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Mom-Cooked Meals on Mother's Day

Moms Who Cook Professionally

by John Mariani

“The vision of milk and honey, it comes and goes,” wrote the great American essayist E.B. White, rhapsodizing on the power of home-cooked meals, “but the odor of cooking goes on forever.”

Lidia Mattichio Bastianich, mother of two and owner of Felidia Ristorante in New York City, also hosts her own PBS cooking show.

White wrote this, of course, in an era when most mothers stayed at home and actually cooked complete meals for their families. These days, however, many families are lucky to get a message on the refrigerator door from a working mom on how to microwave food from the freezer.

On Mother’s Day, good sons and daughters can hardly expect Mom to cook. So they usually make arrangements to take her out, most likely to a restaurant doing a dreary brunch of chafing-dish and steam-table items that she would never make at home anyway—which is why it’s a much better idea to take your mother out to a restaurant whose chef is herself a mother. Better still, go perhaps a day or two before Mother’s Day, in order to avoid the ho-hum buffet line and to feast on what makes that chef’s food distinctive.

I really do believe women cook differently from men—not better, not worse, but differently. I think women cook with a far greater commitment to wholesomeness than to novelty, producing simpler food guided by goodness rather than by the ego that is too often the hallmark of male chefs out to prove their culinary machismo by deconstructing the egg or whipping a lobster into foam. (Come to think of it, I can’t recall a woman chef ever serving me a dish with trendy foam instead of a carefully prepared sauce.)

In her book Women of Taste, Beverly Russell quotes chef and mother Marjorie Kloss as observing, “Women are more meticulous. They have a different focus. They keep the kitchen cleaner than men and are better workers than men.”

So, in advance of the Mother’s Day throngs, why not take Mom to a restaurant where the chef, too, is a mom?

Alice Waters

If you’re anywhere within striking distance of the Bay Area, you can’t do better than the cooking of one of the “godmothers of American cuisine,” Alice Waters. She opened her legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley back in 1971, pioneering a passion for high-quality, fresh, seasonal ingredients at a time when even the best restaurants in America still used canned and frozen products. Waters’s approach has always been to provide simple, perfect food: a baked goat cheese tart, roasted baby lamb, an unadorned peach with vanilla ice cream. She also has the more casual Café at Chez Panisse in the same building, as well as the very casual Café Fanny in Berkeley, named after her daughter.

For many women chefs, family and food are synonymous. No one embodies this principle more than Lidia Mattichio Bastianich, owner with her son Joseph and daughter Tanya of New York City’s Felidia Ristorante and two trattorias, Lidia’s Kansas City and Lidia’s in Pittsburgh. You can also get a good sense of her culinary style on her excellent PBS-TV show, on which her family members are always showing up to taste such dishes as zucchini and bread lasagna made with day-old bread; cauliflower soup with poached garlic purée; potato, leek, and bacon ravioli; and grilled tuna rollatine with tomato-lemon marinade.

Zarela Martínez

Zarela Martínez, mother of three, is the doyenne of rigorously authentic Mexican food at her New York City restaurant Zarela. Her daughter, Marissa Sánchez, has been involved with most of Zarela’s culinary projects, including the fine book, Food from My Heart: Cuisines of Mexico Remembered and Reimagined (1992), in which she writes lovingly of her father and mother: “Once at the dinner table Father’s sister and her husband, Tía Mela and Tío Pepe Janeiro, were marveling over my mother’s cooking. `Aida, you could cook for a king,’ gushed Tía Mela. ‘She does,’ father replied.” From such a background of taste came Zarela’s high standards, which are evident in dishes like snapper hash; a poblano chile stuffed with chicken and dried-fruit picadillo; tuna in a rich mole sauce; and marvelous desserts like bread pudding with applejack brandy-butter sauce.

Elizabeth on 37th

If any American chef can be said to carry on the traditions of wholesome American cooking, it would be Elizabeth Terry of Elizabeth on 37th (105 E. 37th St., 912-236-5547) in Savannah, Ga. A working mother with two daughters, she won a James Beard Award in 1995 as Best Chef in the Southeast, and her daughter Alexis co-authored her cookbook Savannah Seasons (1996). Those who dine at the restaurant can expect food that is at once scrumptious, nutritious and nostalgic, but always with contemporary twists and flawless technique. Witness such dishes as her chilled cinnamon-spiked shrimp, roast chicken and ginger poached peaches.

There are so many more chef-moms whose work I wholly admire for their distinctiveness and goodness, including Beverly Gannon of the Haliimaile General Store on Maui; Gale Gand of Tru in Chicago; Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill in Santa Monica; and Lydia Shire of Locke-Ober in Boston. I salute all of them for succeeding in a tough work environment. Come Mother’s Day, I’d feel right at home at any of their restaurants.

John Mariani is well known for his frank and poignant writing in Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion and the Harper Collection. He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and co-author, with his wife, of the Italian-American Cookbook.

(Updated: 09/22/10 NW)
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