Growing up I thought my mom was the best cook in the world, and she instilled in me my love of food. For my parents’ first anniversary they were given a copy of The Underground Gourmet, and in the late 60’s and early 70’s we ate our way through NYC’s interesting, exotic and ethnic restaurants. In the theater district we walked up flights of rickety stairs to eat Argentine or Greek food, we had fruit soup at Nyborg Nelson, and I had my first paella (and sangria) at age 14 at El Faro in Greenwich village. Though this may not seem noteworthy now, in the global world we inhabit, in 1972 this was pretty edgy stuff!
I cooked all through high school, making dinner for the family when my mom went back to work, and spending the weekends making all kinds of soups, and experimenting with bread baking with my friend Laura. In my junior year of college I moved from my dorm into an apartment with two friends, and resumed cooking. Though we started out taking turns cooking, eventually my roommates preferred when I cooked, and I preferred never having to wash dishes. With my love of all kinds of ethnic food I started collecting cookbooks, and we had lots of dinner parties. One Christmas I guess my sisters were otherwise occupied, so my parents and brother came to my apartment for dinner. As I made the elaborate meal, I recall vividly, a moment when it occurred to me that I had become a better cook than my mom. Wow, I had to sit down, I wasn’t prepared for this.
Over the years my parents stuck with me through all kinds of phases of my life, but I think they were relieved when I decided to go to culinary school. By this time my parents had a bed and breakfast in the Berkshires, and Mom and I would talk about recipes, and breakfast ideas, and when I would visit I’d show her some of the tricks I’d learned at school, and make suggestions about tweaking recipes. I would often cook for my parents when I visited them- they had a spacious kitchen, and Giudo’s nearby, and would send me off to shop with their credit card!
In the last year of her life, my mother who had been valiantly battling cancer for ten years started to fade. Without detailing all she endured, she was losing much of what had given her joy throughout her life, including food. I would visit, and try to tempt her with foods I thought she could eat easily. I would make her soups and pasta dishes and bring her ice cream as she could only manage soft food. In late March of that year I was visiting her on my birthday. We had talked about going out, but she was just too tired, so I said I’d make my birthday dinner and we would stay home. This was not the first time I’d opted to make my own birthday dinner, if I cook I make exactly what I want, made exactly how I want it, and I know it will taste the way I want it to. My mom’s birthday was only 11 days after mine, so this would be a double celebration (so there would be chocolate for her).
I decided on spaghetti carbonara, a dish we both loved. When at eighteen I was leaving with two friends on a trip through Europe, my mother’s parting words to me weren’t cautionary, rather she told me to eat the spaghetti carbonara in Rome, which I did multiple times. In Italy they use guancialle in the carbonara, which until very recently had been very hard to come by in the U.S. It is the cured cheek of the pig, peppery without being too spicy. On this occasion I wasn’t able to get guancialle, but I did get a very good quality, thick sliced bacon. Spaghetti Carbonara is a simple, but not easy dish to get right. What you do is crisp the pork, then cook onions in the rendered fat, cook the pasta, then toss it with eggs, parmesan cheese, the bacon, onion and the fat from the pan. (For the record I say most emphatically, that no matter what many restaurants offer, spaghetti carbonara is pasta with bacon and eggs, not cream sauce!)
Though she didn’t eat a lot, my mother seemed to enjoy the pasta, and we were able to have a really nice meal together, which had become a rare and special event. She even ate some of the tiny chocolate cake I had gotten for her. She lived a few more months, slowly fading away as the exhaustion of fighting her cancer finally got the best of her. It was the last proper meal I ever made for her.