My parents died some 20 years ago, she in April 1999 from complications of Parkinson’s; he, in September 1999 of prostate cancer. That they were only in their mid-70s made it sadder for us all.
I tell friends whose parent has just died that I have little help to salve their loss. In the reverse of how we’d hope time would work, I miss my parents more as each year passes.
Perhaps that’s because they have had such an outsized influence on my life, day in and out. My father taught me about wine, beginning when I was 12 years old, and that launched me into 40 years of writing and teaching about wine, in a few million words off my fingertips and out of my voice box.
And it was my mother’s cooking, to make fecund a phrase, that got me cooking.
As my father told me the story: nine months before I was born, and only three weeks after their wedding, he came home and found my mother crying, as she stirred their dinner over the stove. He asked her, of course, what was wrong. “J’ai eu mes règles,” (“I’ve had my period”) said this fretful Belgian-born Catholic bride who had failed to conceive straight away.
“Well,” my father said, “Let’s go do something about that.”
My father and mother were a strange culinary combination. He was raised in Fort Lupton, a small town north of Denver, of a teetotaling Methodist father and a stern Irish Catholic mother. His most vivid childhood memory was watching his mother decapitate a Sunday chicken, tossing it headless to the ground, and letting it run wildly around the backyard.
My mother was a teenager in German-occupied World War II Belgium; rations of butter, flour, and sugar foreclosed on any kitchen education. My father eventually taught her how to make the flaky crust for the pies that he loved.
She blossomed as a cook in this country, self-taught from clipping drawers-full of recipes from food magazines; traveling often to Europe to take masters classes from the likes of Simca Beck in Provence and Darina Allen at Ballymaloe in County Cork; teaching several years at La Bonne Cuisine, a cooking school of her own devising; and authoring a cookbook that brought $150,000 (in 1991) to the Denver coffers of Meals on Wheels for People with AIDS.
She flogged sales of that book, self-published through its third printing, by setting up a card table weekends outside the Tattered Cover, handing out a couple of homemade chocolate truffles (recipe below) if you bought a copy.
I’ve learned so much about life as the result of cooking — my mother’s, my own, others’.
What my mother taught me about cooking food wasn’t merely that it was something that you did in order to care for other people. You did it also in order to care about the food that you cooked, and also and perhaps most important, to care about yourself.
You chose the best ingredients; you were meticulous preparing them. To you, recipes were neither tests nor showpieces but stories about food and cooking, stories that told you significant things about living interestingly and nobly and well.
You cooked slowly and carefully because it was a fine craft, and handiwork that a person, any person, could do over their entire life. Cooking focused the mind, slowed the pace of the day, let you attend to the beauty of the material world.
Her lessons are present to me my entire life. After I graduated from college, I lived for a short while with a few college buddies. Unlike them, I wasn’t too quick in the social skills department. I had lost a lot of ground during five years in seminary studying to be a priest.
But I knew how to cook, and they did not. Every Sunday, I’d roast a turkey or boil a corned beef or slap together a stew. And John and John, and Jim and Ewald, and a whole bunch of others would get together at our place.
It is possible to beat the poker table or sectional as the best place for a group of men to gather. And that would be the dinner table.
In the 1980s and ’90s, I reviewed hundreds of Colorado restaurants for both Denver dailies and online. Just before my parents died, I wrote up the restaurant of a young and upcoming chef, Jess Roybal. Shortly after the review, he died of a lightning bolt while golfing. I was profoundly sad and not sure why; I really did not know him well.
What I do remember is a dessert that he had made, a white chocolate mousse “sandwich.” When I bit into its mille-feuilles pastry, it splintered into snowflakes. A few wee fragments clung to my lips and languidly melted from my mere body heat. Once in a while, food is more than sensuous; it’s arousing.
Roybal hadn’t fashioned that dessert for me. He did not recognize me, did not know that I was in his restaurant. He just made that dessert that way, perfectly. It had brought me an intense pleasure.
We do not know, do we, the impact on others that our everyday actions may have? Certainly, we can choose to act this way or that and know full well the effect. I am sobered, however, when I think how unaware we are of our connections to each other.
To my mind, the table is the great altar of life. Weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, deaths, promotions, crises — and the everyday, every day — all are best at a table. Why that is so and not, say, at church or in the calm of silence alone, I cannot say.
Except that eating and drinking are so very real in their everydayness. And that is where I believe we must first learn to appreciate all else higher or better.
From “Friends for Dinner: Menus from Colorado’s Finest Chefs,” by Madeleine St. John, who notes, “This is my mother’s recipe for truffles. They freeze beautifully and make lovely gifts.” Makes about 30.
- 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, softened
- 3/4 pound bittersweet chocolate, melted
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 egg yolks
- 6 tablespoons powdered sugar
- Powdered chocolate (as a mix of powdered cocoa and instant chocolate-flavored drink powder)
Mix together well the butter, melted chocolate, vanilla, egg, and powdered sugar. Pour into a flat container such as a pie plate. Let cool in the refrigerator. Cut in pieces and form into small balls, Roll in the powdered chocolate. Store in an airtight container. Use waxed paper to separate layers of truffles. Refrigerate or freeze.
Originally published at https://www.denverpost.com on August 28, 2019.