Two mothers get their just deserts

It was the 1970s. Green jello was dessert, ravioli was always canned, and meatloaf was a Monday-night staple. We had our feet planted firmly in the suburban middle class, and that meant eating out was a rare experience, confined mostly to the Golden Arches and that exotic ethnic cuisine, Chinese food.

As a bride, my mother, whose favorite kitchen reference was "The I Hate to Cook Book," was a newcomer to the kitchen. In fact, when she and my father became engaged, they had between them a repertoire of three recipes: Chicken à la King (which my father loathed, but was too polite to say so), fudge (ditto), and oatmeal (his specialty).

The reality of family life necessitated a stretching of the culinary wings, and so by time I came around, a few more recipes had been mastered.

As it happened, my poor mother was saddled with a pint-size gourmet for a child. Not for me, peanut butter and Wonder bread. I wanted boiled lobster (at age 4), homemade clam chowder (age 6), and sukiyaki (age 11).

Perhaps in deference to the increasing demands of my palate, my mother expanded her menu further. Lasagna began appearing with increasing frequency, meatloaf might mean beef-and-pork, and occasionally the chicken was grilled.

But, for the most part, each cut of meat was entitled to only one method of preparation in her kitchen. At age 9, I figured out that this was not a universal norm, and politely suggested that she emulate "other mothers, who make pork chops without ketchup and lemon."

Unfortunately, I had the bad timing to suggest this just as the objectionable chops were plopped on my plate, while my father pantomimed "No!" behind my mother's back.

My salvation came shortly thereafter, when new neighbors moved in. The mother was Japanese, and a brilliant cook. I found myself drifting to their house in the afternoon, stuffing myself with whatever was offered, learning from an expert how to pickle daikon, marinate beef, and fry tempura. I was in heaven. But my playmate, her daughter, wasn't: She hated Japanese food, which she pronounced "boring," and thought heaven existed in the tuna-and-potato-chip casseroles my mother lovingly fixed for her.

And so it is that today, I have one of each: a pint-size gourmet and a picky eater. I now know the pressure of cooking for a little girl who loves steamers, rhubarb pie, and Vietnamese food. And I know the frustration of feeding her sister, who proclaims that "The only thing green I'll eat is jello!"

Keeping them both happy is an exercise in creativity. I long ago learned to stock up on Carolyn's favorite brand of macaroni and cheese - because, of course, she hates my homemade, non-neon-orange version. And I have learned to try new recipes for Kristie, while quietly stashing what Carolyn refers to as "emergency meals."

Thus, dinner at our house might be poached salmon, basmati rice, and collard greens - except for a certain short person, who will be happily tucking into canned Beefaroni.

Of course, Carolyn also objects to the odors emitted by the offending foods, so certain recipes necessitate a peculiar seating arrangement: Carrots can be placed near Carolyn, but never if they're cooked.

At an early age, Kristie realized the power of the palate, and has been heard to hiss, "If you don't do what I say, Carolyn, I will breathe my garlic breath all over you!"

Soon, we three will descend upon my mother for a little visit. She is already in a sweat of anticipation over this, her culinary nightmare times two.

These days, she has all of our food preferences on computer. She prints them out as much for accuracy as for reassurance. And sometimes she takes us out to eat, marveling at the sisters who clamor for either pulled-pork barbecue (Kristie) or plain pizza (Carolyn).

But now she has me to watch for her amusement, as I try to please my Gourmet magazine-reading girl and my fast-food fan. And perhaps that is, for my mom, the sweetest dessert of all.

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