She Prepared a Table before Me

My mother’s college freshman-comp essay titled “The Story of My Life” ends with this line: “I have a vision of myself as an old maid teaching French and Latin in some small school and being held in awe by all. Who knows?” My recent reading of her college diary helps me sort the wheat from the chaff—the adolescent wishes from the fears—of her autobiographical conclusion. She didn’t want to be an old maid, but she did want to be revered. 

Mother never taught school. She married at age twenty-one and within months conceived the first of her nine children. “Who knows?” every college freshman should ask. Sixty years later, my mother was known for two things: her children and her food.

In her parsonage dining room, Mother set out solid, nothing-fancy fare. Plentiful and plain. She relied on onions and black pepper for seasonings. There’s apparently a new name for this: “Grandma cooking,” described by Michael Pollan in Cooked as “the formerly mundane (now ‘special’) dishes that are cooked in pots and, more often than not, begin with onions and take considerably more than twenty minutes to put on the table.” Similarly, Mario Batali says an Italian grandma “didn’t waste time thinking too much about the celery. She got the best celery she could and then she dealt with it.” Ham and Mustard, Mom’s only main dish more interesting than pot roast and stuffed turkey, had been concocted by her Uncle Henry, an ex-convict who married Mother’s school-principal aunt in Queens. The scandal made the New York Times.

Mom occasionally would try a new recipe—handed her by another woman in the church—but rarely if it meant stocking new ingredients. The cupboard space was already cramped. Besides, she didn’t drive; Dad pushed the cart through the grocery store, so she didn’t dawdle in an aisle for an unfamiliar item. 

I’m sorry to say that I don’t think Mom enjoyed cooking. Board was one of the services wives of her generation provided in exchange for roof and double bed. As a young bride she fed her husband, occasional travelers and visitors, and, as they arrived, her children. As I perceived it, any pleasure she received from cooking came at the end of the workday. Counting the pies or cookies she’d baked. Counting the quarts and pints of garden produce that she had sealed, ready then for the basement shelves.  

Inviting people over was nearly always Dad’s idea. On Sundays he’d spontaneously welcome lonely graduate students or young couples visiting the church—especially if Dad happened to be acquainted with their second cousin twice removed. 

I’m not sure Mom enjoyed being a hostess any more than she did cooking. But she was good at it. She knew how to put guests at ease: She got them talking about themselves—or she let Dad do the talking—and she convinced them that she really hadn’t fussed at all. When you’re cooking for eight, what trouble is four more? If she knew the roast wasn’t big enough, she told Dad to cut the pieces small. To one of us in the kitchen, she whispered, “Spread the word: F-H-B,” an acronym for family hold back. The brown beef chunks never multiplied like the miracle fishes, but neither did we go hungry; we satisfied our appetites with apple salad and pickled beets.

Okay, maybe she hadn’t fussed, but she withheld any comment about how much work went into setting a respectable table. When we were still at home, we children mitigated the production hassle, especially the last-minute complications of serving a meal still hot. Minutes before sitting down for a Sunday dinner, all hands helped: pouring ice water, draining boiled vegetables, filling serving bowls, mashing potatoes, while Mother stirred flour-paste into broth to make gravy. 

Ready? Mom always turned to me, the youngest daughter, not yet trustworthy to carry hot dishes. “Go tell them—the guests—to come to the table.” She wiped her hands across her half apron. All set? With her left hand she pulled at one of the long ties, and then with the same hand caught the cloth before it fell to the floor. 

“The ham? Oh, it’s an old family recipe.” She left out the part about her Uncle Henry, the confectioner who served time for burglary in Sing Sing before settling down as an unassuming househusband. At the end of the dessert, often labor-intensive fruit pies, she poured herself a fresh cup of coffee, a pick-me-up before conversation in the living room and then cleanup. “Oh, no, thank you. The girls will help me do the dishes later.” 

Guests walked out the door and down the sidewalk satisfied. Mother went to bed at night tired but gratified. 

In Mom’s prime, she served more than six hundred parsonage-guest meals and snacks a year. This did not include the cakes and casseroles cooked for families in mourning and mothers of newborns. Take, eat. This is my sustaining offering.

Mom became known for her hospitality—more potatoes? more coffee?until it rather defined who she was, or at least what she did, even unto her eulogy. And knowing that she had such a reputation, earned by hot-kitchen sweat, became one of her earthly joys. 

She delighted in having entertained. She loved tallying up those year-end numbers: guests served. She valued thank-you notes in the mail. She smiled at compliments for meals served on platters years before, the memory more savored than the food when it was hot.

* * *  

In The Pleasure of Your Company, New York Times food columnist Molly O’Neill quotes a seasoned “Mrs. J,” who worries about her daughters’ modus operandi. “Serving company in my day was a gift of respect, for [the diners’] humanity. . . . I’ve certainly stroked my own ego through entertaining, but I have also learned a great deal about giving. My daughters don’t give, they provide; it’s a different thing altogether, and I would presume, not as satisfying.” 

As for me and my house, I’d like to discount her intergenerational concerns.

I enjoy cooking more than my mother did, though I don’t do it every day, so it doesn’t become a routine chore, as I can imagine it would if I did. And technological advances make the activity less taxing for me; I have air conditioning and a microwave, though not a dishwasher. 

I’m told I’m a good hostess. Plenty of interesting food—down-home victuals perked up by saucy suggestions found in vintage recipe books. I get people talking. I listen for laughter and bring out more food, and by the time the last mug is laid to rest on the coffee table, I’m exhausted. I go to bed saying it was so much work I’m never going to host another dinner. But in the morning I awake smiling, knowing a good time was had by all who came expecting one. Like my mother, I enjoy having entertained, enjoy having offered my home-cooked sustenance.

Maybe I’m like my mom in yet another way. Mom’s mind-set in me may explain why I continue to pursue creative writing when it’s one of the most strenuous mental workouts I can imagine. 

I didn’t set out to be a writer or editor. In college I majored in business administration, though nothing in those courses captured my career interests. I didn’t want to be a banker or a computer programmer any more than my mother wanted to be an old maid, but I had to major in something, and business felt better than teaching, which seemed to lack advancement opportunities. 

As a senior I took an elective writing course. Struggling to complete a personal-essay assignment, I thought, Oh my. There are people who write for a living. Why would anyone choose such torturous work? 

But back then I didn’t understand how much I would enjoy having written. I didn’t know the thrill of selling the first essay—written for that college course—I ever submitted to a magazine. The rush of “finding” the climactic sentence of a poem or prose piece—usually but not always at the finale. Adding a winsome title. Unfolding another acceptance letter. Even counting words—summing a new book chapter into my running total. 

After I’d written this and that and been published here and there, people told me I was good at words. Readers seemed satisfied. So I wrote another opening sentence that took me to another closing line. Writer became an identifying characteristic of who I am or at least what I do—because it has seemed what I should do when I get up in the morning, and because maybe I enjoy it more than I let anybody, including myself, think.

For most of my adult life, so much of my cityscape and solitary editorial work mystified my mother. But we always shared a basic vision: appreciating the eventual gratification that would come with a reputation for doing what we could with the materials and talents God had provided, in the context of a life journey that took unexpected turns. 

Take, eat. This is my offering, my gift. 

Photograph by Evelyn Bence

Evelyn Bence’s most recent book, Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books), includes a recipe for Uncle Henry’s Ham and Mustard. She is an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts, and her personal essays have appeared in publications including Washingtonian, Washington Post, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and Good Letters (blog).

When a Dream Becomes a Life

When a Dream Becomes a Life

On Making Music and Home: Jill Phillips Interviews Sara Groves