Like most kids, my brother and I spent our childhood and pre-teen years pleading for junk food. Fruit Roll-Ups, instant noodles, soda, Corn Pops – we wanted ALL of it. My mother, bearing the brunt of these junk food solicitations (“But everyone at school has them! Come onnnnnnn.”), was often the one who had to give the hard-line “no”. Despite all the begging and pleading (and possibly crying?), she stuck to her guns, filling the cart with items that were far removed from the world of high fructose corn syrup and red dye no.5.
Today, I’m thankful for her resolve. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom was trying to instill in us the importance of eating well, and more specifically, eating well at home. Apart from the occasional night out or birthday party at the local St-Hubert BBQ (chicken fingers! fries! bright pink dipping sauce!) or Pizza Hut (stuffed-crust Hawaiian! all-you-can-eat ice cream bar!), dinner, lunch and breakfast in our house was largely homemade. It was never something that, as a kid, I considered a luxury; it was just the way things were (plus, I still had my eye on those Fruit Roll-Ups). But as an adult, I look back on that time and realise how inconceivably lucky we were. Boeuf bourgignon, whole roast chicken, roast beef with Yorkshire puddings; hand-rolled perogis, homemade pasta, spanakopita, pilafs, patates dauphinoises; minestrone, split pea, tortellini and French onion soups; coffee cakes, bundt cakes, layered birthday cakes and strudel; sticky baked beans, omelettes, tea biscuits and blueberry pancakes on the weekend. This is just a glimpse of the dozens of different dishes mom has made for us and others over the years. And while all this was considered everyday food in her mind, it goes without saying that we ate like kings.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn that my mom was the one who first introduced me to cooking. She taught me how to make a quick cheat’s buttermilk and wrap fresh herbs in cheescloth to make a bouquet garni. She’s shown me how to stuff and truss a turkey, wrangle a pot roast, whip meringue into stiff peaks, blanch and “shock” vegetables and throw together a killer pancake batter from scratch in two minutes flat. She introduced me to the terms deglaze, dredge, al dente, mirepoix, roux, bain-marie and taught me that the secret to perfect Christmas stuffing is found in a Simon and Garfunkel song. You can still catch her humming it, off-key, while she’s rummaging through the spice rack at Christmastime.
Mom’s always been at ease in the kitchen, whipping around from stovetop to fridge to pantry and back again in a blur of focused energy. She’s been fundamental to my culinary education and, when I call her in the middle of a kitchen meltdown, is still keen to answer my questions about oven temperature, butter conversions, baking alternatives and expiry dates. All the while, she’s encouraged me to be bold in the kitchen and to improvise when a recipe goes awry right before the guests arrive. Most importantly though, she’s shown me how food can be an expression of love, something that becomes so much more when it’s shared.
Another thing my mother has tried to instill in us is the importance of birthdays – to take the time to celebrate them, preferably with a bottle of bubbly or, failing that, a dry martini. And food. There has to be food.
Today I want to take a moment to wish my mum a very happy birthday. We’re never quite sure how you manage to do it all, but thank you for all of it.
Love you with all my heart.
In our house, pancakes were never from a box, but always made from scratch and served with real maple syrup – from a tree, not from Aunt Jemima.
1 1/3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
3 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup fresh (or frozen) blueberries
Set a pan on medium heat.
Mix dry ingredients and add the blueberries, tossing them to coat. In a separate bowl, beat the egg; add oil, vanilla and milk to the egg. Make a well in the dry ingredients and slowly add the egg-milk mixture. Stir quickly until the ingredients are just mixed and the batter is still lumpy.
Once the pan is hot, add a lump of butter. When the butter starts to bubble, add ladlefuls of batter to the pan. Cook until little bubbles start to form on the top, then flip.
Note: You can keep the pancakes in a low oven to keep them warm while the others cook.