The first thing my mother taught me to make was the Toll House recipe for chocolate chip cookies. She handled the oven, but the rest was simple enough for an 8-year-old. Before long, I knew all the measurements by heart. Eventually, I graduated to the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook - a three-ring binder full of recipes from the 1950s. I remember the pages brimming with photos of old-fashioned favorites: meatloaf, roast chicken, glazed squash, and banana bread.
It was not until I was an adult that I realized that by teaching me how to read a recipe, my mother had given me a wonderful lifelong gift: the ability to bring something I crave into being with my own hands and to be able to share that thing with others. To put things on the table as I want them to be. To make home and find it, anywhere I go. And more than anyone special dish, the physical rituals of cooking — the careful separating of eggs and the dirtying of multiple bowls and the licking of spoons and the placing of dishtowels over rising doughs — make me feel close to my mom.
My mom learned how to bake the hard way. As a teenager, she was caught skipping school and smoking cigarettes on the street corner. My grandmother dragged her home and punished her for an entire summer. My poor mother spent all of her time baking, and by September, she was an expert.
And so baking became my mother's lifeblood. It was the way she communicated, comforted, healed. It was and continues to be the way she interacts with the world. Several years ago, my mom was diagnosed with cancer - we were all scared - but she just kicked cancer in the nuts and went home to bake more cookies.
I suppose if you think about it, learning to cook is like learning a language. You start with the verbs — beat, cream, knead, fold, zest — and move on to more complex constructions: whip until stiff peaks form, let stand until foamy, cook until the soft-ball stage. As you learn the kitchen's inflections, you understand where there's room for poetic license — a splash of bourbon in the batter, limes for lemons, a shake of those mysterious red flakes Bob brought back from Turkey — and where there isn't.
And like language, cooking is a tool I use to shape my world. With the kitchen skills my mother gave me, I can show her she taught me something worth knowing. I can help guide my children: We are people who mix and fold and roll and knead.
So as Mother's Day approaches, it's time to take stock of all of the wonderful things we are grateful for and thank that special woman we are lucky enough to call "mom".