In the introduction to her new collection of brief memoirs, Margo Perin explains that her book is meant to remedy the dearth of literary explorations of the “shadow side of mothering.” It is perhaps more accurate to say that this collection explores the shadow side of “daughtering.” The voices we hear are those of daughters, confessing the details of troubled childhoods with a wide range of difficult mothers.
Throughout How I Learned to Cook, the mothers portrayed are victims. They are victims of improperly treated chemical imbalances, unhappy marriages, alcoholism, and a wide array of other personal traumas. All of them allow their darker emotions and helplessness to spew out in dangerous ways. They manipulate, lie to, withhold from, or neglect their daughters. Most of the authors recall a mid-20th century childhood. This means their mothers lived the majority of their years before the birth of feminism, before they could actively seek independence. Trapped in domestic arrangements in which they feel powerless, these mothers find a variety of inappropriate channels for these negative feelings. Gina Smith’s “Sladjana” dissects the motives of her immigrant single mother, an alcoholic who dreams of becoming a celebrity and uses sexuality to boost her self-image while keeping the identity of Gina’s father a secret. Vivian Gornick’s severely depressed, reluctantly working mother neglects her children’s needs by turning her widowhood into her identity: “Widowhood provided Mama with a higher form of being. In refusing to recover from my father’s death she had discovered that her life was endowed with a seriousness her years in the kitchen had denied her.”
The mothers in this collection are oppressed, depressed, damaged, and victims of their own childhood traumas. However, the daughters’ fascinating, painfully honest memories are not put forth in a spirit of blame. Rather, they attempt to make sense of relationships that should have been nurturing and supportive but in fact were confusing, demeaning, and even occasionally toxic. This book shatters the myth of the loving mother and the dutiful daughter and complicates the idea that, as women, we are all partly products of the mothering we did — or did not — receive. These writers demonstrate the ways their mothers irrevocably shaped their world view and their view of themselves, but they are quite clear that they are not and will not become their mothers. They refuse to feel shamed by their lives, by the fact that they didn’t get what they needed from their mothers; they refuse to remain silent. In this sense, these reflections are statements of self-preservation.
In “The Body Geographic,” Perin talks about her own mother, who hid behind layers of make up and vague half-truths about her own difficult past. Perin’s mother abused her both physically and emotionally, and Perin struggles to understand the motives behind this cruelty. She discovers that her mother, too, had a difficult childhood, growing up in foster homes after losing her own father and mother to cancer and suicide, respectively. One of Perin’s most painful memories is of calling her mother in tears from the hospital after being diagnosed at age 19 with Hodgkin’s disease. Perin asks to see her mother right away, but her mother coldly refuses, telling her to go home. This phone conversation haunts Perin throughout her life as she continues to contend with her mother’s rejection: “Was she remembering her father, who was supposed to have died of cancer? Was she in so much pain that she couldn’t think beyond herself? Or was she so damaged by her childhood that she didn’t have feelings?”
These types of unanswerable questions echo throughout the anthology, addressing previously suppressed and taboo subjects. The strength of this collection is the way many of the pieces convey the ambivalence and complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. As Perin’s painful confession demonstrates, the tensions are never resolved and the questions are never neatly answered, but the push-pull dynamics of our relationships with our mothers can be a source of profound insight. The most enlightening memoirs here are those like Perin’s, that attempt to get at a deeper truth beneath the authors’ pain and anger.
In this context, a handful of the essays seem misplaced. They portray a difficult relationship without inviting analysis of the problematic relationship or appreciation of the authors’ personal struggle. This may be due to the fact that some of these are excerpts, and merely skim the surface of the author’s emotional terrain, tending to end somewhat abruptly and awkwardly. Paula Fox’s essay “Borrowed Finery” illustrates her almost non-existent relationship with emotionally and geographically distant parents and ends with her mother’s death when Fox is middle-aged. This excerpt, taken from her book-length memoir of the same name, finishes with Fox’s admission that upon hearing of her mother’s demise, she couldn’t mourn the death. I was left wanting to hear more: how and when in her life did she mourn the loss of her mother? How does she try to understand her parents’ utter disinterest in their only child? What does her “orphaned” status tell her about herself?
Hillary Gamerow is the author of the piece from which the collection borrows its title. In “How I Learned to Cook,” the young Gamerow learns to cook as a refuge from the hostility and uncertainty of her family life. With a chronically unemployed father and a moody, angry mother, Gamerow turns to books to escape from the fighting and abuse she and her brother are suffering. “The Joy of Cooking” introduces Gamerow to the world of recipes and ingredients that give her a tangible, predictable, nourishing activity to combat the chaos around her: “Cinnamon. My first link to life took root in a can of cinnamon. The world became more than an ill-defined concept seen indistinctly from the corner of one nervous eye. Oregano. Allspice. Garlic. Cinnamon.”
Gamerow recounts her mother’s “trick” of telling her daughter after dinner one night that she’s put rat poison in the meat loaf and they will all be dead by morning. After a terrifying night of worry and anxiety, Gamerow wakens to discover the bluff — but again her mother promises to poison the family in the near future, when they least expect it. This inspires the daughter to turn back to her cook book, determined to learn the dinner recipes, desperate to avoid the risk of poisoning.
By taking the title of this memoir as the title of the entire collection, Perin suggests that cooking is a metaphor for the love and nurturing a mother is traditionally expected to provide for her children and family. When the mother turns out to be a “bad cook” — unable to provide emotional and psychological substance to her daughter — the daughter is forced to go hungry or find another way to feed herself. The authors in this collection are hungry children. They grow into women who learn to cook for themselves, although they never can forget the source of that original deprivation.
Overall, this collection is a compelling, challenging exploration of a relationship has too often been portrayed either as simply adversarial or as perfect and loving. Perin’s book delves into the darker, more complex aspects of the mother-daughter relationship. Contributor Kim Chernin describes her youthful arguments with her mother as a “separation ritual.” From girlhood through middle age, these writing daughters recall the separation rituals of becoming self, rituals that are complicated by mothers who could not, or would not, be the maternal figure of literary legend.