I was raised by an Irish mother, but I grew up eating a lot of Italian food.
Sure, potatoes were a staple, and when we had company, my mother Mary could put out a dinner worthy of Julia Child.
But when I think back to her everyday cooking, the stuff that ensured that my kid brother and I found dinner on the table, it was her chicken parm pulled from Tupperware trays in the fridge, her made-ahead meatballs tumbling out of the freezer bag and the tomato sauce splattering a bit over the stovetop as she multitasked while reheating it.
To a kid, it looked like lava bubbling away in the pot, and to this day, the aroma of slightly singed red sauce is the smell of my childhood home.
We didn’t eat Italian because of ethnic roots or family tradition. We ate it because it was inexpensive and easy to make ahead in large quantities. It was the answer for a busy mother who had a husband working the night shift, who worked her own long hours teaching school and tutoring afterward and who had two young boys at home. Maternal love meant weekends spent cooking, batching, bagging and freezing to supply supper on the workdays ahead.
Mother’s Day is Sunday. That might bring to mind a fancy brunch or a nice spread at home honoring mom. But as the holiday approaches, I’ve been fixated on meals far in the past. A lot has changed with my family since I was a kid, but old memories of what were once unremarkable meals have deepened into something like awe.
My parents both had union jobs. When my father was on the picket line at the plant, dinner at our house sometimes meant pancakes with peanut butter. To be clear, these thrifty meals did not seem like a hardship, not to a kid. Pancakes and peanut butter for dinner? That was fun. Hard times on the job were still good times at the table when your mother made sure it felt that way.
Of course, I did not appreciate all this back then. I pushed food around the plate. I hid the dreaded lima beans in my napkin and tried to ditch them later. I’d plead and cajole for a stop at McDonald’s instead of the home-cooked supper that awaited us.
I was not grateful then, which is precisely why I’m so grateful today. My mother’s cooking was just something I expected, something I felt entitled to as a child who knew he was loved.
This was all a generation ago, but I don’t think the twin pressures of family and career have lessened much for mothers.
And today, there’s the added needling of other people’s domestic perfection as shown on social media and entire industries built around telling you how to improve your parenting with this tip or that product.
I’m not about to start giving anyone advice on mothering. But as we share some gratitude on Mother’s Day, I can attest that the reason I treasure my mother’s cooking has nothing to do with chef-tested products, celebrity-approved recipes or pristine ingredients. It was the time she put into our meals, and her grace to keep us from seeing when it really was a strain.
When the recipe starts with a mother’s love and devotion, those are the meals they’ll remember forever.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.