The kitchen was my mother’s lair. Not because she loved cooking. Just the opposite. She hated it. She almost took pride when she announced to family and friends that she was the worst cook in the world, bashing all stereotypes of a New York Jewish mother.
The results of her cooking ranged from sufficient to inedible. There’s the time we all remember with crystal clarity, when she tried her hand at homemade spaghetti sauce. She slaved for hours, poring over the cookbook, measuring, adding ingredients slowly, stirring and simmering. This would be her crowning glory. We held the spoonfuls of sauce to our lips in anticipation. Wait…. What the…. We tried to eat it; we really did. In exasperation, Mom poured it over the dog’s food. The dog took one sniff and bolted for the living room.
The one thing she always got right was spaghetti. After the fiasco, she never tried homemade sauce again, and she didn’t even use Ragu. She gave us spaghetti with ketchup, a delicacy in 1940s Brooklyn when she grew up. We inhaled it, going back for seconds and thirds. To this day, when I’m feeling a little low, I cook up some spaghetti and drown it in ketchup.
The kitchen was hers because almost any time of day or night, you could find her sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, reading a book. Her signature posture was sitting holding her nose up. That’s not a euphemism. She literally sat with her index finger poised on the tip of her nose, pushing it up making a pig nose. It’s a habit she got into when she was 16 and got her nose “fixed.”
The TV was always on for background noise, as she pored through book after book. She completely tuned out the world around her and lost herself in stories about the playgrounds of the rich and famous, hiding their meager upbringings, written by her favorites, Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon. She would take a quick break to serve dinner to my sisters and me (Dad ate after work) and then return to her book. You can imagine the noise made by three teenage girls—the arguments, the gossip, the complaints about the food—but she’d keep reading. Her head would pop up only when we were laughing. She loved to laugh, joining in and laughing the loudest. When she really got going, the laugh changed to a call that sounded like woo hoo hoo, woo hoo hoo. That’s how we knew we really got her.
We’re all grown now. My sisters both taught themselves to cook very well. Me, I can make two things: baked ziti and meatloaf. It took until my 50s to master those. Mom doesn’t cook at all anymore. We’ve attempted to make meals for her and my dad, but they prefer the burnt hot dogs and steak with all the life cooked out of it of days gone by.
I’m nearing 60, with two grown children of my own. Mom’s voracious reading instilled a love of reading in me, and inspired my writing career. I laugh long and loud, much to the embarrassment of my children. But this afternoon, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading a book. I had to try it: I pressed my index finger to the tip of my nose. It wasn’t so bad sitting like that. You know what came next. I cooked up a batch of pasta and poured ketchup all over it.
I called my almost 90-year-old mom to say, “You know, it wasn’t all bad.” She laughed hysterically; I almost got the woo hoo out of her.
The passion for reading and writing was passed down another generation to my daughter. Spaghetti and ketchup, not so much. I have to admit it’s an acquired taste.
Dana Klosner-Wehner is a feature writer and essayist who lives in New York. Her work has been included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Crazy Family, on Next Avenue, and on Motherhood Later. She is currently working on an anthology about Beatles fans. She can be found at www.DanaKlosner.com.
1 lb. ziti
15 oz. ricotta cheese
1 lb. mozzarella, cut into small cubes
24 oz. jar Prego Traditional Sauce
1/4 c. grated Parmesan
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, and cook ziti according to package directions.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Mix pasta with ricotta, mozzarella cheese, and sauce.
Add Parmesan and mix again.
Spray a deep 8-inch square pan with cooking spray (do not use butter).
Spread mixture in pan, cover with aluminum foil, and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove foil and bake for another 15 minutes.