“Two Kitchens” by Camille Jacobson
BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. In this fourth selection, Camille Jacobson combines heartfelt memories and authentic recipes to evoke a character as complex and flavorful as foie gras. That character is her mother.
By Camille Jacobson
My mother is making crepes. She pulls a large metal bowl from underneath the sink and places it alongside bursting bags of flour and sugar and a sweating quart of milk. The butter has been sitting out, and it’s reached room temperature, soft enough to cut into easily with a spoon. She wears a slightly wrinkled black linen shirt and pants, no apron. There’s a dab of flour on her collar, nearly iridescent against the dark fabric. Her lightened hair piles high on her head, secured with a barrette so that her hoop earrings show. The space between her eyebrows creases as she works through each step of the recipe from memory. Nearly every surface of the kitchen is covered. Frosted bottles of various oils and balsamic vinegar line the countertop next to jars of spice and little pots of coarse salt and pink peppercorns. Avocados, tomatoes, and onions spill out of a wooden bowl near the gas stove, and a pile of oranges sits near the sink, the fruits’ thick flesh puckered and glistening as the afternoon melts into evening.
Édith Piaf blares from a nearby speaker. My mother cracks two eggs into the bowl with one hand, whisking them together with the flour and sugar before adding in milk, the warm butter, and a splash of water. She doesn’t measure anything, assuredly pouring ingredients like a seasoned chemist. She sings along loudly to each song and sways to the rhythm, her slippered feet keeping time on the linoleum floor. She mixes aggressively, one arm clutching the bowl, the other moving briskly along to the melody at double speed. Flour billows out in big clouds, and flecks of batter jump onto her shirt. You must get rid of the grumeaux, she explains. She lifts the whisk and lets the thick batter drip down, examining the strand for any lingering lumps of flour. Once it’s smooth, she covers the bowl, places it in the fridge to rest, and sets the table for dinner. After we eat, she’ll take the bowl out of the fridge and spoon the mixture onto a hot buttered pan, waiting several minutes before flipping the circle easily with a flick. Cover with lemon and dust with sugar. Roll and eat while it’s still warm.
My mother remodeled this kitchen after I left home for college, transforming it into something unrecognizable. Everything I had known about it—the lopsided wooden cabinets, leaky faucet, wilted basil plant—had been replaced with stainless steel appliances and sleek teak cabinetry. The inelegant island and mismatched bar stools were gone, leaving instead a massive marble slab and modern benches. A touch-screen stove top lit up like a vessel ready for launch, and an espresso machine was built directly into the wall, buzzing and ready to serve at a moment’s notice. I could hear the freezer drawer coughing up ice into its container in the expansive refrigerator—a button on the front could be pressed to eject chilled, filtered water into a glass, and a melodic tune played as a reminder to shut the door. A twelve-speed blender stood solemnly in a corner next to a spiralizer, looking more like a sort of torture device than an unused kitchen accessory. Every countertop gleamed as if in a Clorox commercial, not so much as a single fingerprint visible on any shining surface.
My mother is French, Parisian to be exact; I had always thought of her as an incredible cook, and she always thought of the kitchen as her home. (My father could only make mediocre tuna melts, an atrocity to the French. He was often banned from the kitchen.) My mother’s knack for this domestic art was most awe-inspiring in the ease with which she managed to throw together random ingredients from the fridge or pantry or garden, and come up with impressive meals on the fly, every day. She had enormous flair, and when she didn’t feel like paying attention to an elaborate recipe, which was most of the time, she threw in a lot of butter and a touch of maniacal passion, never beginning to cook until the last possible second.
Simple things were what my mother loved to make the most—and what she was famous for. Her most common dinner concoction? Sunny-side-up eggs and tomato salad. That’s the sort of food she loved to serve, something that looked boring, just some fried eggs and a few tomatoes, but when paired together turned out to have the most exquisite flavors up its unremarkable sleeve. Anyway, here’s how you make it:
Eggs: In a nonstick skillet, heat a generous amount of butter over medium heat. Crack eggs into bowls and pour into pan one at a time. Reduce heat and use a spoon to baste the butter onto the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, and when the whites have cooked, shake the pan to loosen eggs from the bottom. Tilt pan, slide onto plate, serve.
