We all get something from our mothers, I suppose. A girlfriend inherited her striking, thick eyebrows and a gal I work with, her loud, happy laugh. My own little sister thanks mom for her pale blue eyes, the color of the clear Bahamian sea, the very same water where mom first took her swimming as a baby. A favorite cousin has remarkable moxie, no doubt passed along from my also extremely determined aunt.
Maybe we’ve adopted certain quirky mannerisms from mom? You can’t help but chew on the end of your pen or possibly, also like mom, you can’t help but to continuously tuck that very same stray strand of hair behind your ear. I got my own sapphire-colored eyes from mom and a thing for romance novels, it seems. There would be endless traits from mom that I would be thrilled to have received: her feistiness, her perseverance, her sincerity.
Though, what I am most grateful she passed along to me? Her obsession, her passion, her complete and total love for food.
I try so hard sometimes to recall my first food memories; foggy except for a fluffy coconut cake, in the shape of a bonnet-wearing duck, smooshed between my fat fingers. Spaghetti, which I slurped off the yellow tray of my highchair. There are fleeting recollections of slimy seeds, pulled from a Halloween pumpkin, that mom roasted and heavily salted so we kids could snack on them in lieu of sugary Tootsie Rolls. My mom was a foodie before there were foodies.
Sauces were homemade. Recipes were torn with care from magazines, exotic ingredients searched out, the dishes tediously constructed and placed excitedly before her family. Baby chicks were mail ordered and delivered to our wide-eyed postmaster, mom looked so forward to their fresh, orange-yolked eggs, but merely received a fine from the city instead.
Mom was a hunter’s wife. Unusual fowl arrived most Saturdays from dad’s early morning excursions. I sat wide-eyed on the deck with mom in a flurry of feathers as she plucked them expertly. Winter holidays, mom was always in the kitchen braising some hunk of venison, slow-cooked stews heavy with red wine and little potatoes or the coveted back strap, quickly seared rare and garnished with nothing more than some Norwegian lingonberry jam. Favorite memories were these holidays spent with mom in the kitchen, coming out occasionally asking dad to shuck her an oyster, soon perched on a Saltine, with plenty of hot sauce. My holidays will forever require oysters, wild game, and mom’s coconut studded fruitcake.
I vaguely remember my parents’ parties as a kid, with off-limits adult food lavishly covering the buffet. Teeny, chilled crab claws dunked in a heavenly, mustardy sauce and buttery puffs of pastry cradling a heady smelling mixture of mushrooms and wine. I had an utter addiction to the strange, cake-shaped mass of soured cream, hard-cooked egg, and salty, black fish eggs she called ‘caviar pie.’ Mom, even though the kids were to stay upstairs, looked the other way as I snuck into the foyer and gobbled up the stinky cheeses and globs of smoked fish dip, fancy crudite, gigantic chocolate-dipped strawberries.
I knew early on mom was different from other moms, that at our house we ate ‘weird stuff.’ I was torn between appreciating our delicious dinners, my strange bagged lunches, and thinking we were surely missing something, missing something yummy other families were dining on. I loved our family’s heavy bread, studded with seeds and nuts. I coveted mom’s dark baking chocolate, which was off-limits without permission, so much tastier than the waxy milk version my friends always had on hand.
Mom’s spaghetti sauce boiled for hours on the stovetop, strangely, but deliciously loaded with chunks of carrot and flecks of herb. Mashed potatoes were always buttery and real, almost always accompanied by little, steamed, bright green, frozen peas. Oh, how I loved these strange things although I wondered why our bread wasn’t white, why our sandwiches had crusts. Why our peanut butter sandwiches, on the rare occasion we even had one in our lunch box, never dripped that curious grape colored jelly, but slivers of banana instead. Why we never opened our lunch boxes to find dessert, but always found a hand written note on a napkin, signed ‘love, mom.’
Missing breakfast was not an option and I never wanted to if I was allowed to use the fun, saw-shaped knife to cut segments from softball sized pink grapefruits. (On rare occasions we were permitted access to the sugar bowl, sprinkling a liberal quantity on top of the pink fruit before scooping each segment into our mouths and finally squeezing the juice into the bottom of the bowl, and drinking it straight from there.) Breakfasts were sometimes simply oatmeal, boring maybe in other homes, but in ours mom remedied that with a scandalous spoonful of crunchy peanut butter left melting on top. Saturday eggs were poached, the yolks always left runny, mom’s warm, homemade hollandaise sauce spooned luxuriously on top. My child brain wondered why we couldn’t just go to McDonald’s instead, even as I used the last bite of my English muffin to clean the last drop of sauce from my plate.
Birthday dinners, mom would make whatever our little hearts desired. I couldn’t get enough of the massive artichokes she steamed, leaving us kids to clamor obnoxiously over each other to dip our leaves in the lemony melted butter. How I was fascinated at the big tooth marks we left in each leaf, couldn’t believe a dinner could consist of these strange vegetables and nothing more than bread to catch the buttery drippings, followed by my favorite birthday dessert, angel food cake with sugared strawberries and fresh whipped cream. Did I want pizza take-out like the other kids got? Why did I think that was more special than mom’s coffee-rubbed leg of lamb and homemade scalloped potatoes?
Mom got me my first restaurant job, at 13. Mom passed along her passion for spicy food, for all meals Indian and Thai. She always has fresh flowers on the dining room table and now, so must I. She will drive hours for a meal, fly across the country even. And now, so will I. She taught me the importance of good cheese, of daily wine, of a special, home-cooked meal, no matter how little else one has. I still don’t eat fast food or drink soda or buy junk food thanks to my mom. My tomatoes sit on the counter, my herbs grow in a window box, all of my dressings are homemade, and my birthday meals are still a really big deal… all thanks to mom. Food is not just something to shovel in my mouth. Meals are special occasions, because of mom. Most of all, mom never let us kids go hungry no matter how tough times got.
My life is utterly delicious because of my mom. Thank you and happy Mother’s Day, mom.
Kristin’s foodie tip of the week: It is berry time
Local, first-of-the-season cherries and strawberries have arrived! It’s immeasurably exciting to see the first fruits of spring after an entire citrus-filled winter. If I were a poet, I would write an ode to the fruits… little red spheres of happiness, how do I love thee? Is there anything more joyful than biting into a still warm-from-the-vine strawberry? I think not! And, the sweetest in Sonoma are harvested and sold at the little stand on Watmaugh and Arnold Drive. This weekend — hooray! — gorgeous, ruby red and pale yellow cherries were proudly displayed at the Friday market and at little stands set up, roadside, all around town. They are the cherry ideal: firm, juicy and just so sweet. This time of year, I am sometimes afraid that I may just turn cherry-red from over-consumption. It is a berry delightful week!
Coffee-Basted Birthday Lamb
Recipe inspired by mom
Mom always served this flavorful lamb rare, sliced thin, accompanied by little roasted red potatoes and asparagus with homemade hollandaise sauce. Serves 6
Position rack in top third of oven and preheat to 475°F. Stir brown sugar, espresso powder, and cloves in small bowl with a little water until sugar and coffee dissolves. Place lamb, fat side up, on rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Spread 1/3 of spice mixture evenly over. Turn lamb over. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Spread evenly with remaining spice mixture. Roast lamb until thermometer inserted into thickest part registers 130°F for medium-rare, about 25-30 minutes, basting every five minutes with brewed coffee. Transfer to platter. Let rest 10 minutes. Slice thinly and serve.
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at [email protected].–