Nana’s house in Westchester, Easter dinner: loud, heavy women orbiting the stove. As a small child, I was left to play with my sister or bother the men in the living room while my mother, her mother, and her sisters cooked. We sat in the dining room, which never got much light, at a broad, long table, surrounded by velvety fleur-de-lis wallpaper. My Aunt Bia (I couldn’t say “Maria”) twisted hip-first through the creaky swinging door between the kitchen and dining room with a platter of nutty-smelling meat. My favorite was something called sweetbreads. I liked the name.
The first time I remember thinking my mother’s work as a food writer made my life different was when she made spaghetti with meatballs three nights in a row, trying to get the proportions perfect for a recipe. I was around eleven years old. Tuesday’s meat mix was fattier, the spice blend on Wednesday less pungent. But there were leftovers from Tuesday when she began cooking on Wednesday. Stacks of Tupperware filled with leftovers made a Tetris game out of visiting the refrigerator.
By Thursday the recipe was perfected, and on Friday I pressed my cheek to the cool Formica of the kitchen counter and swore I’d vomit if I had to eat more meatballs. We were rarely offered alternate dinners—pickiness was not an option—but by the third night of spaghetti, my sister and I were allowed to forage in the fridge and make what we wanted.
My family ate dinner together at least six nights every week—always at the dining room table, no TV—and each of us had to contribute to putting the meal on the table. This did not seem strange to me until I was a teenager, when I discovered that between all of the practices, meetings, homework, and dances, none of my friends ate with their families. Meanwhile, we sliced cucumber for the salad or set the table, did the dishes or put the fish under the broiler, and dipped the rice paper for Vietnamese salad rolls in warm water—carefully, so they didn’t tear.
I was twelve when I saw a calf carcass for the first time, in the window at Biancardi Meats on Arthur Avenue. We had recently moved from New York to Oregon, and were back for a visit. My mom had taken Nana, my sister, and me to the Bronx. She wanted us to know where our traditions came from, to see the last vestige of visibly Italian New York, understand the steaming plates of meat we ate on Easter, and see stores that bore signs that looked like my mother’s last name: Biancardi, Madonia, Randazzo. I hadn’t known before where sweetbreads came from. It was the pancreas, Nana told me as she held my hand in front of the butcher’s window, and I swore off meat. (My vegetarianism lasted two years; I ordered a hamburger one day when I was fourteen and that was that.)
Everything about my family felt demanding: we had more rules, we didn’t watch much TV, we rarely ate the straightforward kinds of dinners my friends ate. My mother would call me downstairs to help, and I’d stand sullenly next to the sink to chop vegetables for the salad we always ate with dinner. The rhythm of the knife—guillotining the carrots, then the cucumbers, now chopping the tomatoes—hypnotized me. Lost in the trance of kitchen activity, I wouldn’t realize I’d begun to answer my mother’s questions: how was school, what movie did I see with Nicole last weekend, did I like The Things They Carried?
She says that she felt like she got her daughter back for those fifteen minutes every night. I felt differently.
I resented eating the same dish over and over when my mom was on deadline. Ricotta cheesecake for days, those salad rolls, frittatas. If we had demands, they’d wait. My teenage memories place my mother hovering over the stove with her notepad, waving her hand to pull the steam toward her flared nostrils, her forehead creased. When she brought me to a good restaurant, what was on the plate often captivated her more than what I said. I would get what felt like twenty or so minutes—from a ninety-minute meal—of my mother’s full attention. The rest of the time, she looked through the window of the open kitchen into the sizzle and pop, searching for the chef. When the food came, she would poke at it too long with her fork. Her eyes would glint when she realized what was happening inside a dish—when she could deconstruct a meal—or when it was so good, so complex, that she couldn’t.
She took photos, too. The practice was even more obtrusive before the smartphone, when my mother would pull an enormous camera out of her purse at dinner, wave her hands with an admonishment not to start on our meals yet, twist the plate around until it was in the best position, and sometimes stand in front of her chair, trying to get just enough distance to light the food well. We’d pass our plates along. I’d sense other patrons glancing over and boil inside with the sense that my mother’s profession robbed food of its fun.
The spectacle of Christmas Eve dinner with my family begins every year around December 17. My mother calls seafood providers to compare prices and place our orders: squid, shrimp, scallops, conch for seafood salad, clams, and lobster. Salt cod sometimes, too, if we’re ambitious. It’s the Feast of the Seven Fishes. My father picks everything up, my mother makes sure we have all of the other ingredients on December 23 (produce, anchovies, pasta, prosecco), and my sister Lizzy and I, now well into adulthood, make the scallion pie on the morning of the December 24. We press the dough into balls first and then push our weight onto rolling pins, one shoulder higher than the other, for leverage, and flatten them. After a decade, we still tear the too-thin parts. We spread the sautéed scallions with olives and anchovies onto the once-baked bottom crust in the broad baking pan, and place the other half of the dough on top. My mother and father always stand by to watch this last step, tentative like a game of Jenga in a late round: each of us picks up one side of the layer and sets it on top of the slimy green pie, then crimps the edges against the pan.
