Janet Sheridan: Served with love

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Janet Sheridan

In a recent issue of Cooking Light magazine, the editor bragged about his mother’s pies.

“The best on the North American continent,” he wrote.

I reacted with righteous indignation: obviously, the deprived fellow had never tasted my mother’s pies. Perhaps he should sample more widely before making such a misguided statement.

But, I forgave him for declaring a winner without sponsoring a contest when he added that others might think their mothers baked the world’s best pie, too. And, they’d be right, because “Pie is one of those foods properly made with love, not just skill, and whose goodness is, in the end, privately understood.”

I wish I’d originated that thought. At some level, I’ve always known that love elevates even the simplest foods.

I think my parents were expressing love when they prepared two of the best meals I’ve ever eaten: my mother when sick and burdened with unexpected guests, and, years later, my father when widowed and learning to cook.

Toward the end of her uncomfortable pregnancy with Blaine, Mom felt too ill to go to church with us. So, after the services, Bob, Carolyn, and I thought we’d console her by inviting several of our friends for Sunday dinner.

She cornered us in the kitchen while our guests played on the tire swing outside and told us what she thought of our bright idea: She hadn’t intended to cook a big dinner. She had nothing special to fix, and if she weren’t sick, she’d knock our heads together.

Then, she raided her garden and called us in to corn on the cob, BLT’s on homemade bread with tomatoes still warm from the sun, summer squash generously laced with home-churned butter and raspberry cobbler.

Though she didn’t eat, she chatted with us and told our friends they were the best raspberry pickers she’d ever seen.

After dinner and our guests’ departure, she pinned her children with a stern eye, told us she expected clean dishes in a spotless kitchen and went to bed.

As adults, Carolyn and I, remembering the meal and regretting our inappropriate invitation, asked Mom why she didn’t tell our friends she was sick and they would have to go home.

“You were so pleased with yourselves — bragging to your buddies about my cooking — and I’d been so wretched and short tempered, it made me feel better to do something I knew you’d enjoy.”

As an adult, I ate another meal flavored with love by my dad.

After my mother died, Dad gradually regained his joy in life by continuing his usual activities: tending to grandchildren, going to church, cutting fuel for his wood-burning stove and rereading Louis La’mour westerns.

But, he surprised everybody when he took up cooking. The only thing he’d ever prepared for his children was “your dear grandmother’s egg cake,” his glorified name for eggs scrambled in a cast iron skillet until fossilized.

I’d heard about his cooking experiments from my siblings and wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived for a visit. Dad welcomed me, asked if I was hungry and proudly ushered me into the kitchen, which showed evidence of his growing skill.

The mill he’d used to grind wheat for homemade bread stood in a mound of spilled flour; on a nearby cooling rack, two loaves sat in weighty brown splendor.

Mom’s handwritten recipe for chili sauce was taped to a cupboard door above several pint jars filled with the recipe’s results.

A pot of navy beans and ham hocks simmered on the stove.

As we sat down to beans topped with chili sauce and a side of bread, Dad remarked, “It’s good to have you home, Janet. I hope you like the food I made you.”

Then, embarrassed, he quickly added, “Well, better eat up before it gets cold.”

I tasted love in every bite.

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