About eleven years ago, my mom decided to throw a luncheon. That’s the word she used, luncheon. My brother and I remember her for many things that’d offer a different impression. She was a competitive athlete, loved a good fart joke, would laugh until she snorted, and she had that motherly knack for sniffing out the bullshit in a situation. But I must also acknowledge that she was an aspiring society lady.
She’d only been living in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a year and a half at the time. Prior to that, she’d spent almost her entire life in Boise, Idaho, near her parents, family, and many decades-old friends. In Charlotte she had only my dad, whose new job was the reason for their move. I visited during that first month they lived there and we explored the stately, lush historic residential districts. We ate at a few good restaurants, went on hikes and to the Mint museum, and there seemed to be a genuine thrill for the adventure. But then after she dropped me at the airport and I’d said goodbye, I felt a hot wave of sadness for her. It struck me then that she was on her own for most of the day. I pictured her driving off in the old Cabriolet that they’d shipped across the country, trying in vain to find enthusiasm for the blank canvas that was the rest of her week.
A few months after that visit my grandmother got sick, and Mom spent the fall of 2003 and winter of 2004 flying back and forth across the country to help care for her. Grandma died in April and Mom continued traveling west to help my grandfather readjust. Then later that fall, in 2004, Mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. Treatment lasted about 6 months until she went into a brief remission. Those months cost her much of her physical command — her energy, hair, a lot of weight. She’d had little time to grieve the loss of her own mother or worry about how her father was carrying on. But somehow it hardened her resolve cultivate a social life. She decided to host a luncheon.
Mom always followed a recipe precisely, usually clipped ones from the Idaho Statesman and Ladies Home Journal, or Xeroxes from friends and wives of my dad’s colleagues. She stored them in a series of tattered, unorganized, over-stuffed manila folders that she stacked on top of each other in a precarious tower in a kitchen cupboard. She didn’t own Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The Silver Palate Cookbook, or anything in the Chez Panisse oeuvre, and at some point in the mid-nineties she cancelled her subscription to Bon Appetit because it got “too weird.” She couldn’t bring herself to try sushi, and her steaks — and even fish — had to be cooked so well that they bordered on fibrous.
But when the time came, she aimed high. She owned a number of lavishly produced Junior League cookbooks. One favorite of these was Beyond Parsley, by the Junior League of Denver, which her recipe for spinach salad with warm bacon vinaigrette came from, and the crumb-topped cream cheese bars that were her “thing” at a party. In a monthly dinner club my parents and three other couples participated in, she made assertive salads of avocado, pineapple chunks, and crab, folded together with mayonnaise, or simple but refined meats like slow-cooked London broils marinated in soy sauce and brown sugar. There was the day-long affair of beef bourguignon, and a triumphant, praline-topped cheesecake. From her friend Suzy, she learned how to fry chicken, make clam chowder, tortilla chips, and yeasted dinner rolls. But all these things were so involved they were relegated to special occasions only.
Then there’s Bound to Please. This was Mom’s favorite cookbook, by a long lead. Published by the Junior League of Boise in 1983, it reads much like one of the recipe folders Mom kept: uneven but with some common themes, written for and sourced from friends and family as well as a few local restaurants. It’s filled with at least 400 recipes, bound in a three-ring case that folds across the middle so that the book functions as its own stand. In the fashion of community cookbooks it’s sprinkled with a range of tips, such as to add a pinch of baking soda to mashed potatoes to make them fluffier, reminders to stir eggs as you’re hard-boiling them so that the yolks stay centered, and the suggestion to dust a cake with cornstarch before frosting to avoid tearing the crumb.
It has a lot of gems, of course. Cheesy Chowder which we all loved, from The Sandpiper, a favorite Boise restaurant, and an artichoke-and-chili baked appetizer that she brought to picnics and parties. And the Chocolate-Chocolate Bundt Cake was what I always wanted for my birthday — it’s made from a box of chocolate fudge cake mix and a box of chocolate fudge pudding mix, plus chocolate chips, eggs, sour cream, warm water, and oil. It has a silky, loose batter, and a dangerously wet, just-set crumb. It’d stick to my fingers when I ate it off a paper towel with my hands.
But there are a lot of recipes that — that just do not sound appetizing. An abundance of sour cream, cream cheese, and mayonnaise. Sparse fresh vegetables. An over-reliance on processed foods and cream of fill-in-the-blank soup as a thickening agent. For me the most repulsive sounding recipe is Deviled Egg Brunch: Deviled eggs, made in the traditional fashion, are arranged in a casserole, blanketed with a sauce made from cans of cream of shrimp and cream of chicken soup, along with canned shrimp and button mushrooms and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese, then it’s all baked until browned and bubbling.
