“How did you make this?” she always asks. “A recipe,” I tell her. No magic trick. No skill. Just buying ingredients, following directions, not varying from what I’m supposed to do. My mother looks in her fridge and pulls out vegetables, slices them, even keeps the stems, sautés them, adds an egg, adds some rice, and what about that can of water chestnuts, that might be good, and is there a tomato in the garden? Oh, there’s cilantro out there, let’s add that.
When she was thirteen, she boarded a train from Mexico to the U.S. She knew no English. There were no instructions for how to become fluent, but she did, how to skip two grades or graduate at the top of her class, but she did, how to survive far from her parents, how to sleep alone instead of in the double beds she’d shared with her sisters. She did. No one told her how to measure a person by their honesty and kindness, not their good looks or money, not their empty promises, but she learned. She swears she can’t cook, but my sister and I grew up eating well: beans stewed with onions and peppers and sprinkled with cheese; roasted eggplant or buttered squash or broccoli baked into dishes she concocted to make sense of the kitchen in which she found herself.
Now I cook for her: red-lentil soup with lemon, yogurt berry pie, broccoli-with-feta pasta, all from easy recipes. “You’re so good at cooking,” she says, even knowing how to give praise — unwarranted, in heaps, how to make everything sweet.