Tom Junod's essay about his mother, who hated to cook, is an interesting exploration of the little lies we tell for love, or withhold from anger. I enjoyed the part about how his mother eventually broke her Mashed Potato Rule--that mashed potatoes can't be screwed up if they are actually potatoes--and started cooking the kind from the box. When Junod complained she told him that he couldn't tell the difference:

And with that my mother uttered the signal words of my culinary existence, which happened to be the signal words of my familial existence as well. I could tell the difference, and I spent the rest of my life proving that I could. My mother, for her part, spent the rest of her life trying to prove that I couldn't. I refused to eat the potato flakes that she served me, or the potato buds, or the potato powder, and my mother refused to admit that they were potato flakes and potato buds and potato powder. I mean, she would hide the box. She would peel a potato and put the peelings on top of the garbage, and the box of French's at the bottom. I used to think that she should have used her ingenuity just to mash the damned potatoes, while using my own ingenuity to find the box and to produce it, with prosecutorial flourish. "Come on," my father said, "enough's enough. Just eat the potatoes. You're breaking your mother's heart." But enough was never enough, because just as my mother had come to the conclusion that It's not worth it, I was coming to the conclusion that It is. The only thing left to be decided was the matter of what that mysterious "it" might be, and the only thing we both understood was that a lot more was at stake than the authenticity of my mother's "mashies."

My father's mother makes delicious mashed potatoes, involving lots of butter and cream, but also hours of labour. When I lived with my grandparents she would occasionally make an entire vat for a monthly meeting of the Full Gospel BusinessMen's fellowship, and I would be assigned the task of peeling about 60 or 80 potatoes. I remember feeling resentful and conflicted over the drudgery. Resentful because not only was I peeling all these potatoes, but then I had to go to a church meeting for several hours where a bunch of old men ate them all. Conflicted because my wonderful grandmother was doing all the cooking and of course she never complained (and on most nights she did all the chores).

My own mother, I think, sometimes makes potato-based mashed potatoes and sometimes the kind that come from flakes in a box. My brothers and I are happy to eat either. I'm aware of the dynamic Junod discusses, that the provision of food may be a proxy for the provision of love and care, but I feel lucky that growing up I never had the impression that the type or quality of food in question was significant. My mother sometimes jokes that my brothers's wives will be similarly lucky because their husband won't have any lofty expectations about what a good wife does. In the context of a school party, for example, I would have thought that the kids with cupcakes from a mix (as opposed to a box of Little Debbies or whatever) were lucky, but only in that they had ready access to a stream of cupcakes. I'm not sure if that perspective is becoming more common, as women increasingly work outside the home, or less, as people become more fussed about food sourcing and healthy eating. But if I had a kid I think I would pack them off with the store-bought stuff as a matter of principle--the principle being that mothers and fathers shouldn't be expected to conform to the faulty idea that largely pointless labor is the way to express their love.
One of my mom's specialties

09/18/2011 11:36

I question the premise. I have screwed up actual potato mashed potatoes.

10/03/2011 19:14

Nice. My mother always cooked everything and was baffled by my love of TV dinners -- I would beg her for them, while she fed me delicious home-cooked meals that made her popular with my friends. I never caught the cooking bug and now that I'm a father, I am concerned that one day, my kids will realize I'm a lousy cook and resent all the good food they've been missing. Maybe they'll appreciate that I try. In any case, your post reminded me that it is not a universal measure of parental love and care, so maybe they won't mind after all and just go one to be ravenous cooks like Tom Junod.

(mashed potatoes are one of my few specialties, always made from actual potatoes - and by my mother's recipe!)


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