“This is better than sex,” said my colleague, when decades ago I let her taste the tuna salad sandwich my now 98-year-old mother, Angelina, had made for my lunch. Honestly, all it contained was a small can of tuna fish, some chopped onions and mayo, yet, well, my long-ago co-worker’s reaction to my mother’s kitchen skills said it all.
Recently, when my husband Neil, 26-year-old son Luke, and 23-year-old daughter Meg and I were reminiscing about Angelina’s other culinary specialties, Neil challenged me to make them myself, since my mother’s abilities are not what they once were.
Luke, Meg and I started to try to piece together how their grandmother did things. She never wrote anything down on recipe cards because the prep was ingrained in her from when she was a young girl growing up in Italian Harlem, helping her mother cook for her thirteen brothers and sisters. She also has dementia.
I called Neil’s bluff, but knew I’d have to rely heavily on my children, because I have never been able to duplicate my mother’s handiwork no matter how many times I’ve watched her.
It was just her innate ability to know the exact ratios to make the aforementioned tuna magic happen. My favorite sandwich wasn’t the only thing that she created with her special touch. Her Mac & Cheese, which my mother made in individual tins and left in my freezer, so Neil, Luke, and Meg could have one on a whim, tasted like she’d used all the cheddar in Wisconsin. There were also her potato croquettes, lasagna, and a baked chicken with veggies one-dish miracle that tasted as if it were prepared by a chef at a four-star restaurant.
Her galley kitchen in Manhattan was a far cry from the spacious one she was used to in her three-bedroom Bronx home, which she moved from when Luke and Meg were toddlers. That, however, did not stop Angelina from creating “Thursday dinners” for us during the kids’ grammar and high school years that made the kitchen table look like a wedding buffet. (Neil was always grateful for the leftovers when he got home past dinner time.)
But that was then. Since my mother can’t remember what she had for breakfast—or if she even ate breakfast—let alone recall ingredients or oven timings, Luke, Meg and I were totally on our own.
The first thing we tried to tackle was the baked macaroni, as it seemed the easiest. Luke remembered always seeing two empty cans of Campbell’s Cheddar Cheese soup, and I was positive she melted three bars of Cracker Barrel Cheese into the boiling soup, then poured it over a box of cooked elbow macaroni. My mother would let it bake, we assumed at 350 degrees for we guessed about 20 minutes, then she’d shake breadcrumbs on top and let it bake until the crumbs were golden brown.
My mother’s memory may be fading, but her palette is still in top form. “Not cheesy enough,” she said, even though I argued that it had come out delicious. Neil could not resist sticking in his two-cents and agreed (as usual) with his mother-in-law that although it was indeed good, it wasn’t as good as when she made it.
Luke, Meg and I also gave a go to the one-dish chicken wonder, arguing the whole time. “The peas and carrots go last,” Meg screamed at us, as Luke and I stood confused by the ingredients as well as embarrassed at how for years we only focused on devouring the finished product.
Just as my mother did, we coated the bottom of the pan with oil, laid the chicken legs and breasts on top, and surrounded them with potato and pepper slices. Bacon strips were placed across the top of the chicken pieces. We baked the dish until the bacon began to cook, then obliging Meg’s cries, we added the peas and carrots. Truth be told, everything cooked just right, except the chicken was a bit underdone, so it had to go back in the oven and continue cooking at 350 for another 10 minutes.
This time, Angelina gave our creation the thumbs up. Was it as good as hers? Just like my mother, her cooking was one of a kind. But Luke, Meg and I are going to keep trying to create her meals, if for no other reason than to keep our “Thursday dinners” alive.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is a novelist, whose third book THE LAST SINGLE WOMAN IN NEW YORK CITY is to be published by Heliotrope Books.