Morganna went dashing out this morning to pick me wildflowers for my Mother’s Day gift.
However, she regretted not being able to get them before I drafted her to help me cook breakfast: scrambled eggs with ham, cheese, herbs and chive blossoms, with toast. Zak, at breakfast, when Morganna voiced this regret, pointed out that the mere fact that she is with me for one of the first times on Mother’s Day itself was gift enough. To have her live with us, happy, healthy and safe is all I have ever asked for.
But, still, after clearing the breakfast dishes, she dashed outside and down the hill to pick a handful of wild woodland phlox, fleabane and dame’s rocket for me, all in shades of violet, pink and pale lavender. She dashed back up the hill (panting, for it is a very steep hill we live on) and proudly bestowed them on me, explaining that she knew I preferred wildflowers to ones from the store.
Which is true–to some people wildflowers might be plain or ordinary, but to me, their artless grace is more beautiful than any of the most grand of cultivated blossoms. (Not that I dislike cultivated flowers–I love them. I just happen to like wildflowers even better.)
I put them in a vase with some Stargazer lilies we had bought from the grocery store, where they looked truly lovely, and I started thinking.
When I was a little girl, I always wanted to cook something or bake something for Mom for Mother’s Day.
Something glorious, like the strawberry shortcake from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, which was one of the scant handful of cookbooks my mother owned.
She owned it, but rarely consulted it, and I can only remember her cooking a very few recipes from it. (Meatloaf and meatballs, and I think, maybe pineapple upside down cake.)
But I, on the other hand, grew up transfixed by the full-color photographs that illustrated the partitions that separated the various sections. I remember looking at the photographs of the cakes with fluffy mounds of icing with great longing, and dreaming of what the neat rows of cookies, all much fancier than any we made, would taste like. I remember reading the descriptions of how to carve standing rib roasts and turkeys at the table with intense fascination, for never did anyone I know, make a show of carving a roasted bit of animal or a whole fowl at the table. Meats were always cut up in the kitchen, and mounded on serving platters to be passed around easily at the table without ceremony or reverence.
The sections on table settings, with the flights of glasses and the many pieces of silverware also intrigued me, for our tables usually were only set with a fork and a knife, a napkin and a plate and a glass. Teaspoons made rare appearances on the table, unless we were having company, but even if they appeared, they were seldom used.
My favorite photograph was of the strawberry shortcake: a tower of cake layered with fresh strawberries and whipped cream piled in cloudlike puffs, sculpted into graceful loops and whorls. Behind the confectioner’s edifice stood a fresh-faced bouquet of daisies, and in the forground rested a strawberry blossom, looking sweet as a Tudor rose.
No one made shortcakes that looked like that. Not even Grandma, who, though she was a diabetic, was a skilled baker who had a genius for sweets. Hers were always made of small bits of spongecake or angel food cake, and the juice from the strawberries always stained the cakes red, while the whipped cream was just plopped on with a quick snap of her wrist. She never bothered to sculpt it or shape it, she just thwapped it from the spoon on top of the cakes, and that was that. When feeding a crowd of hungry farming folk strawberry shortcake, it must never have paid to worry about how pretty the food was, so long as there was plenty of it and it was delicious.
And it always was plentiful and utterly delectable.
I never did make a single recipe for my mother out of that book, for many reasons.
For one thing–I wasn’t allowed to cook much in her kitchen until I was much older. By that time, I had graduated to staring longingly at other cookbooks, like the ethnic cookbooks I checked out from the library and longed to cook from. My dreams were no longer filled with strawberry shortcake, but instead with dolmathes and moussaka, schnitzel and saurbraten, arrabiatta and pesto. I wanted to reach beyond the American standards of my youth, even if I had never tasted the ones of my dreams, and taste the glories of Europe. I was much more likely to experiment with the cuisines of other nations than look at the foods of my own home.
For another thing–the photographs tended to intimidate me. I always thought that I would never be able to make my food turn out looking so special, so rather than mess up the recipe by having it turn out ugly, I just would not try.
And finally–my mother preferred flowers to food, so every year, I would give her another potted crysanthemum, and every year, she would plant it along the foundation of our house, until I went off to college. That fall, the entire back wall of our house was ablaze in blossoms both shaggy and unkempt or dainty and daisy-like in shades of violet, lavender, white, pink, yellow, bronze and burgundy.
In short, Mom had about a dozen huge crysanthemum plants in every color the things came in, and they made her happy. Every year, I asked what she wanted, and she’d say, “Oh, another crysanthemum.”
“But why?” I would ask. “They are so plain.”
“But I like them, and they make me happy,” she would insist, so that is how she got her collection of them, which grew into an unruly hedge by the time Mom and Dad moved away from that house.
I hadn’t thought about that cookbook and my dreams for years, until this year, when I told Mom we would be visiting. She asked me what she could cook for my dinner, and instead of insisting that I cook for her, I asked that she make a pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans–a favorite meal from childhood.
“Why do you want something so plain?” she asked.
“Because I like it, and it makes me happy,” I answered.
The irony was likely lost on her, but struck me, and left me with a wry smile.
I had planned to make a strawberry shortcake for her, just as pretty as the one in the picture, but I was stymied by nature–no local berries are ripe yet.
So, I guess I will have to wait and surprise her with a fancy strawberry shortcake in a couple of weeks.
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