Her cooking was never good enough.
"I make the lettuce dance."
"...efforts to improve her hopeless daughter."
"So, what you going to cook your boyfriend for dinner tonight?"
An innocent enough question, spoken in the charming, accented English of my Japanese mother. Yet the words are like bullets coming through the loaded gun of the phone receiver. They shoot into my brain, killing the calm, self-confident, rational me.
I react like Pavlov's dog. "Mom," I shout. "I don't cook. You know I don't cook. Why do you keep asking me? I. Don't. Cook."
"Oh. I just asking a simple question. Way to man's heart is through stomach."
Once again rudely thwarted in her well-intentioned efforts to improve her hopeless daughter.
As a professional food stylist, my mother knows all about the seductive merit of an appetizing meal. Her work includes a chocolate cake for the cover of Bon Appetit so sublime it qualifies as art. A roast duck with a skin so golden and glistening you could practically eat the page right out of the magazine. Salads that explode with exotic greens. Steaks that turn on the salivary glands of even the most hard-core vegetarians. Wedding cakes dripping with delicate icing wildflowers too beautiful to subject to crass consumption. The list goes on.
directors have been known to fall on their knees before the shrine of my
mother's greasy apron. Together they will stare at the finished product
as if it were Michelangelo's David. "Yoshiko, you've done it again." The
art director will shake his head in wonder. "I don't know how, but you have."
Grateful clients invite her to their houses in the Hamptons, no doubt hoping
to score a gourmet meal or two in exchange. Photographers fight to book
her months in advance.
In case I forget how brilliant she is, she makes sure to remind me periodically. "I am the best," she announces. "Nobody can do this like me." She waves a McDonald's advertisement at me. "I make the lettuce dance."
And it tastes as good as it looks.
So what about me? I have a beautifully appointed kitchen, with Calphalon pots and pans, Wustoff knives, all kinds of specialized kitchen gadgets. Fancy condiments line my refrigerator door. I have probably fifty bottles of herbs and spices. Each summer, I grow a little herb garden in my window to have fresh herbs on hand. I also have at least twenty cookbooks, which I read like normal people read novels. The cookbooks bristle with post-it notes flagging promising recipes to try.
Yet I'm hopelessly cooking-impaired. Other than "bachelor tortellini" (pasta with tomato sauce) and microwaved veggie burgers, I cook maybe four or five times a year. It's always a nerve-racking event, requiring several days of shopping, studying recipes and writing out menu possibilities. Recipe instructions are treated much like the operating manual for the space shuttle or the Hubble telescope -- any deviation is asking for trouble. I have been known to go to several different stores hunting down some obscure ingredient rather than risk substitution or omission.
Clearly, I have issues with cooking.
"Basil, I think."
wasn't always like this. There was a time, years ago, when I would venture
optimistically into the inner sanctum of the family kitchen in an effort
to apprentice myself to the master. With the skill of a sushi chef preparing
fugu, my mother subtly defeated any foolish notion I may have entertained
that I could ever become a decent cook.
"You want to learn to cook?" She looks at me skeptically.
I nod. "Yeah, I do. Don't you think I should?"
"I don't know." Pause. "Okay, set the table."
I am in dutiful sous chef mode. I set the table to my mother's specifications and return to the kitchen. "What next?"
"Make the salad."
This I also know how to do. I wash the greens in the "yoyo" (known to the rest of the world as a salad spinner). I peel carrots, slice tomatoes, cut up cucumbers. Meanwhile, events are rapidly unfolding without me. I stop my chopping to peer into the fridge over the hunched back of my mother as she roots around in the dark recesses of the vegetable bin.
"What are you looking for?"
"I don't know. Whatever looks good."
"How do you know what looks good?"
No response. She stands up clutching a couple of baggies. I want to know what is in them, but a sudden wave of shyness keeps me from asking.
I follow her over to the counter. She is chopping fresh herbs and adding them to a bowl. Basil, I think.
"How much is that? A tablespoon?"
"I never measure. I do it to taste."
My apprenticeship is going nowhere fast. Years of practice have made cooking entirely intuitive for my mother. She is like a swallow flying to Capistrano for the winter. We can only gawk and admire and wonder how she does it.
years of standing over a counter, chopping, slicing, lifting heavy pans
-- all the hard physical labor involved in a food stylist's work -- took
their toll on my mother. Six years ago, she developed severe rheumatoid
arthritis. She has had six surgeries. She is bedridden and in constant pain.
Her joints, swollen and useless, resemble the gnarled knots of ancient trees.
My mother's current condition has put me in the unfortunate position of having to prepare an occasional meal for her when her home health aide isn't available. As I mentioned, I am a comically bad cook. I have no sense of what works or doesn't work. The idea of whipping up a tasty, nutritious meal from scratch is truly beyond my comprehension.
