Photos by: Kern/Esta/Corbis (dough) and Jay Gullixson for Parade (headshot)
I married very young -- into an Italian family that owned restaurants.
For a geeky little biology major raised by a mother who thought that adding a can of
Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup exalted anything into a gourmet tour de force, this made the
prospect of preparing my first Thanksgiving dinner like getting up from the audience to sing along
with the Three Tenors and the Boston Pops.
The fact that I would be judged by someone who now dwelt in the right apron pocket of God
was a consideration, too.
I had never met my mother-in-law, who died young five years before I met my husband. She
appeared to me only in one of those hand-tinted postwar photos, her neatly nipped waist and thick
folds of chestnut hair making her look a little like Donna Reed. She was a legend: Her "gravy"
(Italian for spaghetti sauce) seemed to have more ingredients than 1,3-dichlorocyclobutane.
Most daunting of all, she made pumpkin pie from actual pumpkins. I didn't even know that
this was possible.
Yet my love for my husband was so big that I set out to butcher me a head of pumpkin. There
was no Internet then. There was no CookaPunkin.com. Perhaps as a tribute to my personality, I
hadn't received any cookbooks as wedding gifts, although I would later find
The Baking Book
at a tag sale. (I would have settled for
Baking to Avoid Ridicule
.) I knew this much: Every pumpkin pie contained cinnamon and
sugar, but there was probably also nutmeg and cloves. I asked my friend Annette, whose mother
cooked from scratch -- even lamb cakes for Easter ("What you need for a lamb cake is another
mother," my mom had explained to my child self before turning back to her novel). Annette said,
"Stuff like that always has canned milk in it. But I think you have to bake the pumpkin first and
then puree it."
So it really was like 1,3-dichlorocyclobutane.
Now my husband thought that I was delightful and didn't expect me to bake anything at all.
He hadn't wanted to marry his mother. Giving me her recipes for "gravy" and for stuff like Chicken
Scallapalooza Magnificata and Barcarole Glory Hallelujah was not meant to be the curse of the cat
people but a gesture of sweet homemaking hope. But it was not really for him or my brother and
sister-in-law or our friends that I was doing this. It was for the beloved icon in the shirtwaist
dress. For if there really was a heaven, my mother-in-law was up there with my own beautiful mom,
who'd be wearing Capri pants, smoking Salems, reading
, and pointing out that she hadn't raised her daughter to be the first
person in our family to graduate from college -- only to have me be brought to grief by a gourd.
I got up at 3 a.m. With a scientist's efficiency, I scored and measured and seasoned. While
the pumpkin baked, I crumbled from-scratch bread into stuffing crumbs and chopped onions and celery
and tiny bits of apple. Then I scraped that squash into the blender that we used to make
margaritas, added some sugar and two cans of condensed milk, hit the button, and sent a prayer to
the kitchen gods who had not come to my bridal bower.
I put everything into the oven, went upstairs, got a hurricane headache and a sore throat,
and slept right through the holiday.
Fifteen years after that first Thanksgiving, I would be a young widow with three little
boys, so poor that knowing how to make my own pies (and even pizza dough) turned out to be a
I still do this, in honor of the grandmothers whom my oldest kids never met and will not
remember, realizing with no small irony that someday I will be the one in the photograph shown to a
bride. It will be given to her along with recipes that will at least be legible because I typed
them -- though despite my biology background, instead of an exact measurement the word "some"
precedes every ingredient.
When I cook, every day, it's with a novel propped open in the stand meant for the cookbook.
It turns out that nothing much can daunt a good, plain cook. She really needs no recipe -- for food
or probably anything else -- just hope, strong will, and the guidance of her better angels.
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