Mothers Day

dad-and-his-momMother’s Day was always a meaningful day in my life, but not because of my own mother. Because of my father’s mother. She was born on a day in May that fell on or near Mother’s Day. Each year her family celebrated her birthday on Mother’s Day, no matter what the date of her actual birthday. Her large clan would all come to her little house, deep in the Valley, to honor her. Most of them lived nearby, but not us.

We would hop in the back of my dad’s convertible car and head over Coldwater Canyon. He drove with only one hand on the wheel. My dad was handicapped and needed his other hand for the controls that were attached to the steering wheel, both the gas and brake in one. It was very unsteady. Add to that the sharp curves going over the mountain, his cigar smoke filling my lungs, and his spit flying back into our faces that we tried dodging -- well, it was quite the E ticket ride. (For those born after they were discontinued in 1982, E tickets were for Disneyland’s most thrilling attractions.)

Finally, the road would straighten out at the bottom of the mountain for a long straight stretch till we hit Ventura Boulevard. By then, I was fully recovered, though still dodging spit and seeking a good air pocket to escape the smoke. No seat belts in those days either, and I weighed nothing, so I flew around a lot in the back of dad’s car.

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romanoffsMy mother was born and raised in Houston, which is the most “Southern” of Texas cities. Even her accent had the added rich drawl of her boarding school in Atlanta. That is why, when I think of my mother, I feel Southern. We had southern cooks and when we were not eating at the local Mexican café in Toluca Lake (California – not Mexico) memory dictates that we dined on chicken fried whatever! Chicken, of course, but also pork chops, steaks, fish, and shrimp – virtually everything (except our greens) would be chicken-fried.

To compliment our chicken-fried whatevers, mother would prepare a variety of whipped jello desserts with mini marshmallows, including Banana Cream Pie and the ever-popular Prune Whip.

It is a blessing that my father insisted on taking us to the “finer” restaurants in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, like the Brown Derby Perino’s or Mike Romanoff’s, otherwise I guess I would be chicken-frying whatever to this day!

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lambmint.jpg I have been thinking about all the recipes of everyone I know and it is so funny and interesting the way their personalities play into everything so well and say so much. 

Like my Dad is so unassuming - until you know him and then - surprise!  Under the surface - glittering and colorful and baroque - just like his vegetable soup.  Such an unassuming classic - but in the hands of my Dad - an event people wait for!  I call it, "Dad's Baroque Vegetable soup."

My Mother, definitely "Lamb with mint sauce."  So-o-o-o rarified and neat and ultimately delicious.  No messes in the kitchen when she cooks.

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wilhelmine_children.jpgFor the past few birthdays, Christmases, and really any occasion requiring a gift, my Mother has been wrapping up her own belongings and passing them off on her children.  It began the year that she divided old photos from her father’s side of the family among my brother, sister and me: huge stacks of ancient, scalloped-edged, sepia prints.  For Christmas my boyfriend got an indoor grill from his mother; I got a box of anonymous, sour-looking Germans from mine. 

Gift giving has never been particularly ceremonious in the French family household.  My father routinely forbids us to buy him anything, ever, preferring to get something for himself.  (Last Christmas my sister wrapped his present for him, attaching a card that read “To Dad: Only you know what you really want.  Love, Dad.”) And yet this new trend of giving away my parents’ belongings is beyond eccentric; it’s morbid, even by my mother’s standards.  The portrait of James Joyce and the highball glasses now residing in my kitchen aren’t examples of re-gifting.  “I’m getting rid of my stuff,” my mother explains, pronouncing “stuff” as if collectible paintings and vintage crystal was a dubious-smelling carton of milk, “before I die.”     

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motherlatt My mother happily referred to herself as a “good eater.” Although she was very petite, she could out-eat even our teenaged sons. Every year for Mother’s Day the Southern California branch of the family would drive to Little Saigon in Westminster and eat at Dong Khanh, where my mom ordered her favorites: lemon grass chicken, lobster in black pepper sauce, chow mein noodles with squid, vermicelli with bbq pork, spring rolls and a large bowl of pho ga — chicken vermicelli soup.

As much as she loved Dong Khanh’s food, though, she insisted that the dessert be homemade. Since I was the cook in the family, I happily took on the assignment, and the waiters at Dong Kahn had long ago accepted our ritual so they were always ready with a stack of small plates and forks.

Over the years I made her many desserts: pound cake, hazelnut cheesecake, flourless chocolate cake, baked plums, bread pudding . . . but she pronounced the last one as the best — a banana cake with chocolate chips and roasted walnuts.

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