It is late, at least 10 P.M., and even though it is a school night and I am little—eight or maybe nine—I am allowed to stay up to be with my father.
He and I sit across from each other at the porcelain-topped table in my mother’s kitchen. He reads the paper through brown, square glasses and sips milky coffee from a mug. I am not allowed to have coffee, but I can savor its perfume mingled with the salty sweet blend of the gravy my mother is making. She stands at the stove, stirring.
Daddy works the swing shift at a local distillery. That means a couple of times a week he sleeps fitfully through the day, going to work just before midnight. Because I have not seen him all day, I get to stay up past my bedtime to visit. Because my mother doesn’t let anyone sit at her table who’s not being fed, I am allowed to share his late night breakfast.
My mother stops her long stirring and steps a little to the right, where a toaster sits on a tiny table wedged between the stove and window. The bread is already in the slots, and she pushes the lever, its click signaling that we are almost ready. Daddy puts down his paper. My mother refills his coffee cup, and, only in this moment, pours cold milk into my glass because if she’d poured it sooner it could have gotten “warm.”
The toast pops and she puts a piece on each plate, spoons from the skillet a substance pale brown and creamy, riddled with delicate strips of red. We cut with the edges of our forks, my father and I, lift the savory morsels, and smile to each other across the table, then at my mother who stands still, leaning against the warmth of the stove, sipping coffee. She smiles back. Perhaps it is simply this, this moment’s connection, which makes that bite of chipped beef and gravy one of the most delectable flavors of my life.
I’m often asked if I learned to cook from my mother. I always answer, “yes,” even though I know what they likely envision is far from the truth: a patient woman standing at a counter with tools and ingredients laid out before her in an orderly manner; an attentive child at the woman’s elbow as she measures, chops and pours; the woman explaining each step and the reasons for it. This is not how it was.
My mother was an instinctive cook. Words and directions did not hold much for her. She was a keen observer. She learned to cook from watching her aunts; her grandmother, Maw; her own mother. She loved recipes. Clipped them from the newspaper, kept them crammed in cookbooks and stuffed in bowls around the kitchen. She read them like fiction, intrigued by the possibilities they suggested, but hardly foolish enough to take them as literal instructions for real life.
She cooked from the same repertoire she had been raised on, adding to it as suggested by both the changing times and available ingredients. She always wanted to play boogie-woogie piano, would move her hands and nod her head in time whenever she heard the music, but she never had an instrument to test her chops. Instead, she was that cool New Orleans piano player in the kitchen, a natural. She played a gig a day, sometimes three sets, riffing through her songs with a deceptive ease. She delivered old standards with a daily grace that gave these recipes a subtlety and savor that was totally lacking when they were reduced to their elements and rearranged as words on a page.
I know because that is what I eventually did: deconstruct her recipes and then try to recreate the process. It was not an impossible task, but nearly. Some recipes took years to deduce; they would not yield their secrets to direct questions, would not be translated into the strict denotations that editors require. I learned that my mother did not know recipes; she inhabited them.
The Harvard psychologist E. G. Boring, when asked if tests actually do measure intelligence, quipped, “Intelligence is what tests test.” Or, as Gertrude Stein might have put it to Alice B. Toklas, “Recipe is a recipe is a recipe.” We prize them because we have them. We can hold them in our hands, pass them from cousin to stranger, call them up on the computer, watch them step by step on the television, sell them in the marketplace. We tell ourselves that great recipes are the secret to great cooking because we want a lasting object to impossibly hold the ineffable and sensory.
I, for one, love recipes. I make my living by them, and they are, in fact, how I learned to cook. My mother encouraged me to use them, particularly when it came to preparing something she didn’t feel confident about: candies and cakes, or dishes I’d enjoyed in restaurants or friends’ homes. When I moved away from home and started to riff through vegetarian, Asian, Indian, and Southwestern food, she celebrated. She ate every bite I made when I visited home, and she’d insist I write down the recipes for her (which she’d later insist she could not make as well as I did). I felt the same way about my own attempts to cook the dishes that were “hers.”
There’s an urban legend I’ve heard countless times and believe almost never: an admired cook or baker (yes, almost always a celebrated woman home cook in the telling), when she passes a recipe along to friends, willfully leaves out one ingredient. Here’s what I believe: I suspect it’s not an ingredient she omits, but more likely a matter of timing or technique. Why? Because I think, rather than willful subterfuge, the omission occurs simply because the cook doesn’t think about it, can’t think about it, without losing her stroke.
