Saturday, July 14, 2012

Chop Suey and Changes

Yesterday was the two year anniversary of when my mom passed away.  The week was a bit emotional, but all in all not horrible.  My life has changed a lot since last year, and I have a lot more positive things to focus on and celebrate than I did last year.  Last year I was in a place where all I could focus on was what I'd lost.  Perhaps in hindsight, that's the reason I didn't have more positive things going on in my life.  I was too focused on the past to see what was ahead of me. 
So on this particular Friday the 13th, I needed to make sure that my dad was taken care of and had some company.  He has five other children, none of whom even called yesterday to check in on him, so I'm thinking that this was a good decision on my part.  So I told Josh (the wonderful man in my life if you haven't kept up with me) that I thought that we needed to spend Friday night with my dad, which of course he was fine with.  Then I told my dad to think of what he'd like me to make for dinner.  Anything he wanted.  Maybe something that he hadn't had for a while.  Maybe something that my mom used to make.
If you don't know my dad, he is a bit indecisive.  He tends to just go along with things, which explains how he survived 32 years with my mom, because most of the time she pretty much knew exactly what she wanted.  Sometimes she would say she didn't care, but if we did something she didn't want you felt the vibe the whole time that this was not her choice.  My dad on the other hand truly doesn't care.  He is pretty much content doing anything with anybody.  I don't know if I can name a single person he doesn't like.  So anyway, because my dad is indecisive, I had to prompt him quite a bit.  At first, he thought that when I said that I would make him ANYTHING that I meant that I would make him any of the things that I've been making from my Paleo cookbooks.  I had to explain that when I said anything I meant anything.  So then I prompted him a bit by naming some things my mom used to make.  Macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, Hungarian goulash, Chop Suey, pork ribs.
"Wait a minute - go back," my dad says.
"Chop Suey.  That sounds good."
So Chop Suey is what I made.  My dad was off work this week, so he insisted on picking up all of the necessary ingredients that he didn't already have. 
Chop Suey is basically a Chinese food version of beef stew if I really had to try to describe it.  It was one of my mother's favorite recipes, one of the few that she would eat and that she actually specifically said that she really liked.  But she didn't make it very often because it "took too long".  When I was a mean and horrible teenager, I interpreted this to mean that she was feeling lazy.  I can now confirm that it really is a time consuming dish.  It basically took about an hour and a half to make, most of that in the kitchen watching and stirring, adding ingredients, etc.  Based on the fact that the instructions took up less than half an index card, I had no idea that it would take so long.  And yet, it did.  So I made the Chop Suey because that is what my daddy requested and I think it turned out well.  I'm pretty sure it wasn't as good as when my mom made it, but not bad for my first try...
When the Chop Suey was almost ready, I took out a page from my mom's book and I busted out her Little Red Hen book from the kitchen and started to read it.   This is something that has become a family joke over the years.  When my brother and I started to outgrow our Little Golden books and decided to get rid of them, my mom came across the tiny version of The Little Red Hen in the box.  She read the story aloud and decided that The Little Red Hen reminded her of herself.  So she put the tiny book in the kitchen on the shelf with her recipes.  And from that point forward, when she was working in the kitchen and wanted help with something but nobody was offering, she would bust out the book and start reading.  "Who will help me bake the bread?"  "'Not I' said the pig.  'Not I' said the goose." 
It was a night of remembering and at the same time of enjoying the new life before us.  I miss my mom every day.  I wish that she could meet Josh.  I wish that she could see me truly happy for the first time in a really long time - because I know she worried about me a lot.  I wish that I could go to her for advice and laugh with her about the silly things I've done.  But I can't let that keep me from moving forward, and I'm not.  I am enjoying my new life and remembering the ways my mom prepared me for it.  Thank you, Mom for helping to make me the woman that I am today.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Saturday Morning Send-offs

