White fish with herbed potatoes and lemon
For our third edition of our Sunday Supper column, Associate Editor Mike Jordan considers cooking for family, after medical reasons recently made it necessary to visit his parents in his home state of Alabama. As we approach Thanksgiving, Jordan realized how the simple act of cooking for someone is not only an expression of goodwill and a way of connecting with others, it’s also a reminder of appreciation, and good for the soul.
A few weeks ago I had a great conversation with bestselling cookbook author Anne Byrn, who Southern Kitchen is proud to have as a columnist. During our chat, she mentioned an article she’d recently read about a story in the Harvard Business Review saying that contrary to how things may appear in a time when media and foodie culture are making it seem that there’s more attention on food than ever, people are actually cooking less.
Without going into other questions the HBR story brought to mind, it made me think about the fact that we’re now in November, the month of Thanksgiving, “Friendsgiving” and cultural traditions of celebrating each other through a shared feast. I’ve roasted and carved the turkey, brought everything from beer and wine to Brussels sprouts, and lent a helping hand wherever needed in the kitchen. I don’t think I’m alone in wondering if the act of cooking for and with others, especially family, is just as enjoyable as consuming the finished meal.
Of course all families are different and have their own set of stories, and there are always triumphs and challenges. For my own family, I see the act of cooking for them as a way to be in service to them and reciprocal of the hospitality they've given me from my childhood to today. As I thought about what the HBR story was saying, I realized that it’s especially cool to prepare and serve family − immediate, extended and adopted − throughout the year, regardless of whether the month happens to be November. And I remembered a recent spontaneous holiday trip to visit my mother in Huntsville, Alabama, when I knew she could use not only a good meal but a reminder of how what she’d taught me about cooking had come back around.
My mother recently retired after 37 years of teaching city and community planning as a college professor. Although she still works part-time in her old department at Alabama A&M University, she’s enjoying the opportunity to chill, wake up later, travel with and without my stepfather (especially when that might involve a stop here in Atlanta to hang with her granddaughter) and take a break from her usual mode of being a busy body, although some habits die hard.
Nobody loves Mom like a Southerner, especially when that Southerner is a Nashville-born, Alabama-raised Generation-X-er like me. If your mom is like mine, she's the type of fully invested person who doesn’t just work hard, but enjoys working hard. She’s careful about what she concerns herself with and how busy she becomes as a result, but once she’s decided to do something, whether it’s helping a struggling student get her or his thesis statement together, or deveining every single shrimp that went into her homemade gumbo, or just raising little old me, she’s totally committed to giving it her all.
Like many people, I didn't realize until I was out on my own how much my mother sacrificed when I was younger. I knew she worked long hours and spent whatever extra time she had to finishing a master’s degree and building a small planning consultancy, in addition to her career as a professor and her other job of raising me. And somehow, she made dinner pretty much five nights a week.
She always cooked more than we needed, and to this day keeps enough food in the freezer to cook for a houseful of guests without notice. When there are leftovers -- and there usually are – she wraps the surplus in foil and brings it to campus for students and her department. I remember how excited she was when the department finally decided to add a small refrigerator to their suite of offices, which would routinely be raided by hungry future urban planners of America looking for a taste of family through Dr. Wilson’s home-cooked meals. It was an early lesson in the power of preparing food for others, and how the act was mutually beneficial.
Operation: Cook for Mom
My mom recently needed surgery, as a precaution (nothing life-threatening, thankfully). This being my mom, she worked her operation into everyone else’s schedule, even putting it off for a couple weeks by volunteering to babysit my daughter, while both my wife and I were traveling in different cities, in the middle of August.
When it was finally time for the rescheduled operation, Mom said there was no need to come up to Huntsville from Atlanta and be there when she was finished; the procedure was something several people she knew had undertaken, with no complications. I took her at her word, but I couldn’t help feeling that she may have felt uncomfortable not being able to entertain and feed us like normal while we were staying with them. That’s just Mom.
Entertaining other people is a Southern thing that should be enjoyable; never should it feel like a burden. I know my mother enjoys being in her kitchen just as much as she loves teaching community planning and consulting small Southern cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Decatur, Alabama (home of Big Bob Gibson’s Alabama white barbecue sauce). So when she said she really didn’t need us to make the 180-mile drive, I got the message and crossed my fingers that everything would be fine.
A week after surgery, Mom’s voice sounded rough (an expected result from the surgery), but she said she was fine and just hanging out until her energy fully returned. Days later, she sounded the same, but mentioned digestive issues. And each following day, I was able to tell that my mother was in pain, but didn’t want to cause panic. By the time we’d gone a full week, I realized that although the surgery was successful, she was experiencing a side effect due to medication. And I realized my mother might not tell me if she really didn’t feel well, because sh’s used to being her always-ready-to-cook self.
My wife and I decided to head to Huntsville and spend Labor Day with her. Mom has always loved having company, even if she had to sit back and let others serve her for once. And after all, if nothing else could bring a smile to Mom’s face, her 6-year-old granddaughter’s presence would certainly the trick. So we made a plan to drive up the Wednesday night before Labor Day and take over the kitchen.
