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Cooking up a connection

Sean Locke/Digital Planet Design

The soup that’s bubbling away in my heavy-bottomed pot is the color of oversteeped tea, with a surface skin of fat that looks like a layer of melted caramel. I made the stock myself from the leftovers of a holiday feast: turkey, pork, and duck bones; carrots and celery from the crudité tray; an onion that didn’t make it into the stuffing; a sprinkle of Herbs de Provence — all tossed together in a crockpot for 10 or 12 hours.

I’m not usually that resourceful in the kitchen. It’s just that I happened to glance at the well-picked turkey carcass after dinner and it reminded me of my mother Carolyn’s chicken noodle soup, which she calls “Jewish penicillin” even though she’s a gentile. That soup has helped me through a lot of sore throats, countless bouts of the flu, an episode of mononucleosis, and even a few breakups.

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“Stop!” I cried as my husband prepared to scrape the turkey bones into the garbage. “I’m going to use that to make soup!”

I don’t “make soup.”

I don’t even cook very often, or very well. But when I do tie on an apron to give it a go, the first thing I do after consulting a recipe is call my mother.

Mom and I live 3,000 miles apart. We’re as emotionally close as any mother and daughter, I suppose, but our relationship consists more of recounting day-to-day details about TV shows and dogs than it does spending time together. It makes me sad.

I cook because it reminds me of Mom, and because it gives us a platform for connection. My mother is a phenomenal and creative cook. She can make a three-course meal out of little more than a piece of fish and a few vegetables. Carolyn is famous for her extravagant Christmas gift baskets, overflowing with goodies like Mexican Wedding Cookies, spiced nuts, Panettone, and bottles of homemade liqueur. At the same time, her healthy tweaks to comfort foods have kept my father’s build slim and his cholesterol low. Mom’s cooking is medicinal. It’s beautiful.

I’ve read a lot of interviews with chefs and other food professionals who get wistful about childhoods spent in the kitchen with their mothers, learning how to knead dough or cook rice or season a basic sauce. Not me. Sure, we baked cookies together, and occasionally Mom would bravely relinquish the kitchen so that I could experiment, but I mostly left the cooking to her. She would have taught me to cook, if I’d asked, but I was too busy moping around in my room listening to Broadway soundtracks and writing terrible short stories to worry about “trivial” things like learning how to feed myself.

When I finally realized, in my late 20s, that takeout is as soulless as it is expensive, I began to tinker around a little bit, baking a rubbery chicken breast here, rolling out a tough pie crust there. I have no idea what I’m doing in the kitchen, and that’s the fun of it, because I get to call Mom, my own personal culinary hot line. Every cooking tip comes with a story, a food memory that’s imprinted on the recipe forever.

“Remember the time I made you chocolate cupcakes when that idiot broke up with you?” she’ll say with a laugh, a sort of onomatopoeic a-HA-ha-ha-haaaa that startles me every time. “How about the Thanksgiving when we had to thaw the turkey out with a blow dryer? Oh my God, Sar, that was so funny!”

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Along the way I learn how to make my own buttermilk (1 tablespoon of white vinegar in 1 cup of milk, if you’re curious) or whatever, but the long-distance cooking lesson is really an excuse for us to get to know each other better.

Of course Mom laughed when I called in a panic over the holiday soup. She’d advised me to cool it at room temperature and now it was quivering in a glass bowl, no longer liquid but a lumpy mass of brown jelly.

“That’s good, that’s a good sign!” she said. “That means you got all of the good stuff out of the bones. Once you heat it up again it’ll be fine. It’ll be delicious. Did I ever tell you about the time I tried to make hardboiled eggs but I fell asleep on the couch while they were cooking? I woke up to this huge ‘BOOM!’ and there the eggs were, exploded all over the ceiling!”

It’s through my culinary anxiety attacks that I’ve learned that Mom wasn’t always a cook — she, like me, got married in her early 30s, and before she met my father she lived a sort of nibble-and-scrounge existence. Her favorite thing, she says, was to wake up late on Sunday morning and walk from her Back Bay apartment down to Brigham’s on Boylston Street, where she’d get a coffee and a strawberry cone to go. She’d enjoy this “breakfast” on her living room floor while she read the paper.

I love this image of her. I love imagining my mother hoarding a few carefree moments, hiding from the world with a pink ice cream cone. I love that when she told me this story it felt like she was spilling a carefully guarded secret that she only gave up because her daughter was on the phone, sobbing over a batch of overworked mashed potatoes.

She was right: Once I heated up the soup and added fresh meat and vegetables, it was magnificent, rich and sweet and almost earthy in its depth. It wasn’t anything like Mom’s Jewish penicillin but because she’d helped me make it, it was therapeutic nonetheless.

Sara Faith Alterman can be reached at sf.alterman@gmail.com.
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