David is an adept cook, if very much an old-fashioned one. What he knows about cooking he learned during a stint as a volunteer in a halfway house for runaways where he assisted the house cook, Marten, another volunteer who was a chef at a London hotel. On his own he can be happy with buttered bread and sweet milky tea, but when he cooks for friends, which he does more often than anyone else I know, he’ll do hearty traditional Sunday-dinner fare, the kind of food people in the city don’t make much anymore, like Irish stew, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, bean and ham-hock soup, the comfort food Marten taught him how to prepare and his mother never made.
“I’m making up for lost time,” he once explained. “I never had a friend over for dinner when I was a kid. My mother couldn’t cook and I was just too embarrassed to invite anyone over.”
I found this something of a shock. It’s not that I think that women are supposed to cook, but most mothers do, and even more did so back then when David and I were growing up.
“So who cooked for you all?” I asked. I knew his mother was a doctor at a hospital in the south of England who had raised David and his four brothers and sisters more or less on her own.
“Mary—you met her, right, my eldest sister?—for as long as I remember she was the one who cooked, and then when my brother Patrick got old enough to cook, he’d help, too. I don’t know who cooked before Mary. Maybe my Dad when he was around.”
“And your mother never—”
“—oh, she cooked now and then, when Mary had something at school or on Sundays if she was off work. Or the rare times when her maternal instincts were roused, the few she had.” He said the last without a trace of irony or resentment, as if he were describing a fit of sneezing that contorts the face into something unrecognizable, only to release it moments later to its customary mien. “Then she’d make what was some ordinary dish, like bangers and mash, but so badly that it didn’t resemble real food. And of course we’d eat it because we didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
I was having a hard time with this image of a mother who couldn’t cook. Not only a woman who wouldn’t cook, because she had money to pay a woman to do it for her or, as in David’s mother’s case, could conscript her older daughter to take the role. But one who couldn’t. Girls usually spend more time than boys in the kitchen, I thought. Don’t they wind up somehow picking up the basics?
“It couldn’t have been all bad,” I joked.
“Actually it was,” David said. “She thought if you threw stuff together in a pot and applied heat you’d get food. The details never mattered to her. There were also flaps of potato skins in the mash. She wouldn’t bother to skim the stew or check the seasonings or wait until the beans or meat was cooked tender. Truth is, she didn’t notice what was happening to her food.
I thought that was strange for a doctor whose work depends on careful observation. I told David so.
“I don’t know. She always seemed to be in a rush to get it all over with it.”
That, on the other hand, did sound like a doctor behavior to me, but I didn’t say anything to David. Despite her culinary inadequacies, which I began to see was simply one more indication of her lack of engagement with her children, and notwithstanding her oft-voiced disapproval of what she called his choice, by which she meant his sexuality, he loved his mother in that abstract and dutiful way that children love difficult and distant parents.
“Her macaroni and cheese was the worst,” David continued. I thought I heard a hint of nostalgia in his soft, clear voice, the way it warmed as he talked. “She insisted on using onions in the casserole but she never let them cook long enough to soften, so you’d wind up biting into these small cubes of crunchy onion amid all the gooey cheddar and soft macaroni. I still can’t eat pasta if it has a cheese sauce—I’m always afraid it’ll taste like raw onion.”
I could almost see David sitting bravely at the table, eating up the bad meals his mother made, not making the slightest grimace or protest. It wasn’t hard to imagine him as a child—I just pictured a smaller version of the gentle sprite of a man that he now is. Like a beagle that never quite outgrows the face of the puppy it once was, he doesn’t seem to have aged much in the many years I’ve known him.
“Couldn’t she taste the difference? I mean, didn’t she know how bad she cooked?” I asked.
“Oh, for her food wasn’t something to be enjoyed. It was just a source of energy, something to fuel her body so that she could go on saving lives.” He smiled and leaned back on his chair, running his hand through his shock of reddish hair as if to signal that this subject of conversation was nearing its close. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up with a super-hero for a mother.”
“You can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up with a mother who cooks like a super-hero,” I said.
