Note: As I sat with my mother, waiting out the last days of her long life I was introduced to her daytime friends: Rachael, Giada, Melissa, Anne, Guy, Sandra, and Sunny. If you recognize their names it’s because you watch daytime cooking shows on the Food Network.
My mother passed away on March 15. I wrote this blog entry while watching her favorite Food Channel cooking shows with her. This entry is dedicated to the woman who was the best cook in the world.
My mother has always been a wonderful cook. Not a fancy cook, but the kind of cook who put together a hearty meal that was always delicious. Growing up, each of us kids had a favorite dish that Mom would always make on special occasions, and continued to make when we would come to visit. Mine was pot roast with those little baby carrots simmering in the juices. Somehow, when I cook pot roast, it never tastes the same as Mom’s.
Mom is 92. She stopped cooking years ago. Well, not entirely. Up to about a year ago she was still making the stuffing for our family Thanksgiving feasts. And six months ago she could still throw together a mean fruit salad. Her secret ingredient? Triple sec.
She was diagnosed five months ago with an aggressive form of lung cancer and congestive heart failure. As the disease has inserted itself into her life, her social life and her world have both shrunk. Too tired for visitors, she spends most of her day in her recliner either looking out the window to keep track of who is coming and going, sleeping...or watching tv. And in the afternoon she has taken to watching the Food Network.
Her favorite chef? Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. I think she likes Ina’s quiet approach to teaching us how to cook her favorite dishes, and she enjoys watching her prepare meals for and feed all those guys who own the local shops, plant her garden, do odd jobs for her, and of course for her loving hubby Jeffrey. And Ina seems to appreciate her own cooking more than the other celebrities do; she has a physique my mother can relate to.
Now Mom is dependent on my poor excuse for a cooking skill. Mostly we order from the dining room in her senior living complex. But sometimes I whip up some scrambled eggs with shrooms and cheese, cook a batch of Pillsbury chocolate chip cookies just to fill the apartment with good smells. Mom has never in my entire life criticized my cooking. I think it puzzles her that something that comes so naturally to her can be such a challenge for me. She thinks it's funny that my hubby is a better cook--and cooks more often--than me.
But the truth is, it doesn't matter how well I can or cannot cook because, due to the crazy way the cancer has grown, Mom cannot eat, except for a few spoonsful of creamy soup or a bite of egg or cheese now and again. A sad way for a good cook to have to spend her final days.
But even though she can no longer eat, we watch the daytime chefs create glorious dishes. From noon until dinner time we watch the Food Channel on her 42inch screen TV with the volume up loud. So it feels like we are right in the kitchen with Ina and her perky cohorts.
I'm learning a lot I didn't know about meal preparation from Mom’s “friends,” like how to cook bacon in the oven (thank you, Ina) and how to make a fruit tart (grazie, Giada!) or how to feed my family an entire meal for ten dollars (I’m still skeptical, Melissa; you have no idea how hearty our appetites are). By the grace of Anne Burrell, I now know how to shock arugula and other green vegetables so they keep their color.
But it's Rachael Ray who I identify with. Watching her juggle and balance cartons and veggies all that stuff from her fridge to carry to the cooking island is priceless. I've decided that if I just had a cooking island, I could cook like my mother. Of course she never had one. But that's another story.