My dad, in his role as sous chef, boils and cuts all the seafood for the salad, then my mother pours in lemon juice and oil and garlic powder and chopped parsley, because only she knows the correct proportions. Lizzy makes tiramisu for dessert, soaking the ladyfingers in espresso and eating the ones that break. She vibrates by the time it’s done. We listen to Christmas carols on the radio and dance. The linguine with clam sauce is the easiest and the recipe I love most, because it can feed a crowd; I serve it to friends throughout the year.
There is yelling; the day progresses slower than we’ve planned. My sister disappears upstairs to make a phone call and I check my email, and my mother says that we expect her to do everything and it’s just so typical and next year we shouldn’t do it at all—we’ll eat turkey or a rack of lamb like everyone else, the Italian thing is too much of a production. It sometimes feels like we can’t possibly meet her enormous expectations, that short of acquiring clogs and whites, neither the food nor the day will be quite good enough. Even so, it’s one of my favorite days of the year.
My mother was not circumscribed by her Italianness—by Catholicism and nuns at school and men named Vincent and the food of her youth. Where my mother was intellectually curious, her family was dogmatic. During the sixties and seventies, she pulled for independence, for universality, as they got more insular. My mother was the smartest of her sisters: introspective, analytical, ambitious. She traveled, became a journalist, took the assignments that were usually given to the men in the newsroom, married a liberal Irish-American. It wasn’t until later that she began to write about food. I’m older now than my mother was when she married my father, in the wedding that my mother’s dad initially said he wouldn’t pay for—they had lived together before the engagement.
We’d notice as we got older, my sister and I, that whenever we went as a family to visit my grandmother, my mother would shrink. Her shoulders tightened, her mouth took on a brittleness—nothing like the supple smiles she wore at home or the tightly wound frowns we knew signaled her frustration. At least at home her expressions varied. When in college I visited her family alone, my aunts would speak derisively of my mother, one-off barbs spoken without looking in my eyes, throwaways that I could easily ignore. You know how she is. There was something needy and mean in my aunts, as if the only way they knew to get closer to me or my sister was to cut our mother down. When the comments turned more aggressive, I’d shrug and say I loved my mother, and sure, she was critical and sometimes too clingy, but she was still my mother, and she was funny and warm and giving, too. As I got older, my respect for my mother became a wall—something I constructed to keep her family out.
Food, I saw, was the place where my mother could enjoy her family’s company even when she didn’t, where family stories could be told without fraught emotional outbursts. My mother could take the thing she was happy to inherit from them and spin it into something that gave her independence and identity, into an endeavor in which her perfectionism and worldliness paid off. She is generous with her passion for food—she will take time to ruminate when I call from a supermarket across the country to ask if the clam sauce might be good with crushed tomatoes and arugula and pork sausage, like the cookbook she gave me for Christmas suggested. But though we share some of her weekly excitements for tagines, Himalayan salt blocks, or drinking vinegars, the drive belongs to her. I have never invented or tried, time after time, to perfect a recipe.
My sister and I have promised to produce this year’s Christmas Eve meal ourselves—from the phone calls and the pickups to cooking and stabbing the lobsters, with which, I’m sure, we will ask my father’s help.
When I was four, I insisted on walking down the streets of New York a half-block in front of my mother. We’d get off the subway, emerge into the light from the clatter underground, and I’d rush ahead and shout that she should stay behind me. Maybe what I share most with my mother is a terse desire for both independence and family. For a time, when I was in my early twenties, she was taken with the notion that I would be a food writer, too. “You were raised with a palate,” she sighed after a few glasses of wine, after I’d correctly identified the spices in a Peruvian dish. But what my mother’s job gave me was not a calling of my own. Rather, she enabled me to cook my way through failure and rejection, buoyed by a sense of my own competence. Heartbroken at twenty-four, I kept my friends’ pantries stocked with scones and made pasta dinners three times weekly. Cooking stews gets me through writing drafts, the tangible contrasting with the abstraction of migrant colons and paragraphs. My boyfriend makes fun of how aggrieved I still look when my mother asks interminable questions of restaurant waitstaff and chefs, but I’m trying not to complain as much.
I took a series of photographs of my mother on a family vacation we took to Vietnam, the year we decided we wouldn’t do Italian Christmas or gifts. We ate streetside pho and lemongrass fish in Hanoi; got sick at the tourist-trap restaurant run by a deaf man and his eight eager children in Hue; and finally, in Saigon, found the famous pho hall my mother had been talking about the whole time.
They serve big, steaming bowls of rich beef broth and noodles, leave a bucket of herbs and greens on the table for you to add to the soup as you like, and bring a tray of things that look like churros to dip. You have the option of three different chili sauces in plastic squeeze bottles. The tables are all communal; aluminum chair legs clink together as patrons come and go. My mother wanted to try all of the wrapped pastries, but only a bite of each. She’d unwrap one, smell it, taste it, nod, and hand it absentmindedly to either my sister, me, or my father—at which point Lizzy would laugh, I would groan, and my father would shrug. There was one that was gummy, wrapped in banana leaves, and filled with something resembling bean paste. I took six photos in immediate succession: Mom looking confusedly down at the little packet in her hand, holding it up to her nose, taking a bite, chewing slowly, and smiling, bashful but radiant. The final frame shows her reaching out, with the banana-leaf packet in her hand, toward me.