A Frozen Dinner Tastes Like My Mother’s Liberation
On Mother’s Day, I’m thinking fondly of all the time my mother didn’t spend in the kitchen.
The comfort foods of my childhood can be found in the frozen foods aisle. Stouffer’s tuna noodle casserole, Stouffer’s French bread pizza. A few aisles over, in canned foods, Chef Boyardee’s mini ravioli, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, Spaghetti-O’s with meatballs.
Some people have to track down old family recipes or exotic ingredients to replicate the meals they grew up with. I’m lucky enough to be able to find them easily in the supermarket, ready to serve. If I’m having a bad day and long for the coziness of childhood food-memory, I don’t have to work hard or travel far.
When I was growing up, both of my parents worked, and both of my parents cooked. Two nights a week, my mom worked late, and my dad was in charge of preparing dinner. He had a limited repertoire, but as a kid, getting hamburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner was no sacrifice. When mom was home, she made dinner, but she too kept it simple, at least on weeknights. It was good, hearty, kid-friendly food. Pot roast in the crock pot, shepherd’s pie. Or even better, a bucket of fried chicken she picked up on the way home from work. My brother and I would get to feel useful, left with instructions to preheat the oven and take out a frozen lasagne at the appointed time.
For holidays and dinner parties, my mom went all out. But that was fun cooking. The kind of cooking she did for entertaining was creative, something she could take her time with and savor. She’d pull out the Silver Palate cookbook and whip up something called Decadent Chocolate Cake, or turn to one of her 70s earth-mother cookbooks and chop up a bunch of vegetables we’d never heard of. She’d make elaborate ethnic dishes that had to simmer all afternoon, making our mouths water.
When it came to the day-to-day work of keeping a family fed, however, my mom was practical. Why should she spend hours in the kitchen on a Tuesday when she didn’t have to? She had better things to do. She was a licensed clinical social worker with a thriving psychotherapy practice. Growing up, my mom was an involved parent and successful in her career. And when it came to housekeeping and cooking, she was strategic. She delegated what she could, so she could focus more on the things that mattered. That lesson stuck more with me than any elaborate home-cooked meal ever could.
In my childhood memories of my mother, she is doing important things, going important places. Getting dressed for work, or planting vegetables in the garden, or up on a ladder painting the hallway a new color. Taking me to my first protest, or talking to a distraught client on the phone. She was a busy woman whose time had value. She modeled that for me.
Even today, when I take a bite of a Stouffer’s French bread pizza (inevitably burning my mouth no matter how much I blow), it tastes like comfort, like security. And a little bit like freedom.