PJM's food writer Nancy Rommelmann ponders the phenomenon of "Mom food" - the dish that mothers enthusiastically prepare for grown offspring when they come back home for a visit, insisting it's their favorite dish. No matter how many times you tell her that your palate has evolved since age six, she still refuses to believe.
June 27, 2007 - 12:35 pm
“This sort of tastes like the idea of chicken,” said my 17-year-old daughter, inspecting the chunk of poached chicken on the end of her fork.
“As if, in the future, someone said, ‘back in the 21st century, there used to be a food called chicken, and it looked like this.’”
This is what I get for serving something different for dinner; something I thought would taste clean and fresh; something I thought she would like. She did not.
“But thanks for the astronaut food,” she said, as she poured herself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs.
If we were back in the day, I would not have let her put the rest of that breast in the trash. I would have made her sit all night, as her father as an eight-year old once had, staring at a stuffed green pepper, trying to work up the nerve to choke down while cold what he’d gagged on while hot. Or, as I had once been made to sit, before an uneaten heap of succotash, tears plopping into the canned corn and lima beans until my mother, more out of disgust than pity, ordered me to bed.
But I don’t do this with my daughter, at least, not with the poached chicken, which I, too, admit was pretty uninteresting, and which in any case smelled weird the next day. I won’t serve it again, and I certainly won’t, owing to some romantic maternal haze, one day tell her, “Look, I’ve made your favorite – poached chicken!”
But that would be preposterous, you say. To which I say, in my experience, it would be normal. This, because nearly every time I fly home to New York, it is to walk into my mother’s kitchen, smell that smell, and think, oh, no…
“I made your favorite!” she’ll announce, and lift the lid off a skillet filled with poached kidneys. And not a little skillet, but a giant heavy Le Creuset skillet, absolutely packed with the veined purpled organs; cooked so long they’ve taken on the consistency of a Spaulding ball, and smelling like…
“Mom,” I’ll say, as gently as I can. “I don’t really like kidneys…”
“You love them!” she’ll chirp. “I used to make them all the time when you were little.”
Which is true. While my father could be counted on for pancakes Sunday mornings, my mother’s penchant was for eggs and kidneys, because she likes kidneys, and still does. Because she cannot, somehow, give herself permission to make a whole pan for just herself, and because no one else in her life can stomach them, she waits until I arrive, whereupon I dutifully eat about half a kidney, and wait for the cycle to continue on the next visit.
I did not think I could be the only one whose mother did this, and so queried a few friends about the phenomena.
“My mom is blameless,” said Hillary. “My grandmother was the one who insisted on making ‘Hillary’s favorite’ carrot and raisin salad every summer when I came to visit. I consider raisins to be the cockroaches of the culinary world to this day. And raw carrots are just wrong, like raw potatoes, in my book.”
“This one is a no-brainer: Grits,” wrote Lizzy. “Not beautiful golden, creamy polenta with heft and texture. No, I’m talking pale as wallpaper paste, and just as tasteless, processed Southern grits. From a Quaker Oats box that sat way back in the cupboard thankfully ignored until my parents got some deep nostalgic craving for them. Gag factor. Yet, year after year it was pure culinary amnesia for my parents, who would suddenly declare with genuine hunger and excitement when a hungry little girl asked them what she would have to eat for dinner, “Why, Elizabeth Anne, we’re having grits!”
“When I was a teenager and the only vegetarian in the house, my mom showed her support by going to a wholesale market and buying a case of the cheapest canned tuna, cat food quality,” said Jeanne. “Never mind that at that point, I didn’t even eat fish. She was so worried about my protein intake that she was certain: with a case of cat food at my disposal I’d be fine. I have no idea how I got rid of that tuna. Must have blocked that out. But bless her heart. She tried.”
Since then, Jeanne has become a mother herself, four times over, and is now showing signs, as all do, of becoming our mothers. Or, in Jeanne’s case, her father:
“In a family the size I grew up in (I’m the youngest of eight kids), custom-cooking to accommodate preferences was not happening,” she said. “Both my parents, but especially my dad were really fond of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. There was nothing you couldn’t do with it. Creamed tuna on toast was an oft-offered breakfast. Honestly, I love the stuff – total comfort food – though my husband can’t even be in the house when I make it.”
Do let me know in the comments what your folks wantonly, and of course lovingly, misfeed you. Until then, I¬íll let you decide whether it beats the kidneys.
Jeanne’s Dad’s Favorite Breakfast
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can tuna (preferably better grade than cat food)
1 cup frozen peas (never fresh)
Heat it on the stove and pour over buttered toast (white bread is best).