Mom called me to discuss the menu for her luncheon. It’d be a Thursday afternoon in the spring. She thought quiche would be good, so I emailed her my recipe, one from the bakery where I worked during summers in high school, and I suggested a couple different filling ideas. I knew that she had a phobia of any baking that required finesse — and for good reason; yeast and pastry never worked out for her — but still I encouraged her to make her own pie crust. Then a light salad, and for dessert, something springy, lemony, easy — maybe lemon bars?
She had a small circle of new friends she’d met through a golf group, and invited all of them over. She set the table in the dining room, decorating it with flowers arranged in small, hand-painted vases. She tucked napkins into rings adorned with cloth daisies, and ironed the tablecloth. She set out her china and Waterford champagne flutes and crystal pitchers for ice water. When the ladies arrived, the quiche was fresh out of the oven, the lemon bars had been baked the day prior, the salad only needed to be tossed. They were greeted with Prosecco — it was a luncheon, after all, not just lunch.
Later that evening we talked on the phone and she reported what a success it was. She was elated, buzzing, swooning, ready to do it again having further planted the roots of a social life. One of my favorite photos of Mom was taken on this day: She’s sitting at the head of the dining room table like a queen, lit up with a giant smile. There’s a dusting of new, dark hair sprouting in patches on her head. She’s wearing a properly fitting cardigan-and-blouse number from Talbot’s and the pearl necklace I’d given her a few weeks prior for Mother’s Day. She looks joyous and defiant, drunk on the thrill.
She made lemon bars for dessert, and for salad, a familiar spinach one, with dried cranberries, pecans, bleu cheese, and Briana’s bottled blush wine vinaigrette. And then a quiche. Did she make the crust herself? I asked. “Oh no, I used the one from the grocery store,” she said, dreamily — the Pillsbury crusts that are already rolled out. “I didn’t want to have to worry about it.” What kind of quiche? I asked. “The Quiche Lorraine—from Bound to Please! It was all just perfect, delicious.”
A few weeks after that, the cancer returned, and Mom died later that summer. In the blur of those months and the subsequent years, I hadn’t given much thought to this luncheon, and not until recently did I realize the full scope of its context. In that photo I see her now as closing one chapter and starting a new one. There’s the relief of moving on, the license, however temporary, to look ahead. The joy on her face is in large part the simple joy of being alive and able to host a luncheon.
I opened up her copy of Bound to Please to look up the quiche recipe and discovered checkmarks on the list of contents preceding each chapter, notes in the margins. She wrote “wonderful” next to “Spinach in a Loaf,” and “good” next to a Mexican layer dip called “All Strong Men Go Crazy Some Time” (the name is an acronym for the ingredients).
I’d had a few food jobs by the time I graduated from college, at a bakery during high school summers and as a prep cook at an Upper East Side restaurant during college. The first cookbook I bought was The Dean & Deluca Cookbook and I’d study it on the subway, during the long commutes to school and to the restaurant. I’d lean over it at home with a pencil and plan to cook through the handful of recipes for which I could afford the ingredients. While Mom had set me up with a copy of Bound to Please when I moved, I ignored it; by the time I had an opinion about food and cookbooks, Bound to Please seemed hopelessly out of date, an unappetizing artifact.
But looking over mom’s notes, I felt a connection suddenly lock into place, a gap of two and a half decades bridged. There I’d been with my Dean & Deluca Cookbook, adding coarsely minced ginger to fresh tomato sauce and wondering if I was missing something once I sat down to eat it (note: “O.K.”), and her with Bound to Please and a can of cream-of-something soup. Both of us had pencils in hand, embarking on what we believed to be solo journeys — I see the push and pull of her asserting herself in her book, just as I struggled to use my new potato ricer at my apartment in Brooklyn. In this way, all the recipe clippings — and Bound to Please in particular — might be the closest thing she left to a diary, as affecting for me as when Dad and I cleaned out her closet two years after her death and found wads of used Kleenex and half-empty tubes of lip balm in her purses.
At the time I regarded her luncheon menu with a sigh, as unadventurous, consistent with my flat dismissal of Bound to Please, and I’m still drawn to new over old and invigorated by challenges in the kitchen. But I’ve also come to realize that new and old are a cycle that repeats itself, with a few variations along the way, and that the reliable, however subjective, experience of a good recipe shouldn’t be taken granted. Of course Mom would make the Quiche Lorraine from Bound to Please for her luncheon. In the grasp for solid footing, control lies in the familiar.