Born into the permissive Sixties, raised in the disillusioned Seventies, the third of three children, I came of age in a world where few rules were trusted, few applied. Of those that did, the rules contained in my mother’s cookbooks were paramount.
The foods of my childhood were romantic. Boeuf bourguignon. Vichyssoise. Salade Niçoise. Bouillabaisse. Béarnaise. Mousseline au Chocolat. Years before I could spell these foods, I learned their names from my mother’s lips, their smells by heart. At the time I took no notice of the gustatory schizophrenia that governed our meals. The extravagant French cuisine prepared on the nights my father dined with us; the Swanson TV dinners on the nights we ate alone, we three kids and my mother, nights that came more frequently as the Sixties ebbed into the Seventies. On those nights we ate our dinners in silence and watched the Vietnam war on television, and I took a childish proprietary delight in having a dinner of my own, served in its aluminum tray, with each portion precisely fitted to its geometrical place. These dinners were heated under thin tin foil and served on plates, and we ate directly from the metal trays our meals of soft whipped potatoes, brown gravy, sliced turkey, cubed carrots and military-green peas.
Had I noticed these culinary cycles, I doubt that I would have recognized them for the strategic maneuvers they seem to me in retrospect. Precisely what my parents were warring over I’m not sure, but it seems clear to me now that in the intricate territorial maneuvers that for years defined their marriage, cooking was my mother’s principal weapon. Proof of her superiority. My father might not feel tenderness, but he would have to admire her. My mother cooked with a vengeance in those years, or perhaps I should say she cooked for revenge. In her hands, cuisine became a martial art.
From E.J. Levy’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which was featured in the 2005 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Susan Orlean. When anyone asks me to name a favorite essay I’ve read, I often point to this one.