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Food

How Food Made Me Hate My Mom

The heat was so bad outside of our car, we could see the transparent waves rising from the asphalt. My little brother cried from his car seat, and my little sister, Megan, turned the radio volume to silent, then to earth-shatteringly loud. “Megan, stop!” I yelled as I checked Evan’s sippy cup for water. 

“What’s taking her so long?” Megan yelled over the song. 

I rolled my eyes and didn’t answer. Partly, out of big-sister annoyance. Mostly, because we had this conversation every time we went to the grocery store. Mom would always go into the store for “just a few things” and would take forever. Even though Megan and I were young, around 11 and 13, respectively, we knew why she lingered. As much as she loathed grocery shopping, we knew going home was even worse for her. In her mind, the only thing waiting for her at home was an angry husband, hours of telenovelas, and kids who were always hungry.

When she finally returned to the car, she threw a bag of groceries in the back at my feet as she ended a phone conversation. “I gotta go. I sent you an email about the next time we can meet.” 

Evan gurgled happily as the wind hit his face through the open windows. Megan turned the radio to a normal volume. My mom avoided looking at me in the rear mirror. 

I hated going to the grocery store. 

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When we’d come home, the meal prep would begin. I use the term loosely. When I was young, I asked her if I could watch her. She said “maybe some other time,” without looking at me. I mentioned it to my dad and immediately regretted it. He stormed into the kitchen and asked her why she wouldn’t teach me how to cook. I walked away as soon as the yelling began feeling hungry, but with no appetite. 

And, yet, my desire to cook and quest for good food persisted. Maybe at my house the food was runny, greasy, and in a constant rotation of spaghetti, tacos, fried chicken, and pizza. But I had friends and family that fed my need to be a part of a good meal. 

I’ll never forget breakfasts with my grandparents — saviors of my life in so many ways. I remember my Poppy getting up early to start pancakes and bacon. Not one to ever sleep when there’s bacon sizzling, I was always the second one up, so he’d let me stand beside him and would tell me to be patient. The edges of the pancake could only be perfectly crisp and golden once you saw the small bubbles announcing themselves in the batter. He would give me a conspiratorial wink. With that simple meal and gesture, the rest of my week was made.

I remember the time I went to my best friend’s house, and her mom, Jada, prepared a roasted chicken. A real roasted chicken like something out of the movies. It was all brown, crisp, and glistening. She served it with wild rice and made green beans that were a long and vibrant green. I thought they only came in cans, and they had never crunched the way they did for that meal. When I poked the plump chicken thigh that Jada served me first, because she knew it was my favorite piece, juice came squirting out. I remember laughing in embarrassment and my friend making fun of me, but I also remember getting emotional at the first bite. Maybe it was their hospitality. Maybe it was just how good the chicken was (wouldn’t be the first or last time I cried over a good roast). What I do know is that I have countless stories of the little meals and moments that started shaping my opinion of food. 

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Post-college, I started to cook for myself. I started with simple crock pot dishes, like chicken and noodles. Things that harkened back to my food heritage, but I could experiment with slightly healthier ingredients. Then, I ventured into recipes never seen at my household. I remember my first attempt at a tortellini soup. It turned out completely inedible. Life lesson: It may be hard to believe, but there 100 percent is such a thing as too much salt. But, I tried again, and continued cooking it until I made it for a friend who said it tasted it like, “fresh, melty Italian countryside.” I haven’t been to Italy, but I’ll take it. 

Ultimately, I learned the unmistakable superiority of fresh ingredients, the chemistry of flavors and heat, the way a good meal is elevated to an unforgettable one by taking care with the dishes that frame your food. But the biggest lesson I learned about cooking is that there’s never such a good meal as one that is prepared as a gift. When someone cooks you something with the goal of making your world a little brighter at the end and leaving your stomach and spirit full. Whether it’s the humble gift of Aunt Jemima’s pancakes or the gourmet roasted chicken meal of a seasoned cook.

That’s what was always missing from my mom’s meals. It’s no surprise to me that the more I came into my own food identity, my relationship with my mom waned. For a lot of reasons beyond food, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence. 

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But here’s the funny thing about food and my mom. It’s hard to hate the hands of the person feeding you. My mom’s cooking was certainly never a gift, but it was an act. Maybe it was an act born of necessity, obligation, even desperation. But she took the time, and we never starved. 

As estranged as I am from my mom, the image of her stirring a spoon with rough hands, shifting on tired feet, with a worn look on her face that indicated that it wasn’t just cooking she didn’t find joy in, it was that she didn’t find joy in anything — well, it’s one of the few things that gives me empathy towards her. It makes me, even if it’s just for a second, understand some of her bad decisions. 

Honestly, I don’t know if my mom and I will ever meet again. If I’m being really honest, there are some days when the recollection of bad memories and hurtful words still feel so fresh, I hope we don’t. But if we do, I hope that it’s over a meal. One that I’ve prepared for her, and we can learn, together, that food can be something that gives, rather than takes.

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by ashlystage

I believe that, before people can act differently, they first must think differently.

Good writing should influence an action, whether it's a laugh at a sharp one-liner or it's a signature on a petition after reading a hard-hitting essay. I write and edit to influence the step right before a great action — the beginning of new thought and perspective.

I tell people that I'm word-obsessed, a brand enthusiast, a relationship builder, an educational advocate, and I'm forever thinking and writing about food.

I've spent a lot of my life feeling a little "other" for various reasons, and while I experienced times of great sadness and confusion because of it, I'm one of the lucky ones because I never felt truly alone. Just lonely. I credit books, my spirituality, and nature for helping me embrace my "otherness" as a type of magic, and I'm always aiming to help others experience the same.


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