New & NowCalifornian

The Most Important Things My 95-Year-Old Mother Taught Me

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I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. We had fruit trees in our suburban Southern California backyard—nectarines, apricots, and plums. We ate loads of them in the summer, mostly out of hand, but sometimes cut up in fruit salads. Judging from my school lunches and so many of our snacks, crudités were one of my mother's specialties, although I didn’t know the word “crudités” until I was nearly 20 and had been to France.

I knew that we ate a little differently from most of my friends. We weren’t super observant Jews, and we lived in the non-Jewish suburbs east of Los Angeles, but we ate bagels, lox, and cream cheese, seedy Jewish ryes, pumpernickel, and pickled herring. There might be cold beet borscht on a scorching day. Imagine inviting your (Baptist!) best friend to Sunday lunch for a blood red soup that turned Pepto-Bismol pink with sour cream stirred in.

The Jewish Deli–Inspired Breakfast Spread of Our Dreams

The Jewish Deli–Inspired Breakfast Spread of Our Dreams by Leah Koenig

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Pickled Crudité with Green Goddess Dressing

Pickled Crudité with Green Goddess Dressing by Alexandra Stafford

Another Sunday lunch might be bowls of cottage cheese, sour cream, cucumbers, tomatoes, chopped scallions, radishes, smoked fish, bread, olives, etc., to be assembled into a custom salad on your plate. I later discovered this to be a sort of Israeli salad. We ate sardines on toast with raw onions and didn’t think anchovies were disgusting. We always had a green salad for dinner, which was always dressed with vinaigrette, but we called it “oil and vinegar” because “vinaigrette” was another word we didn’t know yet.

My mother didn’t love to cook, and always opted for simplicity, but she knew what was good.

She taught me how to order a chocolate ice cream soda properly—that is, with chocolate ice cream, not just chocolate syrup. She knew that the best éclairs were filled with custard, not cream. She prefers strawberry shortcakes made with biscuits, not sponge cake.

The Perfectionist's Guide to Making Chocolate Éclairs

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Milk Chocolate Ice Cream with Salted Cashew Brittle

Milk Chocolate Ice Cream with Salted Cashew Brittle by Alice Medrich

She taught me to put sauerkraut and/or pickles on a hot dog. Her coleslaw was tangy, made with lemon juice and a pinch of sugar, never mayonnaise. I make mine tangy, too, often spicy—but never with mayo. She loved (and still loves) a good BLT (no mayo). We ate sliced avocados on toast with salt an pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice—well before it was called “avocado toast.” My mother was never, and is not, an assertive woman—a bone of contention with us to this day—but she taught me how to order things with other things on the side—and to hold the mayo.

Mayonnaise was the enemy!

There were no deviled egg or egg salad sandwiches at our house, or curried (or any goopy) chicken salad, either. Artichokes were eaten with melted butter (not mayo). Hamburgers where slathered with ketchup and/or mustard. Other kids’ tuna sandwiches were super squishy with mayo, and I was a little envious of how they always stayed intact. Mine had chunks of tuna straight from the can, not even mashed up (!)—chunks that fell in into my lap along with the pickle pieces when you tried to take a bite. Mother!!! To her credit, she falls off her chair laughing when I recount the tuna sandwich story.

She told me that her mother didn’t teach her anything about food or cooking, and there wasn’t even any peanut butter in her childhood. This is her version of “you kids don’t know how lucky you are.” She likes us to know we were lucky to have grown up with peanut butter, and with a dad like our dad. She still loves peanut butter and definitely misses my father. But she still doesn’t like mayo

What Alice Medrich's Engineer Dad Taught Her About Food (and Life)
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What Alice Medrich's Engineer Dad Taught Her About Food (and Life)

Most memories of my mother include shopping and/or lunch. The grandest version of this took place at Bullock's department store in Pasadena. Ladies wore gloves and hats there. I wore a dress, though under most other circumstances, my mother insisted jeans and a white T-shirt were perfectly respectable, as long as they were clean. Lunch was served in the palm-themed “Coral Room,” and our favorite thing to order was the Shrimp and Crab Salad. I remember it as a “Louis” (pronounced “looey”) Salad, because my mother and I still love a good Louis, and have eaten scores of them over the years. However, a quick Google search turned up a historic Bullocks menu that proves otherwise. Regardless, my mother taught me how to order it—and many other things—with dressing on the side. I passed this valuable lesson on to my own daughter, who mastered it at an early age. The salad in question came in a giant ceramic scallop shell. To an eight-year-old in her best dress, it was grand indeed—certainly bigger than her head! We behaved like “ladies” and had a very nice time.

Mom and I managed to shop and lunch through some rocky teen years. Fed up with the world and high school in particular, I marched off campus in a huff one day and headed for home without a note or hall pass. Two blocks out, I spotted my mother driving in the opposite direction! It never occurred to me to hide behind a tree. My mother pulled the 58 Chevy to the curb and inquired as to my plans. I told her I’d had “just about enough” that day. She said: “Let’s go shopping and have lunch.”

I took my 83-year-old mother to Italy for three weeks after my dad died.

No matter what was going on, or who was grumpy or annoyed (always me, never her), we always had a good time at the table or with a glass of wine in hand. We had our ups and downs. Literally. After ignoring my demand that she stay on the train until I got all of the luggage off, she picked up a bag and fell off the train. She then had marvelous “conversations” with the ambulance attendants (who spoke no English) en route to the hospital, and with the charming doctor who set her broken wrist—he turned out to have studied a bit of English with a writer friend of mine in the area. These were her first words after the cast was on: “We don’t have to go home now, do we?”

To her credit, once again, my mother remembers nothing less than the most wonderful trip. We both remember the pork sandwich. Strolling the market in a tiny town, I spied a food truck with a whole roasted pig on a spit. Sandwiches were being made. “Mommy, I think that’s something we need to eat.” We sidled up and ordered two, watched the guy slice meat from the beast, and put it in the rolls. There was no secret sauce (or mayo), no lettuce, tomato, pickle, or what-have-you. Just meat and bread. Secretly, I thought, “What could be so great about this?” She might have been thinking the same thing. We continued our stroll, munching our sandwiches. After a while, I realized that neither of us had spoken in a long time. We were just both in porchetta heaven.

At 95, my mother still loves to go out for lunch. We recently stopped in a favorite spot for a glass of Primativo and handmade pizza with anchovies and fresh mozzarella. Actually, my mother has recently and reluctantly sworn off the Primativo (and all wine), in the hope it will improve her balance. I’ve introduced her to kombucha instead. So the Primativo was for me. It arrived in a perfectly elegant, but stemless, wine glass. I really (really!) prefer wine in stemmed glasses, but I didn’t say a word. My mother opined that she always thought wine tasted better in a stemmed glass, too.

I guess I am my mother’s daughter.

Tags: Mother's Day, Essay, Alice Medrich