08/04/2014 05:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Blue Cake and Cheese Cloth: Why I'm Not Mad Nobody Cooked for Me Growing Up


My family has a very funny relationship with food. We are all serious eaters. We enjoy the entire practice, from getting dressed for dinner, to stuffing our face with creamy pastas and fatty meats before insisting our "dessert pocket is empty" for the final course. The only misconnection between us and food is its actual preparation. Not for lack of trying, but nobody in my family has any "famous" anything. If anything, both my parents have notorious dishes, but certainly nothing lauded.

My mom's friend Marianne was once explaining how memories of her mother shucking peas in her kitchen come rushing back with every pop of a legume. Other friends of mine have moms with really delicious, unique dishes that help to solidify those visceral memories. One of my friends' moms made famous chili with her special family secret ingredient. Another's made piping hot calzones every Sunday. My version is hearing the beeping of the microwave that let me know my hot pocket was ready.

About every couple years, my mother forgets that she isn't a cook, and falls in love with the idea of a specific appliance, diet or dish. For a couple months in middle school, it was all about the crock pot. Once she'd mastered the easy dishes (beef, beef stock, celery, potatoes, and a sprinkle of all-day convenience!) she decided to branch out. So, bright and early before school, she threw in ingredients for stew, and some rice, and switched on the slow cooker for ten hours. Ten hours later, she ladled it onto our plates silently, mouth pursed, eyes flashing with rage, daring any of us to call out the obvious. When my father suggested perhaps the recipe called for cooked rice, my mother bellowed some expletives and disappeared back into the kitchen.

In fact, the first time I remember ever hearing one of my parents use "the F word" was around Thanksgiving time. My mother is the youngest of five sisters, so when we were hosting Thanksgiving, we were hosting Thanksgiving. No fucking around. The turkey was almost completely prepared, and my mother was feeling adventurous. She had been given the Thanksgiving meal, and she was going to run with it. She had seen a recipe for turkey soup using the leftovers from the prepared turkey, and was dead set on preparing a piping hot bucket herself. She had slaved in the kitchen an additional two hours after the turkey for the soup. She had bought appliances and containers that we didn't have and would never again use for the sole purpose of this soup. The whole house smelled of soup, and nobody had been allowed in the kitchen for the entire day for this soup. Finally, all the herbs and special essences my mom had purchased had been mixed in, the broth had picked up all the flavors of the turkey carcass, and all the vegetables had been chopped, ready to be mixed in. All that was left was to strain the broth, throw away the body, and finish up with the veggies. The directions from the recipe called for a cheese cloth, through which the broth would be poured, so my mom bought some cheese cloth. She set it up in the sink, grabbed her massive pot of broth and chicken carcass, and began to pour. As she watched the broth permeate the cheese cloth and disappear down the drain, she remembered she was making broth. "FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK" my saintly mom bellowed as she watched herself helplessly pour the last drops of turkey soup down the kitchen sink drain.

This was not the last of my mother's efforts in the kitchen. The most successful attempts were the ones that took the least amount of energy and counter space. As successful as these were, her personal food trends still have yet to stick. She learned to make a fudgy cake with a box of cake mix and a can of diet root beer. She served everything on a tiny skewer for about a month. She considers spreading peanut butter on celery a recipe.

My dad is no better. He insisted cooking scrambled eggs in the microwave was just as delicious as in a pan with salt and butter and actual heat. My sister and I would brush off his disturbing claims by simply refusing to eat anything he had taken out of the microwave. This came to a head one night at dinner, when my dad decided to cook. My dad decided to attempt to cook an entire chicken body in the microwave. Needless to say, the bloodied chicken carcass that emerged from the smoking microwave was received with lukewarm appreciation.

While I wholeheartedly appreciate my friends' parents special chilis, zucchini breads and fried pasta (true story), I never wished that my own home growing up would be filled with special aromas, flour covering the kitchen. I appreciate the nights my dad was out, and my mom and sister and I would all go out to Trellis, the diner across the street, or to California Pizza Kitchen. Every year for my birthday my dad would pick up Chinese food on his way home from work, while my sister would make me a cake filled with blue food coloring. My mom would pick up a chocolate orange to give me. We'd stuff our faces, laugh at the blue cake, and watch old family videos of when I was two years old and fucking adorable.

When Marianne hears snap peas, she gets transported right back to her childhood kitchen, watching her mother prepare dinner. On the rare occasion that we'll eat a calzone, Christian laments their inferiority to the ones he grew up with. Abbe can't enjoy chili without her mother's special ingredient in it. Erika's been spoiled by her mother's homemade sushi. All I have to do is grab some Chinese take out, dye some food an unnatural color, or grab a chocolate orange, and I'm back on the couch with my family, admiring how cute I was when I was real little, and celebrating me. Better yet, all I really have to do is mention cheese cloth to anyone in my immediate family, and we're right back in our Roosevelt Island apartment, my mother screeching obscenities while my dad tries his best not to laugh.