In my twelfth summer, I decided to make a birthday dinner for my mother. This was clearly the height of folly, since she was not only an excellent cook, but also a professional culinary artist.
From my mother’s long-fingered, elegant hands emerged potato salads that looked like wedding cakes, fruit arrangements that resembled still life and apples transformed into birds with a few cuts from a knife. Her food looked so good, people hesitated to eat it.
In 1967, my mother became probably the first African American woman in management at a Fortune 500 company. She was head of the employees’ cafeteria at Standard Brands,
makers of Planters Peanuts, among other products.
As her joyful apprentice since the age of four, I had grown up in the kitchen. Once I turned 12, my mother promoted me to solo grocery shopper and weekend cook.
On week nights, I concentrated on the four hours of homework I received from the private school I attended. Since I was on a partial scholarship, my mother and the school each paid for half of my tuition. My father had left the marriage when I was six months old, so she was the sole support. My mother supplemented her full-time salary by cooking for private dinner parties some evenings and weekends.
That year I was working my way through the thick, blue McCall’s Cookbook: The Absolutely Complete Step-by-Step Cooking and Serving Guide. Since I liked eggs, I had started with omelets. One glorious Sunday morning, I graduated from the egg section with a successful souffle: it didn’t fall.
In our household, we avoided using the stove during the summer as much as possible. One year we sat on the living room floor next to the fan, placed our plates on the coffee table, and ate tuna fish salad out of bowls my mother fashioned from cantaloupes.
So what did I choose from the cookbook to make for her birthday on that New York-steamy, July day?
While I sweated over the stove turning strips of beef–taking care not to ruin the sour cream sauce–my mother beamed at me.
Although I did not receive a formal allowance, I was allowed to keep the change from the weekly shopping. This is how I saved up for the ingredients.
I think I served it over rice, not noodles. And I must have also made a salad or some vegetables to go with it. After we sat down to the kitchen table to eat, she savored the first mouthful. Then my mother smiled and said, “This is delicious. You are becoming quite a good cook.”
Now I was the one beaming.
Wendy Jones is the president of Ida Bell Publishing, LLC. Ida Bell Publishing’s most recent book is “The Culinary Art Portfolio of Josephine E. Jones,” which can be purchased at the website: https://idabellpublishing.com/product-category/store/