This morning I am craving chocolate mini-muffins with chocolate chips.  I believe that there are two reasons for this particular craving: the first being that I can't have a chocolate mini-muffin with chocolate chips, and the second, and more important reason is because I a nearing the two year mark since I lost my mom. 
There were many mornings that my brother and I would wake up at an hour that should not exist, particularly on the weekends, to the sound of my mom baking something in the kitchen.  If we stayed in bed, it wouldn't be long before the sweet smell of muffins or coffee cakes or banana bread would draw us to the kitchen.  She was always making something, and most of the time it was something that she wouldn't eat.  She was making it just because she knew that it would make her family happy.
My favorite thing that she would make on days like this was the chocolate mini-muffins with chocolate chips.  They were tasty, but this was not the best thing about them.  No, the best thing about the chocolate mini-muffins was the generosity of them.  I know that sounds weird, but keep reading and you'll understand.  The chocolate mini-muffins were something that my mom would make for my brother and me when we were going off on a trip, like an away soccer game, or when we had a track meet.  Anything that involved a full day of activity, there would be muffins.  And the muffins were not just for my brother and I - oh no - my mom made enough muffins to feed the entire soccer team.  Even the people who were not always nice to us would get a muffin because there were just that many.  And for track, well there weren't QUITE enough muffins for the entire team, but there were plenty to go around amongst our own little groups of friends. 
The muffins were so great not just because they tasted good, but because they were shared.  It gave my mom joy to be able to make her children and her friends smile.  And it gave me joy to be able to share with my friends and to hear them say that my mom was awesome.  The muffins were a send-off snack, an unspoken blessing, a good luck gesture, a hug from mom before the big race or game. 
Some days I feel like I could use some of those muffins, not just for the muffins, but for all of the love and kindness and generosity that was wrapped up in them.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

This Cold Calls for Some Chicken & Rice Soup

I have previously expressed regret over not learning all of the recipes that I should have while my mother was still here with me. One of the recipes that I really wish that I had right now was for my mom's chicken and rice soup. Anytime that anybody in our family showed the first sign of a cold, my mom would bust out the giant stock pot and produce a massive quantity of chicken and rice soup. Even after my brother and I left home, if one of us was sick, the stock pot came out and chicken and rice soup was delivered directly to our doors. It was just another one of the ways that she cared for the people that she loved. I have done my best to try to emulate her in her gift for caring for people, but I'm not quite there yet. And the difference is that while I truly enjoy taking care of people in the little ways that I can, I still sometimes need someone to take care of me.
So for the past week or so, I have been fighting the wretched cold of doom. And I have been on emotional overload missing my mom, wishing that I had some of her chicken and rice soup to help me through the cold. Every time I get a cold now, as if it isn't bad enough to feel bad physically, I also feel bad emotionally because I remember when I had someone taking care of me when I was sick and I long for that again.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Marvelous Macaroni Salad

This weekend was UNR graduation for my brother's girlfriend, and also my cousin. My cousin had a graduation party at his house. In our family, graduation parties (as well as the other summer parties) involve barbecues. Whenever there was a party, even when my mom was not hosting, she would be the one who provided half the food without even being asked. And for summer time, my mom made several things. There was sometimes a pig made out of a watermelon, hollowed out and filled with fruit salad. Sometimes a bundt cake or Jell-o jigglers. But the constant was macaroni salad and pasta salad.
This weekend was my first attempt at making the macaroni salad. It is the only macaroni salad that I've ever liked. Most macaroni salad has too much mustard or horrible things like olives and relish. Don't get me wrong, I like relish on my hot dogs, but it does not belong in macaroni salad. Whenever my mom would make this macaroni salad, she would ask for a volunteer to taste it since she didn't eat it. Every time, I volunteered, and every time after I had my first "test bowl" I would coyly suggest that it was okay, but that I'd have to taste some more from a different part of the bowl just to make sure that it was consistent.
Another thing about the macaroni salad is that it was always made in bulk. My mom didn't know how to make "a little bit" of anything. If she was cooking, it was guaranteed that there would be enough food for seconds, thirds, fourths and so on, all the way up to tenths, for every person attending the event. She would cook the macaroni in the largest stock pot she owned, and it practically required a bucket to mix it all up. After it was done, it would be divided up in bowls for the house and for the party, along with plastic bags to be sent home with my brother and I. We would joke that we were going to have to send my dad up to the store for more macaroni because I wasn't sure that there was going to be enough.
The macaroni salad I made this weekend was not nearly as large in scale, but I can only hope that when people eat it, they can taste love in every bite, just like when my mom made it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Meatloaf Memories