Being in the media has perks, like access to vehicles. My friends at Atlanta’s Prestige Auto thankfully lent us a 2017 GMC Acadia AWD Denali on very short notice, as my car needed repair and my wife's car is less-roomy. It also helped tremendously that the Acadia has built-in Wi-Fi, since my wife needed to work remotely from her computer during the 4-hour ride. We packed the borrowed SUV with five nights of luggage, a few days worth of vegetables and a tank full of gas, and hit the highway for Huntsville.
When my daughter knocked on the door by herself and Mom scooted over to let her in, you could see by the smile we’d done the right thing. I loaded our groceries into her refrigerator, and the next day we picked up organic fruit, veggies and wild-caught seafood to make what’s currently be my favorite Southern Kitchen recipe: Anne Quatrano’s Fish Soup.
I’ve made this soup probably six times since discovering it. It has a perfect balance of surf from the grouper I prefer to use in preparing it, turf from the flavor of chicken broth, and aromatics, which include the orange zest, sliced garlic, chopped onion and fennel. And best of all, it takes less than an hour to fully prepare.
Even my Jamaican stepdad, who because he’s Jamaican believes he knows everything about seafood and its preparation, went on and on about how good the soup tasted, also sort of indicating that he was surprised I actually knew how to cook. He also insisted we call it “fish tea,” because that’s what it’s called back in Jamaica. Get to know my stepdad, and you’ll get used to his philosophy that Jamaica invented everything good in the world.
My preparation wasn’t without constructive criticism from the kitchen’s executive chef. Mom noted that I could have let the potatoes get slightly softer – I’d used the fingerling potatoes listed in the recipe’s ingredients although I’d always previously substituted the small, round “peewee” potatoes. It made a difference in cooking time and consistency (I’d say I still prefer peewee). But she enjoyed the flavor and got a kick out of the fact that the recipe came from Atlanta restaurant Bacchanalia. Maybe it was an endorphin boost to know that she and my Jamaican stepdad could both brag about not just critiquing their son’s cooking but also one of Atlanta’s most consistently top-ranked restaurants.
Feeling and getting better
Since the mood was good and Mom’s energy had gone back to almost-normal, we decided to get out of the house briefly early Saturday afternoon. I’d looked up Labor Day Weekend events in Huntsville and discovered a Caribbean festival nearby. We arrived to a blast of Caribbean music, line-dancing, island food vendors and happy, smiling people.
I ran into high school classmates and their families, and my parents ran into a few of my stepdad’s locally settled Jamaican friends. Mom, with my wife and daughter, walked out to the field where the crowd was dancing and joined the coordinated steps. It was huge fun − a moment of happiness and back-to-normalcy that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t made the last-minute trip.
We went back to Mom’s house and she felt good enough to reassert her rank in her kitchen. Walking around, getting some fresh air, and spending time with us had lifted her spirits enough to get her back in the groove. And I don’t know about your mother, but keeping mine out of the kitchen when she’s made up her mind to cook is an exercise in food futility. Plus she can cook like nobody’s business.
Still, I wanted to make sure she experienced the soup I’d made for how good it was. So I removed the potatoes, dropped them in boiling water and let them cook for 20 minutes, getting them to the right level of softness. They went back into the soup to simmer for 10 minutes, and we had second helpings alongside a salmon salad Mom prepared. This time she didn’t have any suggestions.
We left Monday morning, knowing Mom was back to herself. And beyond the company, her granddaughter and the festival, I knew that the act of cooking played a part in her bounceback.
Mom taught me how to cook lots of different foods but a few recipes stand out. My mother’s soup recipes count as a collective one, including her vegetable beef soup, her chicken and dumplings, and most certainly her gumbo. I’ve seen my mom do lots of things to food, but I never saw her prepare any dish that relied so heavily on kitchen mastery as gumbo, and I remember her telling me that if I wanted to have gumbo more often, I’d better learn how to make it. See, it’s not that Mom doesn’t like gumbo; it’s more that she doesn’t really like making it. It was understanding that she was willing to spend three hours in the kitchen, removing the “vein” from shrimp, concocting a roux and generally multitasking to make sure everything fit together perfectly, just to make me happy.
In various ways throughout the year, and always around the holidays, my mother is one of various women who lead the family in being thankful and giving back. On Thanksgiving, Mom usually hosts the family dinner, inviting us and our visiting friends to form a large circle before dinner. She then asks everyone to individually share what they’re most thankful for, from the previous year.
This year, my little nuclear family will be in Denver, but even if it’s over the phone, via Facetime, Skype of Hangouts, I’m going to make sure to be in the circle again to say that this year I am grateful daily, more than ever, to have my mother. She never complains about doing what it takes to host fussy eaters like me, because she’s Southern to the bone and learned not only the techniques but also the mannerisms of great executive home chefs. I know for a fact that she’s happier when she’s able to be hospitable, or at least cooking for company that may arrive any moment.
Next time I’ll let the potatoes cook long enough the first time to avoid the critique, but for all my mother has done for me, and all those loving meals she made whether I was feeling well or not, the least I could do was drive up a few hours and make a pot of soup. And I’m happy to do it again any given holiday. It may have qualified to be “fish tea” and it wasn’t quite the same as her gumbo, but it was definitely part of Mom's return to form, and it was a pleasure to be at her service.