In My Mother’s Kitchen

Pumpkin pie

“Time to whup the cream!”  Every Thanksgiving my mother would jokingly say this to me and my younger brother when it was time to come to the kitchen and whip the cream for her amazing homemade pumpkin pie. This was done by hand, with a wire whisk, taking turns as our arms tired out. No sugar was added. It was just pure creaminess that we covered her spicy, not-too-sweet pumpkin pie with. Her crust was flaky and she loved walnuts so much that she put them in her pie, with delicious results. She also put walnuts in her dressing (never stuffing; she thought stuffing was disgusting) along with chopped mushrooms and all the bits of liver, gizzards and neck meat from the enriched broth she had simmered  them in, which then went into the mixture. Pepperidge Farm seasoned breadcrumb stuffing mix formed the base, and then she added all her magic touches. The result was my favorite part of the meal. As far as I was concerned, the turkey was an accompaniment to the dressing, not the other way around. The cranberry sauce was another favorite. I remember very early in my childhood eating the jellied canned cranberry sauce that every child of the 1960’s remembers, but at some point in the 70’s she decided that wasn’t good enough, and started to make her own from bags of fresh cranberries, an orange and sugar. She’d boil the cranberries in sugar and water, and then throw that into a blender along with an entire orange. It was so easy, and so delicious. We didn’t have a huge meal at Thanksgiving, unlike so many families. There were only four of us, so we had the turkey, the dressing, green beans (“the Julia Child way,” i.e. just cooked and still a bit crunchy in a big sauté pan with lots of butter, fresh parsley and lemon juice), cranberry sauce, and the pumpkin pie for dessert. No hams, lasagna, sweet potatoes, yams, pecan pie, etc. It was simple and perfect.

Years later I was in my apartment preparing my first Thanksgiving meal. My mother had died almost exactly two years before, and I had decided to make and host the feast for my father, brother, his new wife and my then-boyfriend. I was already considered an excellent cook by then, and was looking forward to cooking and sharing and taking on the role of matriarch in a way. My mother and I had had a complicated relationship. I know she loved me very much, but there was a lot of tension between us for many reasons, and being with her was often very difficult for me. Her death was sudden and also horribly drawn out: she had a cardiac arrest on my 36th birthday, essentially died, and was revived but in a coma for 10 days until we made the unanimous decision to disconnect her. I was numb. We all were. I wasn’t able to cry and mourn the way I thought I should. I felt horrible, but I couldn’t release it and mourn. So, two years later, I remember standing in my little kitchen, my boyfriend having just arrived, feeling very overwhelmed by the task and responsibility. All of a sudden, I missed my mom. I missed her with a grief so sharp it took my breath away. I wanted nothing more than to be able to ask her for advice on how to make her dressing, and I couldn’t. The realization hit me so strongly, the grief so painful, that I suddenly burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. I cried and cried and cried. I cried for my mother. I cried for our lost relationship. I cried for the good times we had had in her kitchen that we would never have again. I cried for all the food she had made in her kitchen that I would never again be able to taste or ask her how to make.  I cried for the pure essence of her.

In the end, I made the dressing. But I didn’t make it exactly like she had, because I didn’t really know how. Instead, I took the idea of it and made it my own. And it was delicious. The whole meal was perfect. I made my own cranberry sauce my own way: I put red wine and cherries in it. It was divine. I made it in my own kitchen. I am pretty sure my mother was there watching me. In my kitchen.

© 2019 Anna Pavlakis All Rights Reserved

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