Mothers, Children, and Off-Limits Kitchens

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When I picture my grandmother as a young girl, I see her hovering in the living room doorway at the house on Diamond Street. She is all skinny knees and sharp elbows, her hair window-framing her face like dark curtains yanked open to a whitewashed moon. In her gloved hands is a silver platter, trembling with teacups. It is 1929.

These pre-Depression afternoons are a precipice for my grandmother, although she does not know it. She spends her time in the yard with her cat Harvey twined around her shoulders, playing with her brothers, and sitting at the beach with her grandparents, her father, and her glamorous Aunt Nina, a former beauty queen with a green roadster and a closet of fur stoles. She is not allowed in the kitchen—except to serve scones and tea to her mother’s friends. It is the one thing she is tasked with, and, as I watch her there in the doorway, 11-years-old and unaware of the shadows flickering distantly in her future, I think that it must have felt terribly important to her, to perfectly pour a hot ribbon of tea so that it curled like a napping cat’s tail into the bottom of the cup.

As 1929 thundered into 1930, the household crashed down around her. Her father lost the business he had built for 20 years; the family was forced to move, many times, all across Philadelphia, never staying in one rented home for long. My great-grandfather finally found work as a janitor in a local high school.

By the time Pearl Harbor came blaring through the radio at 2 o’clock on a Sunday (I imagine they’d just been at church), she would surely have already been longing for the quiet routines of the vanished world of Diamond Street. But the war brought my grandmother three greater challenges than anything the Depression’s fickle wrath had handed down. In 1942, her mother Marie died suddenly, stricken with pneumonia. This was followed, in early 1943, by two telegrams, blue letters spelling out her brother Richard’s name and “North Africa” where he had been with the infantry since November. The first message said “wounded,” and the second said “killed.”

In between these family tragedies, she faced another obstacle alone: dinner. With her mother gone, it became her duty to cook for her father and twin brother, but, although she was nearing 24, she had never been taught how to cook; had, in fact, never even been permitted in the kitchen while meals were prepared. She did not know how or where to buy meat and produce. She did not know how to season or roast or bake. She was a broken link in an endless chain of mothers before her who had guided their daughters in the kitchen. She could pour tea like a lady, but she did not know how to boil water.

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In those early days in 1942, she ventured first to her neighbors, and then to the butcher and the grocer, looking for help. Birdseye frozen foods, then a somewhat new invention, were her great savior. One of my aunts says that Birdseye was “the only reason they didn’t starve.”

My grandmother’s cooking was pragmatic and utilitarian, churning out food that could be made hastily and amid distraction. When she married my grandfather in 1949, after seven years of struggle through grief and chores, her father continued to live with them. My grandfather used to say he was her “last chance”—she had reached an age (over 30) that meant infinite spinsterhood in the 1940s. The five children who followed weren’t always pleased with the bland dinners she served.

Typical meals during my dad’s childhood included beef stew, liver with onions and bacon, baked chicken on Sunday, and on Friday, because they were Catholic, fish sticks and stewed tomatoes. My dad pronounced the first three “pretty good,” but says of the fish sticks: “they had as much resemblance to fish as rocks do to diamonds.” His sister Chrissy couldn’t tolerate any of her mother’s meals except the chicken, existing on peanut butter and jelly for most of the week. “She was a wonderful person,” Chrissy says. “Not a cook.” His sister Maria says, “She could organize a dinner for a hundred people, but could not cook it!”

“Instant anything was always on her menu,” my dad says. “If she could make it fast, she served it.” There were Betty Crocker cakes, one-minute puddings, and the infamous fish sticks, boxed in the freezer. In her reliance on prepackaged foods, she was hardly alone, given their popularity throughout the 1950s. (My dad: “No one baked from scratch then except grandmas.”) But she was forced to rely on them because she knew little else.

My grandmother’s life was outlined by her griefs, although she rarely talked about them: the mother she had not expected to lose, the brother who died at 23 with his entire adulthood laid out like a broken promise before him. I do not get the sense that my grandmother ever found much joy in cooking—and who could blame her? I can hardly guess at the scrambling, the mess, the sticky floors created in an infinite race to make three meals a day, seven days a week, for seven people. Particularly when you lack all but the most basic cooking skills and have none of the instincts, rooted in experience, necessary for culinary creativity.

As soon as my dad and his siblings could reach the stove, my grandmother taught them to cook. This was a conscious and stubborn rebuttal of her mother’s choice to keep her only daughter out of the kitchen (Marie was a controlling woman who didn’t like anyone underfoot while she worked; it’s likely that she had intended to teach my grandmother to cook when she got engaged).

My dad’s cooking is a lot like his mother’s, I guess, in that he tends to make everything as quickly as possible, and he rarely seems to enjoy it. He has always been the main chef in my parents’ house and was responsible for many of my childhood meals, which contained frozen vegetables and instant rice but, thank God, never any fish sticks.

Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist living in New York City. Her work has previously appeared online for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Saveur. You can read more of her work at kileybense.com.

Photo of teacup by Kalle Gustafsson CC BY
Photo of mother in kitchen by John Sadovy /Getty

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