Maybe what my aging mother needs is to get back into the kitchen – the washington post

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(Alla Dreyvitser/The Washington Post)

There was a daily breakfast egg (three minutes) dumped into a small Pyrex cup and accompanied by an untoasted slice of diet white bread. There was brisket twice a year (Passover and Rosh Hashanah), utilitarian in style and flavor, rubbed with beige garlic powder, its braising liquid composed of an eight-ounce can of salt-free tomato sauce and a cup of tap water. There was a serviceable turkey (Thanksgiving) massaged


with lemon-yellow margarine, deposited in a black-and-white-speckled oval roasting pan and shoved into a slow oven, its door slammed shut with ennui, where it cooked for hours until its little plastic timer popped up and its flesh took on the consistency of warm balsa wood.

Over the years that my mother fed the child-me, those were the keepers on her domestic dance card; they were the dishes that she was expected to make for her family as a housewife in the 1960s and ’70s and that she prepared confidently and with all the enthusiasm of a bricklayer on a chain gang. There were others: a once-a-year lasagna dense with regret for its caloric bulk; “Chicken India,” a benign, limpid stew into which she stirred a teaspoon of mild curry powder; Weaver’s frozen honey-dipped fried chicken, which entailed turning on the toaster oven and waiting for the inevitable fire; and a massive vat of “chili” I volunteered her to make for 50 of my classmates during my Queens grade school’s 1974 Texas Day. She sent my father out to the grocery store to buy four industrial-size cans of Hormel Chili With Beans, heated them up in a gigantic soup pot, and went back to thumbing through Vogue.

[ Candy bars and white bread: My mother’s blood-sugar obsession]

“I was a good cook back then,” she tells me defensively, hands on her slender hips, “so don’t tell me I wasn’t. Just because I once dropped the lasagna? It happens.”

We’re standing in her narrow, silver-wallpapered Manhattan galley kitchen, peering into the refrigerator: In it is a pint of takeout chicken soup from a nearby deli, a few slices of white bread, a candy bar, three eggs and a pickle. Behind me is a spice rack holding a jar of parsley that has turned white since its purchase in 1981, and dried sage as flavorful as sawdust. I’ve recently made the shocking suggestion to my mother that if she, in her late 70s, is in good enough physical shape to spend an afternoon marching around Saks Fifth Avenue, she can certainly stand at the stove for a little while. And that it might be a good idea to cook a few basic things at the start of every week: poached salmon; a simple roast chicken, say; so that she doesn’t have to depend on takeout, which is not only breathtakingly expensive in New York but often loaded with the salt that she and her (normal) blood pressure don’t much need.

“I never said you weren’t a good cook,” I respond. “But I know you hated it.” I take the compassionate route. “That must have been hard for you.”

“I didn’t hate it,” she answers emphatically, her tone softening. “I just didn’t love it. It was like a job I didn’t want. And I’m not a fancy gourmet.”

I wince. I loathe the words “fancy gourmet” and their implication: that in order to feed yourself well, you have to be a so-called gastronome. To be anything else in our food culture, teeming with cooking competitions and gleaming cookware shops stacked to the ceiling with French copper, is unacceptable. As with many senior citizens, my mother’s inclination to cook for herself has dwindled over the years; unlike Judith Jones, Julia Child’s famed Knopf editor who extolled the virtues of cooking for herself well into her 80s, my mother says, “Why bother?” Especially if she has to be a so-called gourmet.

I unpack some shopping bags: There’s a whole salmon fillet that I’m going to show her how to poach and that she’ll have for a few days. There’s a massive head of broccoli I’ll cut up and toss with a few smashed garlic cloves, then steam and drizzle with olive oil. I explain the empirical importance of cooking for herself — simple meals, nothing elaborate or expensive — for as long as she can; she listens, shaking her head. I remind her that, although she didn’t like doing it, she had to cook for me when I was a child, to nourish me (fried chicken not withstanding) because she knew it was important to my health, and why should she treat herself with any less concern? I cite AARP articles and studies: 1.2 million households composed of seniors living alone have experienced food insecurity, and those who are able to cook basic, tasty meals for themselves not only remain in better control of their fixed incomes but stay healthier longer.

While I’m nattering on, she walks away, into the den, and turns on “Perry Mason.”

“Don’t you want to be able to keep walking around Saks?” I shout.

“I don’t plan to stop,” she shouts back.

I hear her talking on the phone; I make out the stage-whispered words “force” and “bully” and “fat.” Two minutes later, she’s back in the kitchen, looking over my shoulder, unsmiling. Whatever friend she called to complain to set her straight.

“Okay,” she says, eyeing the fish. “I’m watching.” She crosses her arms in front of her chest.

We pull out her ancient Teflon skillet, which is deep enough to use as a poacher; I blow a layer of dust off her steamer basket and the pot it nestles in, wash everything out, and fill it with water. I rifle through her utensil drawer, past her old-fashioned egg beater and a vegetable peeler that hasn’t been used in two decades; I come up with the Ginsu knife that her second husband bought one night in 1987 at 3 a. m. when the market tanked and he couldn’t sleep.

“Can I help?” she says sheepishly, watching me slip the fillet into the skillet and cover it with water and a few sprigs of dill.

I hand her the head of broccoli and the knife. She puts the knife back into the drawer and, using her hands, snaps off the florets in every possible size, deposits them into the steamer with two garlic cloves, slaps on the lid and turns on the flame, full blast; the stems — earthy and good and packed with nutrients — she throws out. I catch myself; I want to tell her how wonderful they are, and how much she’ll love them and that all they need is a quick peel. But I don’t. We’ve done enough for this visit.

This is the first dinner that my mother has prepared — even just part of it — in nearly 20 years; after we eat, she calls a friend, perhaps the same one.

“So delicious,” she says, and then, silence.

“Next week,” she adds. “She says she’s coming back, and we’ll try it again next week. A meatloaf.”

Altman is the author of “ Poor Man’s Feast” (Berkley Books, 2015) and the upcoming “Treyf” (Berkley Books, 2016). She writes the James Beard Award-winning blog PoorMansFeast. com.

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