Yet, Sisyphus-like, I forge ahead, again and again, seeking that motherly approval of my culinary efforts that has evaded me through all these years.
The results are predictable. My Moroccan chicken "tastes like paper." This despite effusive praise bestowed by two independent tasters -- my sister and my boyfriend.
My potato and leek soup also disappoints: "Ugh, salty."
My salads? Forget it. "Why you drown it in dressing?" "This lettuce is old." "Who made this salad dressing? Too much vinegar."
Even tea is cause for consternation. "Lukewarm." "Weak." "Why you put so much milk in it?"
And when words otherwise fail her, there is the all-purpose "Tastes funny."
Last week, in a moment of temporary insanity, I embarked upon the ultimate lost cause -- Japanese cuisine. Like many immigrants, my mother reinvented herself upon her arrival in the United States as a young woman. She Westernized her name, became an Episcopalian, married a tall, blond Midwestern WASP and moved to New York City, where she raised two indisputably "Yankee" daughters. We never ate Japanese food at home, spoke in Japanese or socialized with other Japanese-Americans. My glimpses into the mysterious world of the Japanese were limited to our monthly visits to my aunt Kazuko. My mother and aunt would converse in Japanese, interspersed with the occasional "Rocka-fella Centa" or "Ba-rumingdales" or the always intriguing "Tamara." I would snack on Japanese rice candies and examine my aunt's collection of Japanese ceramics. Everything was so little and cute. For years, I thought the Beatles were from Japan, because I first heard their music at my aunt's house, on my cousin Masao's record player.
My aunt, the family's diplomat from Japan, had brought over chirashi zushi for my mother the last time she was in the hospital, having her left hip replaced. Chirashi zushi is simple -- just sushi rice with vegetables and egg -- but it is one of my favorite dishes. In fact, I ate most of it, which my mother, for some reason, found highly amusing.
"I guess you a real Japanese after all. He-he-he."
I poked through the bowl with my chopsticks. Rice, carrots, shiitaki mushrooms, thin strands of omelet and shredded nori. How hard could that be?
"'DO NOT OPEN THE LID.'"
here I was at my mother's, ready to make chirashi zushi. Per her orders,
given to me at the Japanese market via my cell phone, I had purchased a
can of chirashi zushi vegetables. The label's cooking instructions read,
in their entirety, "Mix with warm sushi rice." My confidence grew. I could
do that. I lined up all the ingredients on the counter -- rice, the little
can of vegetables, two eggs, dashi, sushi rice vinegar and nori.
It wasn't quite yet time to cook, though. Over pre-supper tea, my mother lectured from her bed on the importance of a refined palate. You have to grow up with good food to know what it is. Only that way can you become a good cook. That's why she was so good, and her home health aide -- a very nice Ukrainian woman named Olga -- was so terrible. " The palate of a peasant."
Having been raised on my mother's exquisite cuisine, I supposed I was at an advantage in this regard.
I made the rice and brought it to my mother to taste. She opened her mouth to admit the spoon, part baby bird, part Empress of Japan.
"It's h-a-a-a-rd! Not cooked enough. What did you do???"
I looked at her forlornly. "I don't know."
"Put a tablespoon of water in it and simmer for twenty minutes. DO NOT OPEN THE LID."
I did as I was told and came back into the bedroom, where my mother lay brooding.
"What's the matter?"
"I'm very disturbed. You 36 years old and don't know how to cook rice."
I hung my head in shame. "Maybe the lid wasn't on tightly enough. It's a little crooked."
wasn't interested in speculating on the cause for my mistake. There was
work to be done. "When rice is done, spread on jelly roll sheet and let
cool to room temperature. Jelly roll sheet has half inch lip so rice doesn't
fall off. Then mix rice with vegetables and vinegar and put egg strands
and nori on top."
I went into the kitchen and did as I was told. I brought a spoonful of the finished dish over to my mother.
She tasted it. In a terribly sad voice, she murmured, "What happened to your palate?"
We ate take-out Chinese food for dinner.
please email ducts with your comments.
BEST OATMEAL COOKIES
MY MOTHER EVER TASTED
Adapted from the back of the Quaker Oatmeal box
Time: 1 hour, plus one week of worry
For simplicity's sake, I have not been entirely truthful, but I'd like to come clean now. I actually did cook something once -- oatmeal cookies -- that earned my mother's praise.
Follow the recipe for oatmeal cookies on the back of the Quaker Oatmeal box. Use my mother's hundred dollar double layer cookie sheets. If you adhere to these instructions, precisely and without deviation, you are guaranteed a phenomenal cookie experience.
Yield: One perfect cookie for your mother, the rest for you.
May the kitchen gods be with you.