If I were to play a word association game and someone said "mother," my response would be "Campbell's soup." When I was a child, dinner almost always featured it: Campbell's mushroom soup over pork chops and Minute Rice, Campbell's tomato soup over chicken and Minute Rice, or, if my mother was in a minimalist mood, just Campbell's soup. I'm sure she would have hung one of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans as a shrine in the kitchen if she had been better connected to the art world.
My mother's love affair with Campbell's soup developed from a desire to spend as little time as possible in the kitchen. Some of that emotion must have seasoned the food, for our dog Toby was the only one who appreciated her cooking. Most of the time we gathered around the television to eat. Ted Baxter's bumbling delivery of the news and Get Smart's dysfunctional Cone of Silence created distractions that made it easy for my father, brother and me to slip bits of food to Toby. He grew portly and smug, an odd look for a border collie.
On the rare occasions guests came to dinner we were forced to sit at the dining room table, which sulked silently under the unaccustomed burden of Great Aunt Muriel's plates, bowls, serving dishes, cutlery and glasses. Toby was banished. I hated such occasions. Without Toby, it was difficult to finish everything on my plate, which led invariably to the starving kids in Africa speech.
When I was a teenager, I was overweight, which I blame on the starving kids in Africa. At my request, and without much persuasion, my mother ceded dinner duty to me. I instigated a series of diets, including one where we all had to drink a glass of water mixed with one tablespoon of cider vinegar before the meal. When that failed to produce noticeable effects, I decreed that chopsticks would replace knives, forks and spoons. A substantial portion of each meal was launched into the house's stratosphere, crash-landing in various parts of the room. Toby's successors, Pushkin and Quista, dashed around, like me and my cousins at the family's annual Easter egg hunt, honing in on the edible morsels and snarfing them down. Afterward, the dogs would collapse in glowing postprandial contentment. That contrasted starkly with the wanness and crabbiness (when anyone could summon the energy) of the human members of the family.
Before long, meals morphed into re-enactments of a medieval feast, as my parents and brother shovelled hunks of food into their mouths with their hands. In an attempt to restore a sense of suburban decorum, I reinstated cutlery (to Pushkin's and Quista's disappointment) and introduced the egg and grapefruit diet. Aside from eggs and grapefruits it allowed a few basic items like bread and fish, but in amounts only someone the size of Twiggy would find satisfying. My mother, father and brother began dragging themselves to Kentucky Fried Chicken for large bucket meals. Harmony and waistlines were eventually restored.
Over the years my mother's passion for Campbell's soup waned, probably because there was no one left to cook for after my brother and I left home and my father died. The inside of her fridge was a culinary wasteland, sparsely populated by a litre of milk, a head of iceberg lettuce and a loaf of bread. When asked what she was planning to eat for dinner, she'd often respond, "a lettuce sandwich."
Scientists recently reported that mice who are fed calorie-restricted diets live longer. My mother is going to be around for a long time if that finding applies to humans. I now visit and make dinner for her more often. I know that sounds like I am trying to hasten her end, but that is not my intent. I want to keep her from becoming a stick figure. She enjoys our meals together, and I realize that what appeared to be an eat-to-live philosophy on her part, one I find hard to stomach, really isn't. My mother just hates cooking.
This year I gave her a Campbell's soup fridge magnet on Mother's Day. I thought it was funny, but she seemed hurt. Perhaps she felt she had failed as a mother, which was not what I wanted to convey. I am grateful she was trusting enough to turn me loose in the kitchen at a young age. It instilled in me a love of cooking and, more importantly, a fearlessness about trying new things. Sometimes that has been a recipe for disaster - my half-baked attempt at fusion cuisine with Jerusalem artichoke sushi, for example - but I always feel free to create.
That willingness to trust, not only in others' abilities but also in their integrity, is a huge part of who my mother is. I think such trust can only come from a belief that most people are good. Certainly my mother embodies that quality. She is good in the law-abiding sense, which can be annoying. Her moral code is absolute. She will obey any law, whether it's a defensible one, like the law against committing murder, or not, like the law against removing a bandage in public.
Mostly though, my mother's goodness is kindness. When you describe someone as "good," you can just see some people trying to stifle their yawns. Blast an air horn at them. As Simone Weil said, imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.
So mom, I hope you take it as a compliment, and not a snide comment on your cooking, when I say you're "M'm! M'm! Good!"
Helen Coo lives in Kingston.
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