So many things make me think of my mother — flocked Christmas trees, flowering cactuses, Tony Bennett singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and meatloaf. The recipe I use isn’t my mom’s, but it comes from a cookbook she gave me. When I open to the right page and commence chopping onions and assembling ingredients, I think of her. She died when I was twenty-eight and I turn sixty this year. I’ve long been without a mother, but I look for her through the fog of time, searching for clues, reaching for clarity, frustrated by the lack of it, and longing, always longing, to know the mother who is just beyond my grasp.
Growing up I didn’t like meatloaf, though it appeared in regular rotation on our dinner table. It was something my older sisters could make and have ready when Mom got home from work. When they moved out, I became the one to get things started. I followed her instructions over the phone, plunging my hands into the cold mixture of ground beef, onion, egg, and torn pieces of white bread, mixing and mashing and forming it all into a loaf, then spooning ketchup over the top. I was never a fan of the end product, a rather dry and uninteresting dish, made edible by drowning each bite in more ketchup.
Though the meatloaf wasn’t her best recipe, my mother was an excellent cook. She’d begun learning as a young girl by helping her sick, couch-ridden mother run the household. When her mom died of a stroke after a long battle with heart disease, my eleven-year-old mother assumed all the responsibilities for cooking, housekeeping, and caring for her little brother. It was a heavy load for a child to carry, especially in 1941 when housework was so labor-intensive. Schoolwork and grief weighed her down even more. Ever the hard worker, my mother was resourceful and did what she needed to do. She told me once, “We had lots of pork and beans and chocolate pudding because those were the two things I could make well. We didn’t have much meat in those days — sometimes chicken, but always those canned pork and beans.”
When my grandfather married again two years after his wife’s death, my mom was relieved of her duties by a kind and generous woman, the grandmother I knew and loved. The marriage allowed my mother the freedom to be a schoolgirl again. However, Mom’s carefree existence was short-lived. She fell in love with my father in high school and married him as soon as she graduated. After twelve years of abuse and misery she divorced him, raising my sister and I on her own, and later marrying a widower with a pre-teen daughter.
By the time I was a teenager, my mom had been under a serious weight of responsibility for most of her life. It was hard for her to sit still. She rarely smiled. She was anxious and worried, constantly on the move to maintain order. But all those years in the kitchen had made her a skilled and confident cook. She baked the best apple pies I’ve ever eaten. She fried chicken to perfection, slow-cooked pans of succulent and saucy spareribs, and made mouth-watering penuche on Christmas Eve. She was even adventuresome enough to tackle the pheasants my stepfather brought home during hunting season in Northern California. After de-feathering and cleaning them in the kitchen sink, he passed the birds off to my mother, who cooked them in sour cream and white wine, and turned them into something worthy of a special evening to share with their friends.
When I finally came into the responsibilities of my own adult life, I wondered why I hadn’t learned more from my mother while I had the chance. From a young age I’d enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen, making messes while Mom was at work, hoping she wouldn’t notice all the sugar I was consuming in her absence. I had an intense sweet tooth and a sixth sense for sniffing out anything in the house that was supposed to be hidden from my view — like the See’s Candies in my mother’s bedroom drawer or the malted milk balls my sisters stashed in their closet. If I couldn’t find anything to satisfy my craving, I’d whip something up. It was a bad habit, driven by genuine after-school hunger, but also by the strange way certain foods can masquerade as comfort. Until my sisters came home, I was on my own, vulnerable, and filled with a growing confusion about the darkness unfolding in our household.
There were many sources for the creeping gloom. Not the least, the fact that it was the 60s and my sisters were dating young black men, which turned our home into a mini-version of the racial tensions present all around the country. Racism, ignorance, and fear ruled the day. I lay in bed many a night while my parents and sisters engaged in an all-out war — fighting, yelling, screaming, tears. Into this negatively charged atmosphere, my step-father began visiting my bedroom at night when no one was looking. I was eleven years old and clueless to know what to do with anything that was happening to me and around me, including the fact that my own father lived in another state and gave most of his attention to another family. Like the young Sally Draper in an episode of Mad Men, I was on my own to process what was happening. A good hit of sugar in the afternoons helped. Much later in life, the sugar stopped working and counseling was my true help — giving me courage to confront the abuse and the darkness.
But in the way that most things in life have more than one dimension, I also genuinely enjoyed the process of making food in the kitchen, especially when I had a friend with me. When my neighbor Joanne came over after school, we ran experiments, making powdered sugar frosting, cookie dough, and tiny cakes for my Easy Bake Oven. After stuffing ourselves, we danced to Beatles music under the swamp cooler in the hallway, shaking our heads like Ringo.
Though I had my private kitchen life, I didn’t have a strong enough interest in cooking to apprentice myself to my mother. For her part, she was rushed, busy, and unaware. When she got home from work she hurried on to the second shift — getting dinner on the table, cleaning up the mess, paying bills, straightening the house. On the weekends she did housework, yard work, grocery shopping, and all the bits and pieces necessary to raise three girls. Mom did her more creative and time-consuming cooking on the weekends, but I don’t recall being invited to cook with her. She assigned us a light amount of housework on Saturdays, and when we were finished, she set us free. She always said we’d have enough household responsibility when we were adults and didn’t want to burden us when we were young as she had been.