The idea for this blog came to me on Monday night. I took Monday and Tuesday off from work, just because I could, and I was making dinner for my dad. I know that it has been amazingly hard for him because he is having to learn to do the things for himself that my mom used to do for him. So it seemed like a good idea to make him something that my mom used to make--he hasn't had these things for almost a year... I asked him what he'd like and he wasn't sure, but when I suggested meatloaf, he immediately responded with a "that sounds good," so I went with it and made meatloaf and fried rice. I was flipping through the recipe box trying to find the recipe for the fried rice and saw so many recipes that I'd never even heard of, ones that were not from our collection of favorites, but still in my mom's hurried handwriting, faded and bent. I thought that someday I would have to try each of them, if only once. Then the idea came to me that if I tried them, I would also have to write about them. Of course--because that's what I do.

The meatloaf was a recipe I was familiar with--I'd made it plenty of times before, the first time when I was eleven. The fried rice, on the other hand, was a new recipe for me. The recipe calls it "Chinese Style Fried Rice," but we just grew up with it being called "egg rice." If we were having meatloaf for dinner, it naturally followed that we expected to also have egg rice. When we had meatloaf without egg rice, it was always just a little bit of a disappointment because the egg rice was one of our favorites. For this reason, I had expected it to be complicated and time consuming, but in reality, it was much easier than I expected-- it just creates a lot of dishes. It is a simple recipe that consists of Minute rice, butter, egg, onion and soy sauce. Simple but tasty.

As I said before, I have made the meatloaf many times before, but I particularly remember the first time when I was eleven. I was in sixth grade, and this was probably the first real cooking I'd ever done. It was the first time that my mom really welcomed me into her kitchen rather than shooing me out, aside from the holiday sugar cookie decorating. It was also my first experience with how it feels when somebody tells you that they enjoyed something that you made for them.

This day that I first learned to appreciate cooking, was a school day, and the bell signaling the end of the day had been eagerly anticipated since the moment I'd arrived. These were the years when going to school was something akin to torture-not so much because of the school part, but more because sixth graders can be jerks. When our class was dismissed, I ran to meet my brother outside of his classroom so that we could head to the parking lot and wait for our mom to come and take us home. She had just started working for the first time in our lives at the beginning of that school year and usually arrived just a couple of minutes after school go out, if she wasn't already there when the bell rang.

On this particular day, she was late. I have always been a worrier, and so when my mom had not arrived by 3:15, I was freaking out a little bit. Every possibility flashed through my head - did she forget us? Was she in an accident? Was she working late? Did she get sick and have to go to the hospital? Was there an accident on the freeway blocking traffic? I know it was only fifteen minutes, which to an adult is no big deal, but at 11 and 8, my brother and I were a bit upset. Up to this point, our mother had always been there when she said she would be and it seemed that there had to be a really good reason why she wasn't. Five more minutes passed and I started to panic. This, of course, was before cell phones, so I went to the office to use the phone. I called our house, just in case for some strange reason our mom had forgotten us. I let the phone ring ten times... No answer. We went outside to wait some more.

At about 3:30 pm, the school secretary came outside and told us that our mom was on the way and that we should come inside and wait. She did not offer any other information. I found myself getting angry, feeling like she must be holding back something. There was something that she wasn't telling us that we had a right to know. My brother and I sat down in the plastic chairs just outside the principal's office keeping a chair between us, which naturally did not keep us from arguing.

It was almost 4:00 pm, an hour since school got out, when our mom walked through the door with a temporary cast on her hand. My brother and I both gasped and ran to greet her, stumbling over each other to ask her what happened. She told us that she'd broken her thumb at work, but that everything was going to be okay, so we shouldn't worry about her. At the time, I had no concept for pain, and even still I don't know that I could imagine that pain, but she hid it for us so that we wouldn't worry. She led us to the car and apologized over and over again as she drove us home. Once we finally convinced her that we were okay and that we weren't mad at her, she asked me if I would help her with dinner.