I grew up in a family where food was supremely important. It was much more than a means of nourishment. It was a commodity laden with symbolic value that could be leveraged or withheld to cajole, bribe, reward, and at times, admittedly rarely and, oddly enough, usually in the form of a meal of ketchup-less meatloaf and canned peas and carrots, to punish. And it was my mother who wielded this power.
“Kitchen’s closed,” she’d say in the evening as she finished wiping down the last countertop and turned off the light, an announcement that the show was over and the hall was to be emptied, a message that we were not to feed ourselves.
My mother was a competent but not an excellent cook. As a child, of course, I thought she was the best cook in the world, except perhaps for my grandmothers and then not all the time. Like millions of other housewives she had a limited repertory of dishes that she cooked well and almost always in the same way, which suited my brothers and me fine. Kids like routine and nowhere more so than in what they eat.
Cookies were my mother’s forte. In the weeks before Christmas she baked with a vengeance, filling platters and platters of them: rolled and cut, dropped by the spoon, sliced from a log or pressed from a gun. Butter cookies in the shape of Christmas trees sprinkled with green-colored sugar, lacey molasses cookies, frosted gingerbread snowmen, crescent-shaped almond cookies. But she made her chocolate chip cookies all year round, storing them in a big yellow porcelain cookie jar in the shape of a fat monk.
Sometimes my father would skip dinner if there was something, like fish, that he just couldn’t eat and wait until much later on in the evening, when he’d sit down alone in the kitchen with a glass of milk and a plate of cookies. I remember thinking, in that hubris of adolescence which makes it so easy to condemn others, and as the rift of misunderstanding between us continued to widen until, like a tribe cleft by the erection of an invader’s border, we could barely understand each other’s speech—I remember thinking this is no meal for a real man. But that was a time when I was looking to be disappointed.
Now I think these late-night private meals were a way for him to retreat into some quiet, very private space, far from my mother. She could be unkind to him, scornful at times, deprecating. For a boy of twelve, this was disturbing to see. A wife loves her husband, you think, that’s what happens in good families. I was ashamed, much as I would have been if she hadn’t been cooking our meals.
I have two kinds of family Christmas in memory. There are the early Christmases, recollections of my father setting out the tracks for the electric trains and a kitchen counter laded with thumbprint cookies with their shiny glaze of jam, reindeer stenciled in spray-on snow on the windowpanes and a big ruddy-faced illuminated mask of Santa on the wall, everything awash in this warm enveloping feeling of all-is-well-with-the-world. And then there are the other Christmases, the ones as off kilter as David’s Sunday dinners, the ones after I began to discern my mother’s bitterness and witness my father’s retreat, his curling up and becoming inconspicuous, as if willing himself into invisibility, his defiance a midnight meal of cookies and milk in a spotless, dimly lit kitchen.
Neither set of images now seems more real or unreal than the other. They’re just there, shards of recollection amid an expanse of unclear sentiment, like islets of chipped, faded paint in an old chapel fresco. My brother has some of the same pieces, but he also has some I’ve lost or never had. His recollections reveal a decent, hard-working man who never spoke ill of anyone. He reminds me how fiercely devoted our father was to all of us, including the person who least deserved his loyalty. He tells me that we take after him. It’s something he left us, he says. Our sense of commitment and duty, our perseverance. It’s what we do. We keep trying. We stick things out. I tell him that’s not always a good thing, but I know what he means. Not all these pieces fit together but I suppose that doesn’t really matter. Together they make for yet another kind of Christmas tale, and in their mix of failing and virtue, perhaps a more authentic one.
The duivekater in the title of the still life above (the painting is attributed to Hans Francken, 1581-1624) is the festive bread depicted in the upper left of the painting. In the bread were set brightly painted clay discs—you can see a knight and a bird in this one—called patacons and elongated ones of a bundled up baby (a reference to Jesus) called busselkindjes. These were passed down from generation to generation, much as hand-crafted tree ornaments and manger figures are in ours. Over time the discs might chip, but they were no less treasured for the wear. (There’s a high-resolution image on the site of the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.)