(This is the story I read at the recent, amazing Listen to your Mother show – video coming in the summer!)
Today I cooked for my family and nobody died.
It’s always a good day when my cooking doesn’t maim, injure or kill. Because every time I cook, I am convinced that someone will turn pale, clutch his or her belly, foam at the mouth and then sprint for the bathroom. Or just keel right over.
Needless to say, I am not a natural in the kitchen. I try. After all, I’m a Mom. This is part of the job description, right? It’s supposed to be part of my maternal DNA.
I definitely did not inherit the cooking gene from my Mom. She’s the world’s greatest cook. I yearn for her meatloaf and cheesecake. When I’m sick, her chicken soup is the only medicine that heals. Her trifle is legendary in England. I have fond memories of helping her measure and stir, as she’d prep and bake. Osmosis, however, failed me.
Like me, she wasn’t actually a natural-born cook. But once married, my Mom experienced a culinary metamorphosis, blossoming into this competent, fearless creator of deliciousness. Hoping to nurture similar qualities in me, my parents sent me to an all-girls school. Alas, while I did well academically, my grades for “domestic science” were well below average.
Fast-forward to my 30’s. One evening, I invited my soon-to-be-fiancé over to my place, intent on making a romantic meal. I prepared the only dish I really knew. He wanted to hang with me in the kitchen, sizing up my qualifications for future wifedom, motherhood and domesticity. But he quickly recoiled when he saw that every ingredient was either from a can, a carton or the freezer. Mortified, I banished him from the kitchen.
Did I mention he’s a professionally trained chef? No pressure, right? Well, despite his horror at my pasta mush, he still married me. Maybe he thought my culinary skills might emerge, like they had for my mom? Fortunately, our relationship is based on many other qualities, like good humor and forgiveness.
These days, I can be inspired by a recipe, game to give it a go and expose my family to something new. I’m all about Pinterest. My “recipes to try” board has more than one thousand pins of culinary delights. I’ve attempted about three of them. My success rate is, well, low. Usually the end result looks nothing like the picture. It might taste good but my kids usually turn their noses up when served something that looks, smells and tastes suspiciously different from chicken tenders or mac and cheese. My husband, bless him, praises my efforts, chews his meal with enthusiasm and makes all the right “mmmm” noises. He coaxes the kids to try at least a bite. The silver lining? Plenty of leftovers.
It wasn’t always this way. When they were infants, they ate everything I cooked. Yes, cooked. I was really really good at making purées. Because, boiling and mushing stuff, that I can do – like a pro. And, since I wasn’t able to nurse my kids when they were infants, preparing food this way made me feel like mother of the year, all wholesome and nurturing. I was an over-achiever in the purée department; my fridge filled with baggies of green, yellow, even purple frozen cubes of homemade nutrition. My kids willingly consumed vegetables that today are considered devil spawn. Beets. Parsnips. Spinach. Even black beans. It was good while it lasted.
I’m happy to tell you that one of my cooking adventures has in fact become the stuff of legend on social networks. Allow me to introduce you to the Hippo Cake.
It was Rosh Hashanah and like all Jewish festivals, it’s celebrated with food. A few days before, I called my mother and asked for her wonderful honey cake recipe, thinking it was my maternal duty to bake one for my family at this auspicious time of the year.
I’ll never know what really went wrong. Did I confuse the measurements? Maybe I omitted the baking soda? Perhaps the oven was the wrong temperature (after all, British recipes are in Celsius not Fahrenheit)?
Never has a photo posted on Facebook received so much attention. “What is that?” was the most frequent comment. “Um, it’s a honey cake,” I’d respond. “It looks like a hippo,” quipped someone and everyone resoundingly agreed. And so the notorious Hippo Cake was born. Every year now, friends and family clamor for me to re-post the Hippo Cake photo on Facebook, claiming that the holiday cannot properly commence until I do.
So this is what it comes down to. I can bake cakes that look like animals and purée like a champ. Evidently, as a mother, cooking is not my strongest suit. But at least I haven’t killed anyone. They say genes can skip a generation, so I’m hoping my kids will inherit their quick wits, good looks and self-deprecating humor from me – and their cooking skills from their grandmother.