Everyone assumes that since I am Italian, it follows that my mother was the best cook this side of Sicily. Homemade raviolis and tiramisu all day long. Those people sadly, would be wrong. While I did have two grandmothers and two aunts who absolutely fit this profile, my mother somehow did not inherit the cooking gene.
Rather than risotto bubbling lovingly for hours into creamy perfection, our family regularly dined on Rice-A-Roni. I swear I didn’t have a real mashed potato until I left home as my mother wholeheartedly embraced the French’s boxed brand. Our cupboards were littered with Pop-tarts, Tang, Cool Whip, Shake and Bake, Carnation Instant Breakfast, for god’s sake(!) and endless boxes of instant Jello and pudding. There is a reason that I despise anything remotely tasting or resembling Jello to this day. It was in fact the only dessert my mother ever served, except for birthdays and *extra* special occasions when she would bake homemade custard. I still remember that crisp, milky aroma walking in the door from school, always for a moment thinking I had turned into the wrong house.
Growing up Catholic, of course, we followed the no-meat-on-Friday rule. But did we have flaky, fried fish like normal Italian Catholics? No. My mother decided that pancakes could easily fulfill this requirement and fill our stomachs quite nicely. I am sure as kids, pancakes for dinner seemed like a win-win, because come to think of it, I can’t remember a single time that she made us pancakes for actual breakfast. But topped with margarine and Karo syrup my mother may as well have poured it all directly into the family’s arteries that had their revenge in later life, setting the stage for the heart disease that runs rampant -and eventually took her life.
Fresh vegetables were an altogether foreign entity. The closest thing I got to a vegetable that wasn’t out of a can or the freezer was iceberg lettuce. As I got older, I was astounded to discover a whole world of vegetables that I had never even heard of, because the Green Giant apparently did not package them.
The icing on my mother’s boxed cake was that she was the absolute queen of the Campbell’s can-of-mushroom-soup casserole. She always searched for new recipes to include that gelatinous cylinder of non-food, and truly thought she was being quite the food adventurer when she tried a new one on us.
The only convenience food that did not make it into our house was the can of Spaghetti-Ohs. Perhaps my mother thought she would be shamed by the rest of the pasta cooks in the family. Or maybe she thought canned spaghetti in an Italian household would surely be crossing the line-even for her. And so every Sunday, she dutifully did what all good Italian mothers did. She made spaghetti sauce from scratch-with meatballs and sausage to boot-slow cooking it all day on the stove in time for the mid- afternoon pasta meal that was our tradition. I looked forward to that every Sunday, in part, because I realized it was probably the only unprocessed food I consumed every week.
I suppose I could view my mother as keeping up with the times then. In hindsight, I am sure she was just trying to be a modern woman, taking advantage of all those conveniences newly available to harried and exhausted mothers in the sixties. But while many women my age have fond memories of learning to cook from scratch with their mothers, when I think of my own in those days, we are not standing side by side donning aprons with her pointing out to me the finer points of arranging an antipasto. Hardly. I was pouring water into a bowl containing electric lime, cherry, or berry blue powder that with time and refrigeration would magically turn into something resembling food.
Linda Laino is an artist and teacher living in Mexico. An occasional writer and poet, she enjoys playing with words as much as form and color. Finding beautiful things on the ground is a favorite pastime. Her paintings and jewelry can be viewed at her web page www.lindalaino.com and https://www.etsy.com/shop/lindalaino. Additional essays can be found athttp://www.elephantjournal.com/?s=Linda+Laino