Mothers Day

chickensaladwrap001My mom taught me how to cook. I was lucky she was the kind of mom who encouraged me to be in the kitchen. She would often turn her favorite room over to me, making me feel as though I was a scientist working in my own private laboratory. I would pretend I was testing recipes in the Pillsbury kitchens.

My mom did have one rule, though, that she insisted I learn and practice. When dirty bowls and pots and spoons and measuring cups started to pile up on the kitchen counter, she’d quickly remind me of the rule: "Susie, clean up as you go."

Mom believed that as long as you stayed on top of the mess, you’d have a pleasant experience in the kitchen. And everything would turn out much better. I’m pretty sure she was right about that. I was thinking about my mom as I prepared her favorite chicken salad. And I could almost hear her reminding me to clean up after each step.

It’s a recipe that has evolved over the years. I often add new ingredients and sometimes take out the old standby ingredients. Mom thought it was a real treat when I would sandwich the chicken salad in a split luncheon-size croissant. That serving style came to an end, though, sometime in the 1980′s when I attended a lecture by New York Times health columnist, Jane Brody. She said that eating a croissant was like eating one stick of butter. I haven’t enjoyed a croissant since. I’ve eaten a few — but I haven’t enjoyed them. Thanks a lot, Jane Brody.

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woman-cooking.jpg I had a completely fabulous mother.  She was a pretty good cook, except that she was always so busy with her politics, and with being consigliere to her large family, and with talking  to my dad while he was on his second job shift, that she almost never cooked dinner without a phone lodged between her shoulder and her ear.  This resulted in many culinary tragedies, and seasoning mistakes.  Here are two examples.

One day she was making her amazing chicken soup, loaded with carrots, and turnips, and leeks, and dill, not to mention the largest soup chicken she could find.  When it came time to add salt, she grabbed what she thought was the large red box of kosher salt, but it was the similar-sized box of Tide.

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food-safety-tips-5.jpgWhat makes a better Mother's Day than a picnic?

I contemplated this while driving down Sunset Blvd tonight, the big ol' moon silhouetted behind the palm trees, on one of those nights in LA when you feel true glee at being alive in the smoggiest city in the United States (it's true, it was listed today).

Think about this:
A roast chicken, some hummus (lovingly made, in our case, by the Maharishi, a true Lebanese purist when it comes to the blending of garbanzo beans, garlic, lemon juice, tahini and olive oil), some Arabic bread, some bright, sweet, red tomatoes, a punnet of sweet strawberries, a little Sancerre, a pretty tablecloth, the children (let's pretend for a moment that they're not too old and reluctant), a couple of dogs for good measure.

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iced-tea-ii-posters.jpgMy late grandmother, may she rest in peace, was very, very good at the things she was good at, and spectacularly bad at the thing she was bad at, which was cooking.

She could sew and knit and organize into oblivion, and she could draw and paint, and she had beautiful penmanship and made her bed so neatly and perfectly that you could bounce quarters off the surface. Every photograph she ever put into an album (chronologically, always, all of them) was labeled and dated, and she balanced her checkbook to the penny. She could crochet. Her collection of antique hatpin holders – she had hundreds of them – was kept spotless. She saved every dollar she ever had and could account for every dime she ever spent. She had the most beautiful long nails that she kept impeccably manicured in pearly bubblegum pink. But cook? My Bubby could ruin a bowl of cereal.

The three things you could always find in her refrigerator were artificially sweetened iced tea, powdered milk, and margarine. So you can imagine the shivers of unhappy anticipation that went through our bodies when Bubby invited us over for a meal.

If we got lucky, she would have ordered in hoagies from her local sub shop (Sack o’ Subs on Ventnor Avenue in Ventnor, New Jersey); if we were less lucky, she would have cooked.  Once, for brunch, she prepared pecan pancakes. Good news! Pancakes are hard to screw up! Unless, of course, you were my Bubby.

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hotel-bel-airholly palanceTwice a year, (on Mothers Day and on her birthday July 7th), my mother used to pull out her favorite phrase and say, “Attention must be paid.”

Translation? She wanted to be celebrated, and that meant The Hotel Bel Air, Sunday best, family only, no friends or ‘strangers’ pulling focus on her closeup.

Her use of the phrase drove me crazy, because of course Linda Loman’s lament was about aging and the lack of human kindness shown her salesman husband Willie, not my glamorous complicated mother on the palm-­laden patio holding court.

But champagne in hand surrounded by at least two of her children with at least two of her grandchildren in tow, she got what she needed....a toast, “ To the Queen of the Day.”

Attention had been paid. Deep down I knew what Mom meant. And she knew I knew.

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