A tradition of home-cooking from mom, who didn’t cook

Originally published November 27, 2008

By Ian Sherr

My father can cook. Or so he says.

I grew up hearing stories of how my father wooed my mother by cooking her fabulous dinners and serving them to her over his grand piano in his tiny Washington, D.C. apartment.

The story, as my father tells it, was that his apartment was too small to hold a table and his piano and, being a world-class concert pianist, he chose the piano. So he bought a cover for the piano and fed his dates. I imagine he probably serenaded them, too, but the details have been lost both to time and trailing mumbled memories.

Still, what I’ve been brought up to believe is that my father can cook. And my mother – she grew up in Atlanta in the ’40s. Of course she can cook.

So what shocked my girlfriend, Laura, was that Thanksgiving this year was going to be catered by Marie Callender’s.

I said my parents could cook. I didn’t say they did.

Around the time I turned 7 years old, my mother began working the night shift for American Airlines and it became too much trouble to cook breakfast, lunch or dinner. Instead, my parents began taking my brother and me out to diners and fast-food places in lieu of the grocery store. Prepared food – instead of preparing food – became the bulk of my family’s diet for the next 10 years.

So, with such a diet, what does a family with too little time to cook, but just enough time to drive to Taco Bell, do about Thanksgiving?

For years, we traveled to my godmother’s house, where our first – and likely the only – home-cooked meal of the year would be served.

Knowing this, my parents were usually shamed into cooking something. The food of choice was my mother’s family recipe of “Scottish sweet stuffing.” Being the only food my parents ever cooked, with the exception of the occasional scrambled egg, my mother’s dish quickly became my favorite part of the holiday.

Essentially, it’s chopped bread, apples, raisins and spices mixed with red wine and a touch of bourbon. It’s a good recipe, but not terribly special.

Still, I came to enjoy it as one of those things that marked the holidays.

But when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s eight years ago, the last thing on my mind was what would happen to her sweet stuffing. Just a few quick years later, we had our first Thanksgiving without the traditional dish. And when my godmother moved away, my parents searched for an easy answer – enter Marie Callender’s prepared Thanksgiving dinners.

“I’m flying out to see you and your family, and the least you all can do is have a real Thanksgiving dinner,” Laura said.

I called my godmother, who now lives in Santa Rosa, and in minutes, we had an invitation.

Then, Laura suggested that we bring something, and the first thing that came to mind was my mother’s sweet stuffing.

In the car, its spices filled the air, and at dinner, the dish moved around like a hot potato. Along with the hot mashed potatoes.

It was exciting to bring that tradition back to life. And although my mother could not remember that she was eating her signature family recipe, she enjoyed it anyway.

And my father – well, he was just glad that someone else in the family could cook.

(By Ian Sherr. Published Nov 27, 2008, at the San Francisco Chronicle, and republished on the web, here.)