by Pier D., 14
Indian recipes she got from her law school roommate. The golabki, a stuffed cabbage roll from our Polish ancestors, turned vegetarian for me. A pasta dish she found in the New York Times column that’s become a classic. Crawfish étouffée from my New Orleans auntie. Soup her own mother would make, one that would keep me at the table till lat because I refused to eat it. Barbecue shrimp that would marinate in the refrigerator for hours with their shells on; they were the messiest thing to eat. She’d still serve them anytime someone came for dinner the first time, almost testing our guests. A potato dish she would make so much of—it could feed a village. Pierogies that never came out how we wanted them to, but would still be devoured.
Every night, since before I can remember, my family would come together at around six or seven o’clock to eat a meal. The middle child, Ronan, and I would always bicker on who had to set the table. I lost quite frequently. I’d put the placemats down, and put my special plate at my special seat at the table, while my brothers would sit at the counter. They could never be closer than one stool away from each other or Jake would start a fight. My mother would come home from work, sometimes not even changing out of her suit, and start chopping vegetables. The intense aromas coming from the kitchen would drift up the stairs and lead me out of my room. Normally I would sit in the kitchen and watch her cook, it was the only time we could talk without the boys of the family around. Jake and Ronan always stayed in their room while she made dinner, and I’d have to call up the stairs for them for twenty minutes before they came down. It made my father furious. My dad got home from work right before the food was ready, like clockwork. I almost thought maybe he did it on purpose, so he’d never have to help. My mom had always loved to cook, but what she loved more was praise for her cooking. It was understandable, considering it would take her hours. The second we all sat down, before we had the chance to pick up our forks, she’d ask us this one question, “So how is it?” Of course it was always delicious, but we had delicious dinners every night. I always told her, “Good.” She’d look at me with this disappointed look and I’d come back with, “Amazing, I mean, it’s really great. Not just good.”
But the damage was already done. These dinners could’ve been in restaurants, making professional chefs jealous. My mother made sure we all had great meals in our stomach before we went to bed, it is what made her such a devout parent. She told us food was love, it was the glue that held us together. When we sat in those seats and ate the same dishes, all of our hard separate days melted away. It was the only meal we had together, and she made sure we all knew how important that was. There was always a slight grumble when Ronan said he was going out with friends and wouldn’t be home for dinner. The table would always be a little quieter without him. Little did I know there were much more silent times ahead.
When my brothers went off to college, a year apart from each other, something my mother held so dear was lost. There were no longer five placemats, ten utensils, and twenty napkins. I’d catch myself constantly grabbing too many plates, and our fridge was full of leftovers. It was like my mother couldn’t adjust, and neither could I. Soon I missed the yelling up the stairs and fights on who had to feed the dogs. The soup I always disliked became my favorite, because I remembered how much Jake loved it. What once was family dinners every night, turned into only Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Then Ronan decided to go to college in a country that didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and Jake wanted to stay at school with his girlfriend. I soon found myself sitting at a table all alone, because mom doesn’t get home until nine now, and with sports and work, my dad is already upstairs when I get home. I sit in my same special seat, with no special plate because it broke with so much use, eating a microwaved dinner wishing I could only go back in time.
Of course there are still Christmas dinners, and sometimes we have parts of the summer together. When we do sit at the same table and eat my mother’s beautiful food, I am even more grateful for the times I took for granted.
Red Bank, New Jersey
Notes from our interns on selecting this piece: The themes of this story are beautiful! Very heartwarming and nostalgic reflection on the importance of family meals and their memories. The author highlights the significance of food in bringing families together and the emotional attachment we can develop to certain dishes. The story makes the reader appreciate the precious moments spent with loved ones.