Tomatoes: Chop a few heirloom tomatoes into fourths and place into serving bowl. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Grab a fistful of fresh basil, chop messily, throw into bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well. Add in pieces of fresh mozzarella if it’s on hand.
Straightforward, but in her hands, invariably perfect.
Which is why the elaborate kitchen upgrade didn’t seem to make sense, especially if I told you that my mother had not actually cooked so much as a single crepe or egg since the renovation—that those modern cabinets and complex gadgets reflected a role she no longer desired.
Certainly, no one had touched the new kitchen since it was built. I’d tried during summers home from college, but the new appliances were too hard to use, the touch screens on the stoves glitching, the coffee machine burning the beans. We’d tiptoe around it, order takeout, pretend it was not there. The irony of the great renovation debacle of that year was obvious to me: expensive, state-of-the-art machinery for a cook who no longer cooked. That was when it became clear that my mother had walked out of the kitchen for good, leaving behind the role it had provided her for years.
My mother’s instructions for her famous roast chicken: Preheat oven to 350–400 °F. Make sure the chicken is empty, rub with vegetable oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Put rosemary, thyme, and bay leaves inside the cavity. Place in a foil-covered baking sheet on the lower level of the oven. Roast for about an hour at 375°F. Check and make sure it doesn’t burn on top, and about halfway through, put some foil loosely over the chicken. You can’t mess it up.
When I was young, my parents would host a big dinner party once a month. Their friends would come over and discuss the midcentury modern furniture market and argue about politics and gossip about their other friends, and my mother would serve her famous roast chicken and potatoes with green beans, which of course she’d begin nearly halfway through the party, when everyone—including she—was good and drunk. I’d help her, rinsing and cutting the ends off each string bean while she gutted the chicken and lathered it in oil and herbs. She’d pour herself another glass of wine and toss sautéed onions into a pan with a big glob of butter before adding the beans and cooking them lightly, finishing them off with the potatoes in the oven, underneath the chicken so they’d absorb the drippings. After about an hour, when the roasted potatoes were saturated and the smell from the oven filled the house, she’d announce, Voilà, c’est fini, tout le monde! Venez manger! Our own Julia Child.
These were the glory days of both my childhood and my parent’s marriage—family meals and dinner parties carried out like clockwork. It was then that my mother taught me about the art of French cooking, and cliché as it may be, we often cooked through the easy bits of Larousse Gastronomique together; she would give me small tasks in the kitchen to make me feel important. It was around this time, and after I’d watched enough Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network, that I announced I too wanted to be a “cooker.” It is clear to me now that I simply wanted nothing more than to be my mother, whirling about the stove tops and throwing together perfect meals at a moment’s notice.
My parents divorced when I began high school, and throughout that complicated year, my mother never left the kitchen. A woman who had spent years cooking her own mother’s recipes and sticking to the easy portions of her Larousse, she now made at least one weekly trip to the nearby Barnes & Noble to browse the cookbook section. Later she would get into the navy 1989 Jeep Grand Wagoneer my dad had left her and set off for a day in the market aisles with her lists of ingredients. She developed passionate and brief attachments to new dishes. One week she fell in love with Nigella Lawson’s stuffed heirloom tomatoes. Another week it was Rachael Ray’s mini meatloaves. The next it was Mario Batali’s salmon burgers. I would return home after school, and each day without fail, she’d already be in the kitchen poaching and grilling, chopping and mincing. I’d shut my bedroom door and begin my homework, and sooner or later she’d call for dinner like nothing had changed. But of course everything had, and we’d sit and ignore the empty chair and eat Jamie Oliver’s fish tacos.
