When I was in kindergarten, I was immensely jealous.
Back in the mid-2000s, before legislation like the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, it was a tradition for students at my elementary school to bring treats for the class on their birthdays. We would know today was one of those days because women we’d never seen before would sneak in during class and place see-through plastic boxes on the back counter, wave to our teacher and sneak back out.
Those boxes were absolutely magical. Inside, rows and rows of cupcakes sat, eyeing us, reminding us that recess was unbearably far away. They were crowned with frosting that seemed airbrushed by the rainbow, and the crown jewel was always some kind of plastic ring bearing the latest movie franchise or most recent holiday symbol. Those rings always pinched my little fingers after a while. I wanted them more than anything.
On my birthday, however, I saw my mother sneak in, smile at me and place Tupperware containers in the back. Her cupcakes, half chocolate (for me) and half vanilla (for my classmates who lacked taste) were uneven: some bigger than others, some crowned with frosting that leaned to one side or the other, and the frosting always bore the color of the flavor it represented. I’d asked her if she could make them colorful and beautiful like the other kids’ treats. Her compromise was to mark each of the cupcakes with little round sprinkles. I hated the way they crunched between my teeth, always managing to stay caught in the gaps that filled my mouth back then, like the seeds of cavities to come.
I resented these homemade cupcakes. I imagined myself rushing ahead of my mother’s cart in the grocery store, choosing the cupcakes in the baked goods section that spoke to me, that bore the perfect purples and pinks that colored my entire world back then. Every year, when my mother steered me toward the produce, waved her grocery list in front of me and reminded me to stay by her side, anger streaked with disappointment would roll in my little belly.
I imagined myself rushing ahead of my mother’s cart in the grocery store, choosing the cupcakes in the baked goods section that spoke to me, that bore the perfect purples and pinks that colored my entire world back then.
“You don’t want those things,” my mother would tell me when I pointed to the rainbow cupcakes with my free hand. “That dye is terrible for you, and they always taste like lard.”
I wasn’t sure what lard was, but I was certain it was better than whatever she was doing.
My mom, who always tells us her dream job was to be a mother, went back to work when I was 7. Suddenly, my little brother and I found ourselves in the world of daycare, eating food we’d never heard of, let alone consumed. Our after-school program often served us quesadillas made with American cheese. My little brother looked at me across the portable classroom, and I shook my head. We’d wait to eat at home.
As we grew older, the novelty of forbidden, preservative-ridden snacks wore off, and we grew tired and increasingly disappointed as we realized the world was not full of the hot, made-from-scratch delicacies that had dominated our early lives. By then, the days of bringing treats for one’s birthday were over, and my brother, three years younger than I, brought in pencils and little plastic party favors. The sugar content and potential allergens in small hamburger-shaped erasers are much lower than those in cupcakes.
Now in my early 20s, I have spent three years on my own. I have known that special stomach-turning quality dining hall abominations can produce, as well as the food atrocities that have come from my own hand. During my first year living in an apartment with a proper kitchen, I set the fire alarm off twice in the first month. The first time, burning olive oil as I struggled to read the recipe for some chicken dish. The second, heating a piece of pita bread on an electric burner. My mom laughed when I told her; my roommates found it considerably less funny.
As I round out my third year of college, the reality that I may not forever live so close to my childhood home weighs heavily on me. More and more, I take the opportunity to go home and ask my mom if she’ll show me how she makes the many amazing dishes that are now the touchstones of my taste.
She is always delighted when I ask if I can help, a request — I’m ashamed to say — I don’t make often enough.
She hands me the ingredients, which had already been set on the counter before I made my way into the kitchen. Tonight, it’s my baby sister’s favorite: alfredo with tortellini.
“Add the cream and the butter,” my mom says, pulling out her favorite little saucepan. “Stir them now and then, just enough to make sure they don’t burn.”
Easier said than done, I think to myself, as I stir it constantly, afraid to leave the foundation of our dinner unattended for even a moment.
As I round out my third year of college, the reality that I may not forever live so close to my childhood home weighs heavily on me.
“How long will it take?” I ask her, scooping the early roux onto the wooden spoon and letting it fall. It’s as thin as water, even after 10 minutes of my anxious stirring.
“It takes a while,” she admits. “A lot of restaurants add flour to thicken it, but it’s much better if you let the sauce do its thing in its own time.”
She often talks about food as if it has a mind of its own. I believe her.
The pot that holds the noodles boils over, creating a rush of steam that hisses, startling me. My mother is unmoved.
“Should we turn it down?” I ask her, eyeing the pot suspiciously.
“I suppose,” she says. She grazes the edge of the pot as she turns down the dial. Later, we’ll learn that she earned a second-degree burn from that move. I don’t even realize she’s hurt until then, for in the moment, her face doesn’t change.
She returns to stirring the chicken on the burner to my right. Once it’s cooked through, she’ll add the vegetables. “A compromise,” she tells me. “Your brother wants the protein, but he needs the greens.”
I ask her for the third time if the sauce has reduced enough. She points to the lines, like the rings of a tree, that circle the inside of the pot. “Yes,” she decides. “See how much it’s shrunk? You’ve got about half as much as you started with.”
From then, I’m only in her way. She pulls the finished pasta off the back burner, drains it and sets aside a few scoops of the plain noodles in the pink bowl my baby sister favors. She pulls a slab of butter out of the fridge and shreds some onto the noodles with a butter knife, finishing off the dish with some freshly grated parmesan.
“She still won’t try the sauce?” I ask of my little sister. My mom shakes her head. “She doesn’t know what she’s missing,” I say.
“No,” my mom smiles. “She doesn’t.”
My little sister, nearly 9 years old, still prefers to eat her food as plain as possible. Although, she is not as picky as I was at her age. She, at least, will eat her pizza with sauce.
When we sit around the table, a giant bowl of my mother’s creation between us, my mom makes a point of saying, “Thank you, Paige. Our dinner looks delicious.” As if I, not she, were the mastermind behind the dish.
My little sister gobbles up her noodles before I’m halfway through my first serving. She must be going through a growth spurt. Next time I see her, she’ll be a little taller, a little harder to pick up. A little bit more grown.
“Can I have more, Mom?” she asks.
My mom tells her that those were all the plain noodles, but she’s welcome to the mound of alfredo primavera in front of her. My sister shakes her head.
“You’ll wish you’d appreciated this one day,” I tell her. “Not every meal is like this.”
My mom smiles. My sister shakes her head.
It’s OK, I decide. One day she’ll realize what she’s been missing. But for now, I help myself to another serving. More for me.