Magnalite, Magic, and Mother’s Recipes

Today is Mother’s birthday. As I reflect on the wonderful presence she is in my life, I find myself reminiscing. 30 years of memories with her make me so grateful to have her as my mother, my best friend, my confidant and sounding board. She is the sound of reason, the voice in my head, the one I turn to for advice and comfort, my number one fan, and the absolute best example of unconditional love. I know there will always be nothing but love from her. She is quick to respond with positivity and support, ideas and creativity, and her own personal brand of vivacity. In 60 years, when she’s 112 and I’m 90, I’ll probably have to say goodbye to her, but even then it won’t have been enough time with her. She’s incredible and amazing, and I can’t imagine my life without her. She’s the woman who came to organize my apartment because I didn’t have a chance to do it before the baby was born. She the woman who, when I asked to borrow her giant pot to make some dishes for my family, responded with, “Absolutely!” I see so much of her in me. And I’m sure as my own daughter grows I’ll hear her words coming from my mouth more and more. After all, my whole life has been filled with her.

There’s something about cooking that takes me back to the past. Back to days in the kitchen with Mother. With Granny. Back to my childhood. Chicken and dumplins–the rolled out kind, not the dropped ones, pinto beans, rice, corn bread, banana bread, chicken breast… I made those a few days ago. All of it. All at once. Cooking isn’t a challenge if you only have one pot on the stove and nothing in the oven. Heaven knows I like a challenge. My bonus daughter asked me how I learned to cook. The thing is, I don’t really know. I just watched. Cast iron skillets, Magnalite pots, corningware dishes, pie plates, and cookie sheets. There was magic in the kitchen when I was little. I watched Granny cook endlessly for the first 11 years of my life. I remember sitting on the yellow formica countertops stirring the roux so it would get nice and brown without burning. I remember finding recipes and measuring ingredients to make pies and cookies to feed the people who seemed to always be at Granny’s house. I remember the dumplin pot full of goodness and watching the women of my family make the recipe that was never written. Casseroles and soups and things we made up as we went, those were the magic of that kitchen. I learned to love to cook there, though the practical application and technical skill came later. Training to be a restaurant manager will teach you things about being in the kitchen that you never thought you’d need to know. I know how to do things that no single person ever needs to tackle in their own home, but learning it was useful. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is just as powerful, after all.

My husband is working overnights right now, but he has weekends off, so I’m thankful for the consistent schedule. I’ve been able to prepare meals in advance for him because of his steady hours, so cooking a week’s worth of meat and putting it in separated Tupperware means one less obstacle for his day. This is the easiest part of my time in the kitchen. I’m so thankful for the genius who came up with those pre-cut foil sheets. One per chicken breast, seasoned individually so he’s not eating the same flavors every day, then into our awesome mini-oven below the microwave (originally intended mostly for pizza, I think, but we use it CONSTANTLY). 425 degrees for 45 minutes for thawed and 90 minutes for frozen, then out comes an easy entrée for my hard-working honey to eat on the job.

We have my bonus daughter here for the month. Well, she got here on June 23rd and she goes back to her biological mother on July 23rd, but this is her “month” with us. This is the first time she’s been able to spend the full four weeks with her father and me. There were always scheduling conflicts in the past. It’s been wonderful and interesting having her here. I’m able to see the young woman she’s becoming, and I’m able to influence her in those aspects I find important to being a mature, well-behaved lady that she may not be exposed to elsewhere. Things like not eating in bed, picking up trash, cleaning up after yourself, brushing your hair more than once a day, brushing your teeth and showering regularly, making smart food choices, not needing a dessert after every meal, being responsible for cleaning up your living space, and being observant and considerate are all lessons of the summer in a roundabout way. She loves her baby sister, though she gets bored with her lack of mobility, I think, but she is always willing to help. At 11, she’s showing those signs of teenage “attitude” that I see at school, and her fashion choices are very much on the dress-down side, and so I see a lot of myself in her, despite the lack of biological connection. I actually feel the need to apologize to my mother on a regular basis for my own fashion choices and hormonal attitude at that point in my life. It’s completely different and I understand her so much better looking at it from this side.

She’s the reason I’ve been pre-packaging fruits and veggies, making more chicken and dumplins than I’ve ever made before, and cooking big meals with leftovers. She hasn’t quite learned the kitchen and can’t really cook more than Ramen, and even that’s with supervision, so she makes sandwiches and heats things in the microwave. With the new baby demanding time and energy, I welcome her autonomy when possible. She genuinely seems to like what I cook, especially dumplins. Except for the beans. She said, “I’m not really a fan of beans in general, but if I were, I would like these.” That’s the most back-handed compliment she’s ever given, I think. And I’m pretty sure she was just being nice. You can’t please everyone, I suppose. This is the same child who likes Brussels sprouts and claims to not like cheese.

I find my role as both mother and bonus mom significantly colored by the experiences I had with my own mother. I see what she went through in my own life, and I thank the Lord above I have her to observe, that I grew up watching her deal with life and all of its challenges, especially the ones that come from having children that you’re trying to shape into the best adults possible.

I like to cook. I make things up as I go along even more now than I did before. Mother does that. I learned how to make dumplins and pinto beans from her. A little of this, a little of that, season it until it tastes right, though my palm is my measuring cup. Mother learned it from her mother, who learned it from her mother, as far as I know. Those are Mother’s recipes. Nothing is written down with any sense of certainty. Just approximations and estimations, eyeballing amounts in your hand before dusting them into the pot and knowing it just fits, smelling things and picking out the flavors you want, mixing and matching tastes and ideas and feeling that certain something in your gut that makes you add an unorthodox ingredient that makes a dish perfect. Like sugar with sour cream, or peanut butter with honey or bananas, or tomato and mayo on a sandwich. All of those are things my husband just doesn’t get. I follow recipes, too, but I’m not afraid to add a little something here and there to make it my own. I run into the problem all of the cooks in my family deal with, though. Once it’s made, we have NO idea what went in it! I got my own set of wonderful Magnalite pots and pans for Christmas last year, and I’ve had cast iron for ages now. I love them. Magnalite pots and cast iron skillets are the cornerstones of my kitchen. If the kitchen is magic, I come from a long line of witches. The foundations of my happiness in the kitchen are firmly ensconced in Magnalite, magic, and Mother’s recipes.

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