A gathering at a local store’s Mother’s Day display made me chuckle. Several men and women were engaged in a tell-all of personal oddities they attributed to their Moms. Layered with the laughter was a poignant sense of gratitude and love for those who had given them life. I couldn’t help but reflect on the more subtle lessons I learned from my Mom.
My Mother was a healthy “foodie” in an era before such terms were coined. Our dinner table routinely sported homemade plain yogurt, stir-fried organic vegetables, and brown rice. Sugar cereals were unheard of in our cupboard, and whole-grain bread was the only lunch sandwich option.
As children, my siblings and I did not always recognize the wisdom in Mom’s health-conscious lifestyle. School lunches were one point of contention. Our string cheese, bagged veggies, whole fruit, and sprout-filled whole-grain sandwich never qualified us for the great “lunch barter.” Twinkies and Cheetos were the stuff of other kids dreams…not ours. The only interests our lunches generated were the identification of unknown fruits and vegetables. Through us, our classmates were introduced to jimica, figs, kumquats and yellow beets.
One benefit of my mother’s love of healthy food was our restaurant exposure. There were no quick trips to drive-through restaurants for us. Fast food in our vernacular was how rapidly you ate your home-prepared dinner before the soccer game. We were, however, occasionally taken to fancy, expensive restaurants. Exposure to delicious, quality food was important to Mom. From a young age, we got to accompany my parents to high-end food establishments a couple times a year.
My Mother’s determination to expose us to all things good in the culinary world was not always easy. My toddler sister once loudly whispered, “Dis is better dan Mc’O’Donalls,” which got the snickers of an entire candlelit restaurant and ousted my father’s sneak trip to the forbidden Golden Arches in one breath. Her follow-up comment, after downing a succulent chunk of lobster, “Dis is da best hamster I’ve ever eaten,” was met with loud laughter from all the surrounding tables.
I marvel that Mom persevered through accidentally tipped chairs, spilled water glasses and the rare glare of patrons who believed sit-down restaurants and consumers under eighteen should be mutually exclusive. Yet through the process we gained an impressive set of table manners, a wonderful exposure to different foods, and a love of quality ingredients. Our reward for a semester of straight As was getting to choose a restaurant for a one-on-one dinner with a parent. Those dinners became among our most cherished memories.
Sugar in our home was virtually non-existent. Rare treats were hoarded and protected. Mom’s announcement that she had avoided all sugar during her pregnancies with us was met with a begrudging, “We didn’t even get sugar in utero.” Most of the dramatic moments in our childhood revolved around these precious sugary treasures. The great mysteries of the Reece household included, Who ate the ears off sister’s chocolate Easter bunny? Who swiped Halloween candy from someone else’s pumpkin? Who licked the frosting off the edges of the birthday cupcakes, leaving a telltale frosting- free inch perimeter around each?
One Valentine’s Day, my mom taught me a great lesson about food. Three Mothers baked cakes for our elementary school classroom party. My Mother was among them. The cake decorating expert’s frosting-laden cake was covered with handmade sugary, decadent roses, flowers, hearts and figurines. The cake looked like it had come directly off the Candyland game board. The second, slightly lopsided cake, was covered in store-purchased candy. My Mother’s made-from-scratch cake with fresh strawberry icing looked terribly plain between the two sugar-loaded confectionary dream cakes.
We lined up for cake, and I watched with great disappointment as the Candyland cake pieces disappeared. I was still in line as the person, two in front of me, took the last piece of the cinnamon-heart-covered lopsided cake. I was stuck with Mom’s plain confection. I trudged back to my seat, cake in hand, feeling terribly disappointed. My disappointment was broken with an “ouch” by the girl next to me. She pulled a long toothpick out of her mouth. The candy-covered cake had toothpicks holding it together. Suddenly I was glad I hadn’t gotten that one. I noticed the girl on the other side of me was picking all the frosting decorations off her cake. “Can I have that?” I asked.
I eagerly put the frosting rose in my mouth, and then subtly spit it into my napkin. It didn’t taste like the frosting I knew. It tasted like sugared shortening. “Not very good, is it?” my friend whispered. I grimaced then offered her a bite of my Mother’s plain-looking, homemade cake. “This is delicious,” she said, dumping her cake to get a piece of my Mom’s. One by one, I observed my classmates — who had eagerly snapped up the dream cakes — barter for my Mom’s creation. I watched kids, initially disappointed to get the plainer-looking cake, now thrilled at their choice. As we went home that day, I discussed my observations. My Mom reminded me, “The quality of something a lot of times is what’s on the inside. Sometimes you have to look past the exterior to see what you really have.”
As a Mother, I smiled knowingly at my young children’s rolled eyes and disappointed gazes when we walked by the sugary lunch treat aisle. I watched them gaze longingly at the brightly covered sugar cereal boxes while they placed the Cheerios in the cart. These days, I enjoy watching college daughters teach roommates to roast vegetables. I smile while preparing the steamed clams, asparagus and grilled salmon they request for their birthday dinners. I know now what my Mother knew long ago. In some ways it is about food, choosing and enjoying wonderful quality ingredients and being grateful for what you have. But it is also about much more: loving someone enough to care what they put in their bodies; teaching manners; enjoying one another’s company; and creating memories.
Thanks to my Mother, I have found and embraced my inner-foodie.