Authors: Elizabeth Benedict
My mother spent months looking for the right wok for me. It had to be lightweight, because of my carpal tunnel syndrome, and it had to be well made, because my mother was a connoisseur of kitchen toolsânot to mention a world-class cook. I don't know if the fact that she was so sick made her search take longer; the wok was the last birthday present she gave me before she died in 2008, after eighteen years with cancer.
e care she took in finding it is one of the reasons it's so special to meâone of many reasons.
I use it often to make quick meals for my husband and daughtersâwith the emphasis on
Having had more-than-full-time jobs all my working life, time for leisurely cooking has always been in short supply. My husband uses the wok, too, but we both consider it mine, considering the source. We know that my mother wanted me to have a wok because she knew it would help me feed my family on my terms, which are so different from the way she fed
familyâmy father and four kids
on nearly every holiday, the dozens of relatives whom she welcomed into our house in suburban Detroit.
We were then an extended network of immigrants from Bolivia, who had begun coming to the United States in the 1950s. My mother's extraordinary hospitalityâilluminated by her cooking and her elegant presentationâhelped transform us from a band of outsiders to Americans with roots here, and deep connections to one another.
ere was always room for one more, one more son sent from Bolivia to finish growing up, one more cousin, one more new husband or wife. Sometimes there were forty people at
ere were tables everywhere for those who didn't fit in the dining room, each with a floral or ceramic centerpiece, each one attempting to be an elegant miniature of the “grown-up” table, a mahogany replica of my father's parents' table, sent in crates from Bolivia.
On ordinary days, my mother began cooking at 3:30âand dinner was ready every day at 5:35, exactly five minutes after my father came through the door whistling, home from his job as an engineer at Ford Motor Company.
e food was on the table, and there were formal rules, including napkins on laps, elbows off the table. Yes, there were rulesâbut what all of us remember, what all of us learned, was the art of conversation. We talked about politics, science, music, and literature. We talked about homework, class work, and we shared math problems. For years the talk was way over my head, as the youngest, but once I caught up, I wasn't afraid to enter the fray.
e night one of my brothers brought a logic question to the table and I figured it out, I felt very smart and grown-up.
Far from just feeding us and decorating the table, my mother was an avid participant in the conversations. She was a voracious reader, especially of history and archaeologyâpassions which she and my younger daughter shared from early on. My mother was so intellectually engaged, my siblings kept encouraging her to go to college, but she was busy and intimidated by not being able to write well in English. She spoke beautifully and had a great vocabulary, but never felt comfortable putting pen to paper in her adopted language; I have only one letter she ever sent me in English. When her children went to college, in our enthusiasm for the bright new world we were entering, we wanted the same for her and felt disappointed that she didn't want to pursue the education we felt she deserved, but my mother seems to have made peace with it. I don't think she felt sad for herself in the same ways that we felt sad for her.
As a young woman in Bolivia, she had looked like Ingrid Bergman, and had had many suitors. She chose my fatherânot the most glamorous of themâbecause he gave her serious books to read and liked to talk to her.
ey married in 1950, when she was twenty, and journeyed north for an unglamorous honeymoon in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so my father could complete a single course credit for the engineering degree at the University of Michigan, which he attended during World War II. (His father had taken a master's in engineering at Michigan in the 1920s, and raised his family in Bolivia to sing the U. of M. fight song, and to admire his photograph of the football stadium.)
My parents planned to stay in the United States for a year, but when they were about to return to Bolivia, their families told them to wait: there were no jobs; the political situation was bad. In 1952, there was a revolution. By 1957, my three siblings had been born, my father had a good job, and they owned a house.
ey still planned to go home, but when they talked about it soon after I was born in 1962, they realized that they had become Americans.
ere was no turning back.
By then, my mother had become quite an accomplished cookâand would eventually become a successful saleswoman. She hadn't known much about the kitchen when she married, but as a newlywed and young mother, she read cookbooks and magazines, listened to radio cooking shows, and learned by trial and error. Oysters Rockefeller, Julia Child's duck
the Bolivian dishes she'd grown up withâthere was very little she couldn't do. Before she started to work, she minded us, and took classes in cake decorating and hat making to stave off boredomâthat was how she explained those courses to me.
