My grandmother used to sit on the floor of the balcony, towel on her lap, mezza luna in hand. On the cutting board in front of her were carefully chosen leaves of fresh Molokheya. It seemed to me she was there for hours, mincing the molokheya to the right size and yielding the right consistency; chicken bones, an onion, a tomato and water, boiling away. Garlic and coriander seed flash fried in ghee. She must have done this almost a hundred times while we visited, because I can remember her sitting in the kitchen or the dining room or in the living room going at the molokheyya with the mezza luna. The main constant was my grandmother cooking for her daughters, sons in law and English speaking grandchildren who adored her kindness and humor.
I often try to imagine what was going through her mind as she cooked molokheya and more for close to 10 people a day in the summer
I often try to imagine what was going through her mind as she cooked molokheya and more for close to 10 people a day in the summer. Everything was labor intensive, but we always ate on time and we always had the afternoon to hang out with Teita, maybe take a nap next to the fan or flip through the TV channels – of which there were only 3 – for something to watch. 25 years later, I see my mother doing the same for her sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. So I ask her “Mom, aren’t you tired of cooking for us all the time? Why do you do it?”
“Because I want to”, she says.
Food as an expression of motherly love is one of the most powerful things to have while growing up. We all have favorite dishes from our mothers, even if our ability – and courage – to critique the food grows as we do, my mothers’ Beef Kamouneya is the best thing I eat. She makes it for me, tailor made. She makes it because she knows I love it. And after I eat it I get a big hug and a prayer for my success and wellbeing, pure Love. Flavor, texture, color and aroma all play second fiddle to the most important ingredient – a mothers’ love.
even if our ability – and courage – to critique the food grows as we do, my mothers’ Beef Kamouneya is the best thing I eat
There are dishes I never liked; black eyed peas in tomato sauce. I was forced to eat it as a child – I remember a particularly trying time sitting at the kitchen table in the late afternoon getting alternatively grilled on my multiplication tables and being ordered to finish my food. At that point it was the worst day of my young life. She was cooking food for herself and my father (cleaning fresh fish for frying). I remember the golden glow of the sunlight pouring through the window and onto the table. I remember eying the fridge and planning a mad dash for the peanut butter. I remember the acidic tomato sauce counterbalanced with the starchy black eyes peas. My handwriting was horrible – and still is.
Recently, I asked my Mother why she was so insistent on me finishing my food. Her response was that I needed to eat because I was such a skinny kid. She was afraid for my well being, my ability to thrive. She was preparing me for the years ahead, steeling my mind and body for the eventual hardships that were to come. Completely selfless in her almost fanatical insistence that I finish my plate, I am a better person because of it.
I cook because I want my diners to eat food that will be good for them and spur them on to great things, but I’m not their mother
I often meditate on what this means for me as a professional chef. I cook because I want to. I cook because I want my diners to eat food that will be good for them and spur them on to great things, but I’m not their mother. I can’t say “eat it because that’s what’s for dinner”. Still, that desire still drives the creative process. Many dishes are designed to evoke memories of my mother and my upbringing. The emotion poured into the food – often referred to by food critics as the “soul” of the dish – is the starting point for the design.
Nowadays I cook for my mother. She has special requests; my mashed potatoes and roast chicken. She asks my help when making Bechamel for the Macarona Fel Forn. She even brought me a whole duck and asked me to cook it for her. After 35 years and counting of being nurtured by this most excellent woman, it’s the least I could do to reciprocate all the love I’ve received. She always remarks that while the food is delicious, it should be my own wife and kids who enjoy this food. She wants me to start a family of my own, to nurture and love my kin the way mothers care for their families. She worries about me being alone and having no one to share my life with. I share the same worries, but right now, as long as I can remember my Grandmother and Mothers’ food; I will never be alone.