All that changed when I announced at the age of nineteen that I was getting married. Suddenly it mattered that I could feed myself when I left home. My mom wasn’t happy about us marrying so young, but there was no stopping us. Chuck and I had been together since early high school and were determined to take the next step. She resigned herself to our plans and began trying to prepare me in practical ways.
In the months leading up to my wedding in 1975, she ordered the Betty Crocker Recipe Card Library, which arrived by mail in monthly installments. I loved receiving those packages and would sit on the couch looking intently through each set of recipes, the categories ranging from Budget Casseroles to Fondues to Family Breakfast Brighteners. But after looking at them, I tucked them away in the green plastic box provided for their storage and there they stayed, with the exception of the recipe for Crème Wafers — delicate, frosted sandwich cookies that I made and gave to Chuck for Valentine’s Day. I was intrigued by the possibilities for cooking, but as a budding young feminist, I was more taken with discussions about equitable distributions of kitchen labor than I was with casseroles. After we were married, Chuck and I frequented the natural foods store down the street from our house and tried recipes from Diet for a Small Planet, but Betty Crocker was not our cup of tea.
Not to be deterred, my mother kept sending recipes. As our marriage progressed and children came, Chuck and I went through a long, dark patch, and Mom worried about us all the time. She called most days and sent things in the mail — cash to help with the rent, clothes for the children, advice she deemed helpful from Ann Landers’s column in the newspaper, and recipes. With the recipes, she was trying to resource me for the adult life I’d taken on and was failing at. Perhaps if I could learn to make chicken teriyaki or chocolate fudge cake, I could also keep my family from drowning. In hindsight I could see there was some truth to her logic. Though our problems were much more complex than food could solve, when our household became more nurturing, we were all better off.
Somewhere along the way Mom gave me a copy of the Official Special Olympics Celebrity Cook Book. Published in 1979, it must have been part of a fundraising project for one of the women-in-business organizations she belonged to. After receiving it, I stuck it on a shelf and didn’t notice it again until a few years later. When I did, my marriage was in a new season of grace and healing, my mother had passed away, and I was beginning to understand just how much food mattered in the life that was unfolding before me. I soaked up knowledge from one cookbook after another, learning from Alice Waters, Marcella Hazan, Marion Cunningham, and many others, including the hands-on instruction offered by my chef friend, Kathi Riley Smith.
One day in the mid-eighties as I was searching for ideas to make a weekly menu and grocery list, I finally opened the Official Special Olympics Celebrity Cook Book. I don’t know what prompted me to look inside. There was no cover appeal to commend it. But as I flipped through pages of recipes from Bob Newhart, Farrah Fawcett, Art Linkletter, and Lucille Ball, there amidst a few recipes best left behind in the seventies, like Microwave Pizzaburger Pie, I found the recipe for meatloaf that I’ve used ever since. In the fall when the chill in the air becomes downright cold, and even in the summer when garden vegetables are fresh and plentiful, I want meatloaf, tweaked slightly for the new millennium, but otherwise straight from the 1970s.
* * *
For the last year I’ve been trying to understand my mother in a deeper way. I’m confused by so much, even my inability to see things for what they were. I don’t have a lot to help unlock the mysteries, so I hold tightly to the things I do have that represent her life and tell her stories: the photo albums and scrapbooks, an interview I did with her in 1976 for a college class, and the recipes. As I see her now through the lens of my almost 60 years, I know how strong she was, how she persevered through a life of constant hardship, and how she gave my sisters and me things we couldn’t possibly understand until we were older ourselves. And though I struggle to write anything about my mother that doesn’t keep her protected, at the same time there was deep and real harm, there were complex stories—too many and too private to name — that I’m just beginning to face and accept for the effect they’ve had on our lives. I want to know what drove her and why so much damage happened under her watch. As I witness my mother-in-law aging, I wonder more often what it would be like to have a living mother of my own, and what our relationship would be like. Would we have talked about the hardest things? Would we have been brutally and helpfully honest with each other? Would we be close? Would she have found a measure of peace and healing?
I have no way of knowing. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for her wherever I can find her, trying to accept the reality of her flaws as well as the gifts she gave me, all the while holding out grace in my heart. And I’ll view the recipes as a kind of motherly provision that slip in under the radar, to be discovered at just the right time.
Adapted from Favorite Meat Loaf by Robert Sterling
Official Special Olympics Celebrity Cook Book, Foreward by Eunice Kennedy Shriver
1 lb. lean ground beef
½ lb. ground sausage
1 egg, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper or enough from a pepper grinder to suit your tastes
1 can (8 oz.) tomato sauce, reserve 4 oz.
* Note — the recipe calls for 1 to 2 teaspoons curry powder, which I’ve never used, though it might be good.
Reserved 4 oz. tomato sauce
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons Dijon style mustard
Mix meats, egg, bread crumbs, onion, salt, pepper, and ½ can tomato sauce. Form into loaf and place in pan. Mix sauce mixture and pour over loaf. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.
Andi Ashworth is the co-founder of Art House America and editor-in-chief of this blog. Along with her husband, she has lived and worked in a renovated country church known as The Art House for over two decades, serving food, conversation, ideas, and beauty to thousands of people. Andi is an author, mother, and grandmother. She holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies.