My mother didn’t eat chicken, and to the dismay of her children, she couldn’t even pronounce it. She couldn’t say “ch.”
Shicken soup. Potato ships. Shocolate.
My seven-year-old niece once tried to tutor my mother in proper pronunciation.
“Ch,” she said.
“Sh,” my mother replied.
“No, listen: ch-ch-ch-ch,” Erin said, determined to refine her grandma.
“Sh-sh-sh-sh . . . shit!” My mother’s hand flew to her mouth. Red-faced, she blurted, “Don’t tell your mother!”
Growing up, I wanted a perfect mother. A beautiful, well-educated mother, one who was thin and young, with highlighted hair, make-up, and manicured nails, who lived life fully and without regret.
Instead, my Ma — of Spanish and Cuban descent, 39 years old when I was born — had an eighth-grade education and spoke in broken English. She sported wiry salt-and-pepper hair, flamboyant housecoats, and an eau de toilette of Pine-Sol and onions.
I was embarrassed by her shortfalls and regularly pointed them out to her.
“Wait till you have children of your own,” she’d warn me. “However you treat me will come back double to you. You’ll see,” she’d say, as if casting some sort of spell. I didn’t believe a word.
God, food, and family composed her whole life. Ma regularly fed neighbors, the butcher, and her beautician — basically, everyone who knew her. Relatives were thrilled when their birthdays rolled around, knowing they’d indulge in a five-course meal of sopa de pollo, ensalada, croquetas, arroz con camarones, and flan.
Cooking was her one perfection. Her creations didn’t merely feed the body; they fed the soul.
“Everything tastes better when you make it with love,” she’d say, beaming.
I’d open the overstuffed fridge and freezer with trepidation, knowing how impossible it was to find anything. Items frequently fell out. Growing up during the Depression, Ma always stocked for emergencies. As if she had a Dewey Decimal System in her head, Ma knew exactly where to find what she needed.
She’d whip out her chicken soup as quickly as doctors write prescriptions, but her remedy was potent enough to heal incurable ailments like the common cold and teenage angst. When our backdoor neighbor suffered a heart attack, Ma cooked for her and cleaned her house for weeks.
Although my mother made the most delectable chicken soup, neither of my parents ate it. Daddy couldn’t bear the sight of it, because of too many rotten chicken rations during World War II. Ma shunned it because of an even uglier event than spoiled meat.
Born in 1923, she was raised in Ybor City, Florida, a tight-knit community of Cuban, Spanish, and Italian immigrant cigar workers. Most had backyard goats, cows, and chickens. When the Depression hit, the families generously shared resources with one another — milk, eggs, whatever they could spare.
My mother named the family animals and treated them as pets. She was particularly fond of one chicken that would follow her. One infamous day, her mother unwittingly served that bird for dinner.
My mother had no idea they had been eating her pets until she discovered the telltale feathers in the garbage. She vowed never to eat chicken again. Instead, she made chicken soup solely for others.
Thankfully, I didn’t have a personal history of chicken trauma. I loved everything Ma made, but there was something inexplicably magical about her soup. Perfect every time, without measuring or taste testing.
Every day, she rose before dawn, creaked open her heavy, ornate white Bible, and silently read, until it was time to cook. Then she headed to the kitchen to prepare meals we wouldn’t be eating for hours. I’d often awaken to the aroma of the holy trinity of onion, garlic, and green pepper.
I learned about God and life while sitting at our green metal table on green vinyl chairs, watching Ma cook in her green flowered housecoats. Sharing bits of wisdom, she’d flit around the kitchen, egg and breadcrumbs dripping from her fingers: “God is your father in heaven, who loves you more than you can imagine.”
Many of her words fell along themes of regret. “I had to drop out of school to earn money for the family. I loved school,” she’d say. “Don’t make the same mistakes I made. Get a good education. Put yourself first.”
Another one of her regular sermons, usually delivered after I disrespected her, was, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone. I miss my mother so much. She died too young, and her recipes went with her, God rest her soul.” As she made the sign of the cross, I took note: Get Ma’s recipes before she dies.
Every day Ma served Daddy, bringing his food on a golden tray, while he watched Walter Cronkite in the family room. Ma never got served; we never ate out. Daddy decided he’d traveled enough during the war, so we stayed home.
Though she loved to cook, the monotony sometimes overwhelmed her. “Don’t do as I do; let your husband get his own damn food,” she’d tell me.
Since my two sisters were much older than I was, and my father worked night shifts, mostly it was just Ma and me. We were inseparable, even watching soap operas together. Watching her closely, I’d search for clues on how not to be.
Oftentimes, I’d eat while listening to her stories, inhaling the steamy chicken soup before it even reached the table. The aroma alone soothed me. She’d ladle the sopa from a huge pot into my favorite bowl and then pour it back and forth between two bowls, cooling it off.
The seamless blending of ingredients formed a greater whole than the sum of its carrots, onions, garlic, potatoes, celery, noodles, chicken, and seasonings. I greedily slurped the last precious drops straight from the bowl, Ma watching, eyes glistening. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was tasting love.
My mother began complaining of abdominal pains, removing suspected culprits from her diet one by one before going to a physician. (“Doctors will kill you” was another of her adages.) She was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer at age 69.
In a wheelchair, with no hair, she made it to my graduation. I could see her smile from the balcony. She was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen. Perfection. I heeded her advice and earned a Ph.D. Like her, I love school.
Just a few months later, Ma died. It was Easter Sunday of 1993 when she didn’t wake up. We had rushed her to the hospital the night before. No one wanted to leave her. So my sisters, husband, brother-in-law, niece, nephews, and I slept at the hospital, either in her room or in the solarium.
When my sister said, “She’s dead,” I threw my soda can to the ground, smashed it and kicked it repeatedly. I was 30. I realized she was exactly who I needed her to be, and I still needed her.
My daughters, Jillian and Cadence, never got to know their grandmother’s love directly, but they ate her soup. They’d ask for it when they were sick. “Yummy,” they’d say as soon as they could talk, noodles glued to their faces. I finally understood how my mother got to enjoy her shicken soup.
Today, I don’t serve my husband on a golden tray, but I make him soup. (He does the dishes.) He says he can taste the love in it, unlike the Campbell’s of his youth.
I color my hair auburn, manicure my nails at a salon, and wear make-up and designer clothes. Yet my eight-year-old daughter, Cadence, often shakes her head at me with the same disdain I displayed for my mother.
“Those shoes don’t match,” she’ll say. My haircuts are never right. “Why did you cut it so short?” she’ll say, scrunching her face. I can hear part sympathy and part revulsion in her voice.
I’m more like Ma than I care to admit. Like my mother, I enjoy dishing up food, along with bits of advice.
Noticing Cadence’s eyes glaze over while I speak and she eats, I ask, “What can I do to be cool?”
“Nothing.” She rolls her eyes. “There’s absolutely nothing you can possibly do to be cool, Mom.”
And then she slurps the last bit of shicken soup straight from her bowl.
Sylvia Johnson is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Tampa, Florida. She is currently searching for a publisher for her memoir, Why Jillian?
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The vegetarian-cooking pioneer
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