A few years after I was born, she took a bold step out of the house and began a career that would change my parents' circumstances considerably. She sold cosmetics for a company that rivaled Avon. She arranged for women to hold sales parties in their houses. And she was incredibly successfulâas competent in that world as she was in the kitchen. So competent that in the 1970s, she was selling five thousand dollars a month of makeupâenough to qualify for a company car, which became our family's second car. It allowed my parents to send two siblings to private colleges (my sister and I followed our father, uncles, and grandfather to U. of M.), and allowed my parents to travel the world. My mother loved her independence, and loved being able to make a contribution to the family. In addition to working intensively, making makeup deliveries on the way back from my music lessons, and leaving for makeup parties after dinner, she still had dinner for six on the table every day at 5:35, and she still entertained legions of relatives for nearly
every holidayâincluding birthdays and anniversaries.
ALL OF THIS
and more comes back to me in those early mornings when I find myself doing laundry for my family before I go to work: my mother's phenomenal cooking, her success in business, memories of her scrubbing the kitchen floor late at night. I used to wonder why she waited until so late. Now I
have to wonder. “
at's what she was doing,” I say aloud, as though it's fresh news every time. She was doing it all.
I know I have had advantages my mother never hadâones she never dreamed ofâamong them an education, a series of “important” jobs that keep me working more than full-time, and a husband who cooks, cleans, and has always taken regular care of our children, taking them to the doctors, music lessons, and play dates. My mother, a paragon of generosity, was always happy for me, proud of my work, proud of the success I've had. She never said what part of me always feared she would say: “Why don't you spend more time tending your family, your kitchen, your garden, your house the way I did?” Instead she overlooked the relative chaos of my household and said, “I admire how you manage to do your work and still be a good mother.” And I think she meant it.
But one thing I've had to live with that has been both an advantage and, at times, a burden, is her example as a homemaker. She has been both an inspiration and a hard act to follow. Her model showed me how to be “the perfect wife and mother,” or perhaps I mean, “the perfect wife and mother for her generation.” My sister and Iâlike most women our ageâhave had to invent new ways of being wives and mothers, only to find that the new ways have a great deal in common with the old ways.
Because of my mother's magnificent example, putting
food on the table has never been the only goal of the evening meal: it's where we connect, where we teach our children to converse, where we settle at the end of the day to remind ourselves that we are a family, and that this connection matters. We're together until we scatter soon after for nightly tasks: homework, housework, reading, and bedtime.
a hard act to follow as a homemaker, but the gift of the wok is one of many gifts from her that have made my life as rich as it is.
is simple pan, unconnected to our family's origins, usually sits in our cupboard and allows me to stir-fry vegetables, tofu, and savory spices in delicious, healthy combinationsâand do it quickly, in a matter of minutes
so I can juggle the two most important pieces of my life, my family and my career, just a little more easily. My mother knew that the wok would help me do that. But she could never have known that I would treasure the wok as I do, because it reminds me of her thoughtfulness, and because it opens the door to so many memoriesâso many lessons in creating and sustaining the connections that matter most.
ey Do It in France
When I moved into my first apartment twenty-some odd years ago, my mother, an inspired, marvelous cook, gave me one of her cake pans. It was round, its once-nonstick bottom crosshatched with silver scratches. It wasn't pretty. I'd have thrown it out, if I hadn't needed it.
When I look at the pan, I can imagine my motherâperhaps with a bit of paint in her hair from a new still life she'd been working on, or breathless from picking up me and my sister from a gymnastics classâdelicately attempting to remove a sponge cake from the pan, and failing to do so with the sort of grace and ease she desired, scraping the bottom of the pan.
For my motherâdespite the fact that she cooked all the time, for us and regularly for dinner guests, entertaining them with exotic dishes like Mongolian hot pot and cassoulet; despite the fact that she was co-owner of a boutique catering business that specialized in high-end hors d'oeuvres and fancy foodsâmy mother is not a fabulous baker.
Growing up I assumed that every coconut cake leaned forward like a stout opera singer mid-aria, that every chocolate layer cake was propped up or held together with a series of girderlike toothpicks. It never occurred to me that the ring of pachysandra around the Black Forest cake disguised the fact that there was a hole in the side. I didn't realize that you didn't routinely cut the bottom off a cake. Wasn't that just part of the process? I believed there were cookies that were meant to be overbaked, because they were best that way with tea, and others underbaked because they were fun to mold with your hands.
