I Didn’t Truly Know My Mother Until I Cooked With Her

My mother and I were not the “Gilmore Girls.”

Growing up, I didn’t open up to her about the people I had crushes on, the friend groups that were on the outs or who was invited to whose bat mitzvah.

But I did help her cook. Every day, when she came home from the office, I’d set up my textbooks on the kitchen island and pretend to do my homework, while really, I was gazing at my mother, the inimitable Ritu Krishna, as she deftly sizzled spices in ghee and smacked the valve of the pressure cooker closed with a spoon when it whistled. Partway through her cooking, I’d be summoned to wash chiles, chop cilantro or taste the food for salt.

We are opposites, my mother and I. Where she is poised, classy and no-nonsense, I am goofy, outgoing, a people pleaser. My whole childhood, we struggled to find common ground. We weren’t just from different generations. My mother was an immigrant from India; I was an American kid trying to navigate the world without a language to understand my identity. It was also very intimidating to have a mother who wakes up looking as if she just got a blowout, who is deeply admired by all her friends and co-workers, and who doesn’t wear deodorant because she, in her own words, “doesn’t smell.” I didn’t know how I would ever live up to the standards she set for me, let alone for herself.

The author celebrating her birthday with a cake prepared with her mother — an annual tradition.

But when she cooked, she was at her most accessible — changed out of whatever fashionable outfit she had worn that day, her hair pulled back with a clip, bobbing her head to Abba or Strunz and Farah as she nursed a glass of wine. In the kitchen, our relationship hummed.

On my birthday, we would make a chocolate cake from a Betty Crocker dessert cookbook together, decorating the top with rose petals and doilies. When I was gifted a children’s cookbook with a recipe for “green spaghetti” (pesto) — we made it one night and marveled at what would become our new favorite pasta sauce.

My mother worked for airlines, which allowed our family to travel often. During my childhood, we visited countries like Egypt, Italy, Morocco and China. Upon returning from any vacation, we would discuss the dishes we had eaten — dainty tea sandwiches in England, cardamom cream-soaked shahi toast in India, crunchy and satisfying onigiri in Japan — and figure out a way to recreate them at home.

I don’t think I realized it at the time, but cooking was one of the few ways we could really understand each other. As I got older, I became only more angsty, more rebellious, more frustrated by our generational and cultural differences. Yet I still wanted to cook alongside her, and she still wanted my company in the kitchen. Maybe she didn’t get the social significance of a grand prom-posal, and maybe I didn’t get why she wouldn’t let me drive with music on, but we both understood that this pot of beans would be greatly enhanced with a drizzle of tamarind chutney and a fistful of chopped red onion.

I was socialized to want a mother who was my best friend. Instead, I got one who awed, inspired and slightly terrified me. It took me a long time to appreciate her for who she is. But our path to mutual appreciation was paved in the kitchen. There’s something about cooking together — doing menial, repetitive tasks like washing vegetables or measuring spices (not that my mother did any measuring) — that makes conversation and connection easier. It lowers the stakes.

Since those kitchen island days, you could say we’ve taken our cooking relationship to the next level. We’ve spent several years working together on two cookbooks and now, when the two of us talk on the phone, we usually start by discussing what we last cooked in great detail. We debate the particularities of roasting lemon slices versus sautéing them, and which brand of almond butter is the best. It’s our shared language, a way to check in with one another that’s separate from work or relationships.

Food has always been a central part of my life because it didn’t just open up a world of different cuisines — it opened up the world of my mother.

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

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