Pitching coaches recognize the danger of an athlete who begins to think too consciously about an action, which, in the case of a true star, is ultimately an instinctive skill as much as it is learned. You can improve a good baseball pitcher if you give him the right directions, but you can destroy a great one if you make him think about it too hard.
My mother made a great bowl of chili when I was a little girl—not the sort of concoction we rate now by the intensity of its fire-power, but an elegant balance of meat and beans, savory with an undercurrent of heat. Then we moved next door to Jean, who made an equally delicious, different version—tomato red and served over spaghetti (which my mother abjured). My mother wanted to learn how to make Jean’s chili (without the noodles). She got the recipe and tried, and failed, several times. The chili was tasty, but not so tasty as Jean’s, and not nearly so good as Mother’s own. So she returned to her version, but she’d lost her flow. She tried to reconstruct ingredients and timing, but the logic of Jean’s recipe had suggested to Mother that what she knew was, in fact, wrong. She’d second-guessed herself. Her chili was still good, but a shade of what it had been before. Eventually, she stopped making it.
That day comes for all of us. In her age, my mother stopped cooking altogether and her “recipes” became mine. I translated many of them into text, interviewing her the same way I had interviewed other country cooks who knew how to create brilliance without a thought about products or tools.
(“Do you mean a cup like an actual measuring cup?”
“Lord, no, honey, I didn’t have a measuring cup in my kitchen! I used an old teacup with the handle broke off.”
“Do you mean a teacup like one made of china or more like a coffee cup you’d find in a diner?”
“Well, I guess that would make a difference now, wouldn’t it, because one might hold more than the other? It was a teacup from Aunt Rox’s china. Did I ever tell you about Aunt Rox?”)
In the process I learned more than her recipes’ specifics.
Regarding my mother’s chipped beef and gravy, I tried other versions. In cafeterias, it was thick, gelatinous, and had only one flavor: the salty sting of that beef. In my own kitchen, I worked from cookbooks to make the cream sauce I assumed was lacking from the others. I was wrong.
Then I asked Mother to talk me through it.
“Well, you make your gravy . . .” she began.
I stopped her. “Tell me that?”
She shot me the look that says any fool knows how to make gravy. “Okay,” she said. “Melt a couple of spoons of bacon grease in a skillet. . . .”
Bacon grease! Of course! My husband, who had disdained my chipped beef before, found it delectable (and perfectly paired with the fried apples my mother knew to serve with it). But I wasn’t satisfied. Even its color is paler than my mother’s, I thought.
“Your mother’s chipped beef was almost black from pepper,” my Aunt Lib says at my mother’s funeral. “I would try to make it for Jack (her husband, my mother’s brother). I’d just pour on the pepper until it looked like hers, but he wouldn’t even touch it. Said nobody could make it like ‘Sis.’”
Months later, I stand at the stove in my kitchen remembering the taste of my mother’s dish, and in that moment I know that Lib was wrong, that black pepper was not the secret.
Atlanta chef and culinary teacher Tim Patridge says there is a difference between reunion and funeral chicken. Reunion chicken, he explains, is fried fast and hot, in a hurry to get to the park and the party. It has a crust that is consequently crisper than the more tender crust of funeral chicken. Funeral chicken is fried slowly. Reluctant for the day to progress, the cook takes her time, turning the burner lower, braising as well as frying. As she stands at the stove, turning the pieces, raising and lowering the heat, she is lost in the act of remembering the person who has gone before. That memory, Tim suggests, may also flavor funeral chicken.
The very glass in which the dried beef is packaged sparks memory as I pry the lid with an opener, then lift it, brushing my fingers against the tiny stars stamped around the top edge. Feeling the embossed stars reminds me of the taste orange juice has when sipped from such a glass, and soon I am back in that steamy, safe night kitchen with my parents again. I see my father smile, smell the tang of bacon grease in the skillet and hear the slow, steady stirring of my mother’s spoon in the skillet. It’s then that it dawns on me: she isn’t making a simple “gravy,” but a roux, even though she wouldn’t know from that word. It requires one part time, two parts patience, a slow heat working its alchemy on the ingredients, a steady rhythm of her metal spoon, up and down, back and forth across the skillet. This is what I’ve lacked.
I turn the heat as low as it will go this time and proceed slowly as my mother did, staring patiently ahead at nothing. I wait for the rhythm in my arm, the recollection of the sound and its duration, to tell me that it’s time to put the toast in.