Usually, when she was making dinner, she wanted me to stay as far away from the kitchen as possible, but now here she was asking me for help. I asked her what we were having, and she told me that it was going to be meatloaf. I was excited to help, but I was also nervous. I knew that meatloaf required eggs, and cracking the eggs was something that I not yet managed to do successfully yet. I always ended up with little pieces of shells in them. Then there was the main reason that she needed help with it- the meatloaf required mashing the ingredients together by hand. I was a little bit grossed out by the thought of mixing up the ground beef and egg and breadcrumbs using my hands. I had no problem playing in the mud, but for some reason ground beef and eggs were intimidating. In the end, it turned out to be just as fun as playing in the mud. My mom stood watch as I poured all of the ingredients into the bowl and mashed them together with my hands. While she watched my hands mashing, I watched her face, seeking her approval and finding it in her smile.

I mashed the mixture into loaf pans and after an hour in the oven, we had meatloaf, and I had contributed to the family's meal that night. I was thrilled that I had made the meatloaf and I hadn't messed it up. As we ate, my mom asked my dad how the meatloaf was. When he told her that it was good, she told him that I had made it. I beamed excitedly, happy to know that he still enjoyed it even when I made it. That night, probably without knowing it, my mom gave me a piece of her passion for feeding people.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Food and Memories

As I was making dinner on Monday night, using a recipe from my mother's recipe box, I began to ponder- And while pondering is often a dangerous thing, in this case, it brought forth an idea- a way for me to document memories of my mother while celebrating her for what many people loved about her. Not just her cooking, but the spirit of service behind it, and the joy she found in it. She often made things that she didn't eat, simply because she knew how much other people liked them. I was slowly learning some of the favorite recipes and my mother's tricks that were not included in the recipe, but there are so many things that I never learned, because I always thought that there would be time- time when I was married and had a home of my own, time when I had kids who could learn at the same time - but I was wrong. Time ran out, and there is so much that I never learned, so many things that I'd love to make that I am afraid to attempt without my mother's guidance... And yet the goal is that I would attempt them anyway. If I make a bad cake, it's no big deal. I can try again and again until I get it right.
When my mom passed away and the time came to plan the memorial service, I was left to make many of the important decisions. I did not want that role, but at the same time, I knew one thing for certain. The food that would be served at the memorial service would only be things that my mother ate. She had spent her life making food for others that she wouldn't eat, so it seemed only fair that we honor her by only serving foods that she would have eaten. I came up with a fairly large list of items that were simple that family members could bring, and I kept the most difficult things for myself (except for the desserts - those were delegated to my sister-in-law because baking is a beast I have yet to master).
First, I made a giant batch of my mother's macaroni & cheese. It is a fairly simple recipe, but I have found that many people have trouble with it because they don't have the patience for the white sauce which requires constant attention until it is complete. This recipe has been in high demand ever since then, and is becoming my trademark recipe from my mother's collection. Friends and family are quick to request it for holidays and birthdays. Prior to the memorial service, I had already made this recipe numerous times, and so I was not particularly concerned about it.
The second item I chose to make was beef bourguignon, which I can't even spell without assistance, so I had no idea how I was going to make it. It also required crepes, which I'd also never made before. I have hard time with pancakes, so crepes, which are paper thin, were particularly concerning. I actually was so worried about the crepes that I asked my sister-in-law to come to the house to make them. On the day of the service, my sister in law still hadn't arrived by the time she was supposed to, so I prepared the crepe batter. Still no sign of her, so I started on the crepes. I was freaking out, crying, because I wanted everything to be just right, the way my mom deserved them to be, and I was terrified that I would ruin the crepes. The first crepe burned and stuck to the pan a little bit and I was certain I was doomed- but I calmed myself down by reminding myself that the first pancake is always a tester, it's always bad. The crepes were not perfect, they were probably a bit thicker than crepes should be, but I made them, and nobody was disappointed or let down by how they looked because they still tasted just fine.
As Mother's Day approaches, there is nothing that I can do except to share and celebrate the legacy my mother left behind, and so today, I begin to share my memories of and experiences with my mother through the recipes in her box.