Vegetable

How I Returned to the Kitchen After My Mother's Death

May  1, 2017

There was a time when I didn’t separate foods into categories based on their potential to become emotional landmines. There were years when I didn't have to suss out whether Thanksgiving yams would make me cry, or a Mother’s Day frittata would touch on a grief-nerve too live to bear.

My mother was my portal into the world of the senses: She taught me to cook without recipes, to experiment freely with whatever ingredients were on hand, to look first to the earth, and second to the demands of hunger. But in 2008, when she died, the kitchen suddenly became a foreign space filled with hotspots of loss.

In the months after her death, I felt infantile, my twenty-four-year-old self reduced to the lowest common denominator of adult capacity. There were days when I couldn’t bear to step into the kitchen at all, so weighty was the pall of her absence. Gradually, I steeled myself to eat simple foods that offered maximal comfort, foods I ate as an infant. One ingredient was particularly pacifying, a food that was also one of my first words: Fuff. (Or, in adult English: tofu.)

There were days when I couldn’t bear to step into the kitchen at all, so weighty was the pall of her absence.

My parents were hippies at heart, lovers of nutritional yeast and bulk bins and blue-green algae. My mother plied me with millet and carob from the time I was a toddler. And tofu, tofu was our mainstay. Tofu baked with freshly grated ginger, toasted sesame oil, and soy sauce; tofu smeared with olive oil and coated with cornmeal and yeast and Spike seasoning blend; tofu sautéed in butter and Bragg's; tofu pan-fried with tamari and garlic and, yes, more yeast.

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Top Comment:
“I love both tofu & cilantro, so I'm eager to try this recipe.”
— Samina
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At fifteen, I bought my mom a fridge magnet with an illustration of a 1950s housewife standing gleefully over her stove, except this one said, “What couldn’t that woman do with tofu!” It was the apotheosis of her kitchen identity: She was a tofu whisperer, and my father and I praised her excellence at multiple meals each week.

But the kitchen, I learned, was also a locus for vulnerability and intimacy—a space where my mother could be most herself. My father would often coerce her to dance with him on the bit of wood flooring in our open kitchen, the two of them in their inside-only Birkenstocks and their chunky camp socks. My dad’s soft, practical hands and my mom’s long fingers, their deep brown eyes laughing at each other, the two of them dancing. To Sinatra. Swaying to “Our Love is Here to Stay.”

Sometimes I felt embarrassed watching them in what seemed like such a private moment, their romance, their singing to each other, my dad in his hopeful croon promising his love to my mom, my mom utterly surrendered to everything they were together, all the ways their love had stayed. Had lasted. Even as the house around them crumbled. Even as her body crumbled. She knew how to cook tofu, and so would I.

This, then, was how I put myself back together again in the kitchen, summoning those moments when the wholeness of our family was so plain and joyful it didn’t hurt. Remembering her as she was before, relearning the tastes and textures and foods that she gave me. Now, when I make tofu, I feel her in me. Drain the water. Slice the curd. Marinate. Remember. Feel it all.


Photo by Lily Diamond

This black sesame-crusted tofu is a riff on the baked ginger tofu my mom made weekly. Here, it’s topped with another childhood staple: tahini, or sesame butter. We drizzled tahini everywhere, on sprouted bagels, rice cakes, fresh fruit, and steamed veggies (a.k.a. Hippie Cuisine 101). Which brings me to this luscious black sesame-crusted tofu bowl with cilantro-tahini sauce.

The perfect meal to make for a dinner party or a casual friend gathering, it comes together in about 40 minutes, it’s infinitely customizable, and it’s super delicious.

Recipe from KALE & CARAMEL: Recipes for Body, Heart, and Table published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Photos copyright © 2017, Lily Diamond

What foods do you turn to to ease back into the kitchen? Tell us in the comments below.

18 Comments

Nancy S. May 13, 2017
Loved the beautiful story about your Mother- remarkable how thinking about food, preparing food can bring our Mothers back close to us. I miss my Mother daily. She was not a Tofu eater, but I am- and I miss your funny comments about Tofu everytime I make it. Thanks for beautifully sharing your thoughts on your Mother.
 
Author Comment
Lily D. May 15, 2017
Thank you, Nancy. Thinking of you on this day-after-Mother's Day. Sending love and tofu.
 
JennyBean May 5, 2017
This was such a sweet, beautifully written peek into the ultimate creation only the kitchen may offer and nurture. Lasting, loving, remarkable bonds between a mother and daughter, family, and friends. Thank you for the touching post, sharing your memories and experiences.
 
Author Comment
Lily D. May 15, 2017
Thank you, Jenny. So happy it touched you. <3
 
Gena H. May 3, 2017
Just beautiful, Lily. Thank you so much for sharing with all of us. (And the recipe is wonderful.) <3
 
Author Comment
Lily D. May 4, 2017
Thank you, Gena! Sending big hugs your way.
 
Samina May 1, 2017
What a beautiful story! I'm finally learning to cook the foods my mother makes, now that I realize that she won't be around forever. I love both tofu & cilantro, so I'm eager to try this recipe.
 
Author Comment
Lily D. May 4, 2017
Hi Samina! Thank you. Totally—cherish those moments of mother-daughter transmission. So precious. And yay, I'm so excited for you to try!
 
ChefJune May 1, 2017
An absolutely beautiful piece and beautifully written. Much like Liz Andrew, I don't connect with tofu and cilantro, and neither did my mom. but so much of what I cook ever day and for "company" are dishes that she taught me and that we cooked together. This recipe has always been one of my favorites: https://food52.com/recipes/8285-orange-honey-crescents
 
Author Comment
Lily D. May 4, 2017
Thank you, June! Those orange honey crescents sound delicious.
 
Cindy May 1, 2017
This is a beautiful piece. The foods my mother made were simple fare but they live on through me, her grandchildren and probably my grandchildren when they are grown. The memories are sweet and sometimes painful, but in her dishes, she lives on:)
 
Author Comment
Lily D. May 1, 2017
Oh Cindy, thank you. It's incredible what a gift the legacy of food is through generations. I'm so glad those recipes live on in you and your children and grandchildren. Beautiful.
 
Liz A. May 1, 2017
such beautiful memories. i wish i loved tofu and cilantro to make this - but your words are enough. thank you lily :)
 
Author Comment
Lily D. May 1, 2017
Thanks, Liz. I'll make you cilantro-free tahini sauce any day :).
 
Anna F. May 1, 2017
Beautiful piece and a warm tribute to your wonderful mother!
 
Author Comment
Lily D. May 1, 2017
Thank you, Anna. <3
 
Whiteantlers May 1, 2017
I don't know what to say that wouldn't trivialize your feelings and what you shared, other than thank you.
 
Author Comment
Lily D. May 1, 2017
Thank YOU for reading. Sending <3.