It wasn't until I got a little older, when I started going to other kids' houses, that I discovered the truth. My friends' mothers' cakes weren't constructed with a vast system of beams and joists.
ere were no tunnels in the center of their birthday cakes, no burnt aftertaste, no masses of ivy and roses, literally, bringing up the rear. And, I felt a little jealous. A little embarrassed.
When I asked my mother why we couldn't just
a cake, like normal people, she'd looked confused, shocked, as though buying a cake not only reflected a lack of imagination, but a lack of care. It was so impersonal.
When I got my own apartment and started cooking and baking, it became clear that I'd inherited my mother's recessive Betty Crocker gene. Even so, when I threw a birthday party for a dear friend, I felt I had to bake him a cake. It had burned, and not only that, the collateral damage from my attempts to remove it from the pan was pretty horrific. I didn't have time to run out and purchase a cake.
“It's not a problem,” my mother said when I called her in tears. “Just cut off the bottom.”
“I can't do that.”
“Yes you can. You just tell your guests, â
at's how they do it in France.' ”
My mother laughed, as though she'd said this a million times.
“No,” I said, “I'll just tell him the truth. I'll apologize profusely and . . .”
“No, you will not,” she said firmly. “Just cut off the bottom and use a lot of frosting, do you have pecans? Cover it in nuts, or confectioners' sugar. Put it on a pretty plate, do you have any flowers? It's all in the presentation.”
I could do that. I
inherited a beautiful Victorian glass cake stand from my grandmother, and some bone china dishes painted with violets. I did have some baby's breath from the five-dollar bouquet of flowers I'd picked up at the corner market.
en simply pick up your chin, smile, and serve it with pride. Just say, â
is is how they do it in France.' ”
I thought about it. Didn't people rave about my mother's cooking, even her desserts, praising her creativity? I recalled a fallen angel food cake, less than heavenly on the plate, covered in pureed frozen raspberries and served in the antique glass compotes from my grandmother. It was one of my favorite desserts.
I'D ALWAYS SWORN
that when I became a mother, I would buy cakes for my childrenâhow I had longed for a store-bought cake with lifelike roses and
written in elegant cursive, versus herky-jerky capitals. A cake with smooth-as-glass icing, delicately accented with silver balls and lifelike pink roses. Not a cake cratered as the moon, encrusted with rainbow jimmies. And as I attended a parade of fancy parties, more like wedding showers than birthday partiesâthe guest of honor's likeness airbrushed onto a triple-decker cakeâit became clear that I was not up to the task. My baking would only bring shame on my family. However, when the time was upon meâwhen I needed a birthday cake to honor my childâI wavered.
Instead, my son and daughter would, and always will, get the cakes they ask for. A pink caterpillar, its unsightly lumps and bumps disguised with “spines and bristles” (toothpicks topped with baby marshmallows), and long candles. A scooter, which, thanks to my impatience liberating the sheet cake from the pan, will look like a cracked gravestone on wheels. A castle painstakingly erected out of ladyfingers and crÃ¨me that will, despite the popsicle buttresses and retaining wall of daisies wedged around it for stability, seconds after the camera's flash, begin to list, then slide and collapse, the victim, it seems, of an invisible landslide.
Guests will occasionally look perplexed, squint, and ask, “Is that a unicorn?” It is, or should be. But I can appreciate the species confusion. Clearly I've done a poor job of affixing the ears, and the horn is over-long.
I shrug. “It's a unicorn or a narwhal. Whatever suits your fancy.”
My daughter grins, delighted.
e narwhal's nickname is “the unicorn of the sea.” And the guests will nod in a way that suggests they're just chalking it up to our being a little eccentricâand I suppose we are.
Here is what I have learned: Buy twice the amount of frosting to use as emergency Spackle. Sprinkles, colored sugar, M&M's, Rice Krispies, flaked coconut, gumdrops are your friends. Don't apologize. Remember the pan.
When I look at that banged-up pan, I think,
What matters is that you made the cake.
What mattered was that you served it with flair and spirit. What mattered was that the people you'd made it for felt you cared, and you did.
I suppose when my mother gave me that pan, she really gave me two gifts. Faith in me that I could make a cake and a philosophy for living one's life.