Her desperate attempts at these new recipes seem to me now like my mother’s stab at self-reinvention of some sort, her attempt to figure out out how to be a single parent and, in a lot of ways, manage the new role. Her exploits in this type of cooking, though not always successful (see: Christmas Eve Braised Short Rib Disaster), maintained a sort of familiarity—the stable image of her in the kitchen with her glass of wine and gobs of butter, running about and cooking for us.
By the time my mother remodeled her kitchen, she had met someone. Francois is a foie gras salesman. (Fatten, by force, the liver of a duck or goose, twice a day. Slaughter at 100 days. Now you have the bloated liver considered a delicacy by all of France.)
My mother’s boyfriend is also a vegan—the only French vegan I know—which my mother and I both learned during the last Thanksgiving he spent with us. To be clear, my mother loves foie gras because she is French, and all French people love foie gras. I have often wondered which she fell in love with first: François’s foie gras or François. In any case, my mother, in preparation for his arrival, had broken out our last reserves of the stuff and neatly sliced and arranged the circles of paté onto a plate as an appetizer for an otherwise American meal. We sat down to dinner, and as I reached for a dense slice to press onto my toast, François solemnly announced: Je ne mange pas cela. My mother promptly whisked the platter into the kitchen and tossed the remains of those poor geese into the trash. “Me neither,” she muttered.
The rest of the meal, the potatoes and green beans, turkey and stuffing, came from the hot-food bar of the local supermarket. I had watched as she reheated each of the items, dumping containers of congealed sides onto plates and putting them into the microwave. I sat across the table from my mother and François, watching them hold hands. My mother exclaimed that she had forgotten to add butter to the stuffing.
The thing about my mother is that she does not take anything all that seriously. This transition out of the kitchen was not a grand, premeditated statement. It was not a rejection of my father or my childhood or even her own love of cooking. It seems to me that more than anything, this was her figuring out how to stretch beyond a place she had created for herself, the one that had formed our family—and that perhaps reconstructing a part of the house we had all lived in was a way for her to reclaim ownership of the home. But maybe building the modern kitchen, with its stainless steel and glimmering marble, helped her realize that the role it implied was one she no longer desired.
Perhaps my mother gave up cooking to free herself from her position as wife, but that renunciation in many ways also forced her out of her position as mother. One day I asked her what was for dinner, and without explanation she said “takeout,” and since then I have known that she no longer wants to see herself as a woman who cooks. The kitchen is sparklingly new, but she has barely seen it, content to travel with François and spend the summers in Paris. When I come home to visit, it’s to an empty house and pristine kitchen.
It has also become clear that my mother knows all this and that she renovated the kitchen because she felt she had to—a kind of perverse acknowledgement or pallid attempt to salvage a piece of the past. The ease and style with which my mother once took command of the kitchen made her a glamorous figure in my eyes. But these days I no longer want to be in the kitchen like she once was—perhaps we have both grown out of that. It may very well be that growing up forces us to see our parents in a light that makes our desire to emulate them appear increasingly absurd—we are driven to search for something else to which we can anchor ourselves. Yet they’re always with us too, ceaselessly, uncontrollably tied to us in our ordinary moments—in the way we toss the salad with our hands or carefully flip the steaks or set the table for dinner.
Even in the old days, my mother was a washout at hard-core mothering; what she was good at was roasting chickens and mixing cocktails, all the while spewing witty comments and quick remarks that made me feel immensely grown-up. Now that I have grown up and her spot in the kitchen is empty, I often wonder what, if anything, is left.
If I were to say any of this to her, she’d probably say something biting but true, like “You’re an adult now, you can fry your own eggs.” Then she would go into the kitchen and throw together a beautiful cheese plate. The key is to choose a good variety— something soft like Saint-André or Camembert, paired with hard cheeses like Comté or Etorki. Serve with the proper knife and a few stuffed olives and baguette on the side. “You don’t need me anymore,” she would say as she lifted her glass.
“White or red?”