I wrote this story as part of a collection of stories to be published in support of Women's International Leadership Institute (WILI), a nonprofit started by a good family friend. WILI promotes the leadership potential, employment and economic self-sufficiency of women from low-income backgrounds through educational programming, skill-building and charitable acts.
As a teenager, my brother used to joke, “Mom, don’t even pretend you cook.” This seemed funny to us as kids, and my mom never professed to be a great chef, but looking back now I realize not only how hurtful it was, but how factually untrue it was. My mom cooked dinner for us just about every night growing up; we rarely went out to eat, only on special occasions, and only ordered take out pizza or Peter’s Chinese every so often. So this means that she, with help from my dad when she was out of town or running late, cooked dinner almost every night for 25 years, from the time my brother and I were born through high school. Sure, were some of our friend’s mother’s “better” cooks, making more adventurous meals and spending a lot more time in the kitchen? Yes, but many of them were stay-at-home moms, having more time to devote to their culinary abilities. And there were other mothers who actually didn’t even pretend to cook, they would just order in or take us all out to restaurants instead.
At the age of 12, I decided to make her life even harder by declaring myself a vegetarian and only eating fish for the next four years and adding chicken back in the mix for the following 10, and she somehow managed to keep finding ways make me dinner, getting really creative with shrimp and fish. When I was a freshman in high school, she took a year-long position at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, DC and spent the year going back and forth from Denver to DC. My dad, who took over much of the cooking that year, says that he could do almost anything with frozen shrimp and tilapia, although some of it was questionable. We also ate a lot more pizza that year.
We joked about my mom’s cooking abilities because she was a working mom, spending more time running her own company than thinking about recipes or housework. Yet, she would get home from work and somehow whip together a nutritious dinner, always, she made sure, with a salad or vegetables on the side, often with lettuce, spinach, peas, carrots, squash and other veggies fresh from her garden.
While her cooking skills are maybe not world-renowned, her baking skills are pretty legendary. She is the go-to pie maker for all holidays and other events in our circle of family and friends. She even makes her own crusts, which, if you’ve ever tried to make a crust, is pretty impressive. Growing up she’d make delicious bittersweet rhubarb pies using rhubarb from a crazy overgrown plant in our backyard garden. One of the benefits of being able to make a pie crust is that, as she recently told me, you can put almost anything in it. I asked her how she learned to make quiche, was it something that her mom had taught her? But she said no, that she’d put her crust making skills to use and created another Jeanie go-to recipe, a cheese quiche. This was a particularly crucial meal during my vegetarian years.
My mom grew up in the 40’s and 50’s in a fairly traditional household in the mid-west with a mother who did spend a lot of time in the kitchen cooking for her three daughters and her husband and entertaining the other women and families of the very small town of Kewanee, Illinois, which proudly declares itself the hog capital of the world. Her father was an engineer who ran his own factory making parts for John Deere tractors. She recalls going to the factory as a young girl and being fascinated with the machines and tools. But when she told her father she wanted to become an engineer like him, she was told that it wasn’t an appropriate profession for women and was discouraged from pursuing it; more a sign of the times than the judgment of a mean father. She did not become an engineer, but she did leave her small town at the age of 14 to go to boarding school in Washington, DC and then on to get her PhD in sociology and to running her own research company, first out of our house when my brother and I were little, and later out of an office. Any lack of cooking skills on my mother’s part was a purposeful break from the traditional female roles she grew up with leading a new generation of women in the workforce and re-defining the role of motherhood.
My mom and brother in the hospital soon after I was born
I truly believe that my brother and I benefited much more from watching her as an independent, successful career woman than from having gourmet meals served to us at dinnertime. So thank you, Mom!
I use her quiche and apple pie recipes often now. The quiche is a really great, quick weeknight meal and I often bring an apple pie to holidays at my in-laws or friends houses. Although, I don’t even pretend to make a crust, I just buy one.
Jeanie’s Apple Pie Recipe
2 cups of all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ to 2/3 cup of ice-chilled water
2/3 bar of Crisco
6-8 peeled, sliced apples
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon butter
1. Fill a small glass with ½ to 2/3 cups of water, add an ice-cube and set to the side
2. Mix flour and salt in large mixing bowl
3. Add Crisco to flour and mix
4. Add in water slowly and mix with a fork until it is a consistency that sticks together
5. Take dough with your hands and roll into two similar sized balls
6. At this point many people would chill the dough, but as my mother told me, “I don’t have time for that”, so you can go ahead and put flower down on a flat surface and on your rolling pin and roll out the bottom part of the crust, stretching to fit the pan you are using
7. Roll out the second ball to make the pie cover; set aside
8. In a large mixing bowl, mix sugar and cinnamon
9. Add apples to mixing bowl and stir, coating all the slices with the sugar mixture
10. Pour coated apples into the bottom pie crust in the pie pan; spread out evenly
11. Dab small pieces of butter around the top of the apple mixture and then place the pie cover on top, pressing the edges together with your thumbs or a fork, creating a grooved texture
12. Cook for approximately 1 hour at 350 degrees
13. With any left over pie dough, we used to roll it out, add cinnamon and sugar to the top and bake until crispy, making a treat to eat soon after the pie goes in the oven.
*This recipe was pieced together in a phone conversation with my mom as she doesn’t actually use a recipe and neither do I as I learned from her, so the amounts of each ingredient are our best guess