Over the past several years, I've had many an occasion to write about the Chef Mother, sharing a bit of my family history and kitchen training at my mother's hands. But it's hard to grasp how truly encompassing her influence has been on me. She taught me the vast majority of what I know about cooking and food preservation, even though I eventually followed my own path through 15 or so years of vegetarianism, a deep interest in various ethnic cuisines, and started my own home-based food business. My palate became more adventurous, and at times I became the teacher in the kitchen. But whenever I come back to the basics -- and that happens often -- I return to her teachings.
Like me, she learned her way around the kitchen at an early age. As the eldest of three daughters, it's no surprise that she was called upon to learn to cook and to help with daily meals as well as special treats, such as this cake.
The skills she learned at home (and, again, like me, through 4-H) laid the groundwork for her college studies -- she majored in Home Economics at a time when it meant something worthwhile -- and her work life. Among her first jobs were a stint as a county extension agent and a cook at a Catholic girls' school. She wore her chef's whites early on, even when cooking for friends. (The caption on the back of this photo reads: "At Mrs. Miller's, the night I helped her make cookies for her son's wedding.") Hey, she made cooking look good way before the Food Network did.
A few years after this, she became the first food service teacher at the newly built Lorain County Joint Vocational School in Oberlin, Ohio, and she made her mark on the program from the beginning. I remember many days -- school holidays, summer days, weekends -- when she took me with her into the program's suite of professional kitchen, pantry, coolers, and offices. I roamed the stainless-steel kitchen, helping myself to ice from the machine or even croutons from the pantry (shhhh! don't tell!) while she finished paperwork. Though I never really looked at her basic text book (The Professional Chef
from the Culinary Institute of America), I often browsed other cookbooks and trade magazines, and as I grew older I helped type her exams (and took more than a few, too).
Part of her job at the school was to supervise the students in running a small restaurant and in hosting more formal dinners. I remember that on days when she had dinners scheduled, she often left for work early and came home late, leaving My Dear Papa and me to fend for ourselves in the kitchen. (Luckily, she trained us well.) On occasion, she stepped out of the classroom setting and shared her skills elsewhere, as in this special dinner when I was in high school. And as a member of the Cleveland Culinary Association for a number of years, she often attended their meetings and met area chefs, being recognized for her own merit as a "Chef Educator."
Many of the memories my mother and I created revolve, naturally, around food:
--picking strawberries and blueberries in the summer and making jam
--her support for my various 4-H food projects, from planning to execution to judging -- and even to the State Fair for those legendary croissants
--mother-daughter lunches at classy restaurants on days when we played hooky from school
--baking Dad's favorite lemon cake for his birthday
--watching Julia Child, The Frugal Gourmet, and other TV cooks on PBS on Saturdays
--visiting restaurants for her to check on her students working there
--and so many more
Though I'm sure she worried about my leap from a secure job at the library, my mother was proud and supportive of me as I launched my home baking business. She helped out at the original farmers' markets at Local Roots, she bought me bread pans and other equipment, and she bragged about me constantly wherever she went, insisting that people had to try my bread. She delighted in the samples I would bring her of new items, and she freely (very
freely!) offered her opinions and suggestions. She loved hearing about my plans for classes at Today's Kitchen Store, even though she knew she wouldn't be able to attend.
As you might have guessed by now, my use of the past tense means that the Chef Mother is no longer with us. At Christmas, she suffered a mini-stroke, and though she worked hard to try to regain her strength and some mobility, she had too many medical conditions stacked against her, including recurrent infections that sent her from the nursing home to the hospital and back. She had care from Hospice over the past month, but just last week she declined rapidly, and around 8 PM last night, the Chef Mother -- Erma Carol McMullen, my beloved mother -- died.
I am so grateful that we had the time to know that the end was coming, the time to express our love and to say good-bye. But there is a gaping hole now in my life that I will now have to live around. No longer will I be able to call her up to ask a cooking question; no longer will I hear her delight and interest as she quizzes me about my latest cooking efforts or my class plans; no longer will I be able to tempt her with something new and creative from my kitchen.
Still, it is impossible to think that she will ever be completely absent from my kitchen. I remembered when I first stumbled across the book The Kitchen God's Wife
by Amy Tan, I thought it in some way referred to my mother, and I think she will always be a guiding presence in all that I cook or bake. My life now revolves around food, and that surely is due to my mother's positive influence. She loved to learn -- anything new! -- and I am certain I will continue that tradition, pushing my own boundaries and trying new techniques and recipes.
I love you, Mom. I will miss you more than I can say.