deeply. “Except-“ she rummages in her purse for something and I stare at her with the same wonder she holds for me – I am the same age she was when she gave me that first cookbook. Somehow, there have been enough moments, enough hair trims and disapproving outfits, messy cars and family photos that here we are, two adults cooking together in someone else’s kitchen.
“Maybe we should take a trip together,” I suggest. Immediately my mother nods.
“We could cook!” she smiles as she takes something from her purse.
I’m filled with images of foreign food markets, French lentils, San Francisco organic farms, a whole world of messy, fun, both of us out-of-our-elements, learning and tasting as we go. “I’d love to go on a cooking trip with you.”
“It’ll be fun,” my mother says and hugs me as though we’ve booked the trip.
“It will,” I say, wondering how on earth I can finesse a trip without my four young kids, and how they’d love to taste whatever I bring back home. The truth is this: my mother and I will always critique each other. She will always wish I was a little more one way, I will wish she could let go. We hug a little longer, the smell of the morning’s efforts on our clothes. “I liked the poached pears,” I say into her hair.
“I liked just being with you,” she says, and then, right before I can get too mushy, before I want to savor the moment as though it is the caramel sauce that dissolves on the tongue too soon, she adds, “Here – this is for you.” She squeezes my hand and delivers with the moment of tenderness a bit of paper. I unfold it as she walks to her car and I get into my minivan – it is not a love note, not a thank you or a recipe card, but a coupon for a free car wash. I watch my immaculate mother walk to her car and fasten my seat belt over my stained lap. I do not use the coupon, but I do not throw it away, either. Instead, I use it as scrap paper, ideas of what countries my mother and I could travel to, the dishes we could make together.