Childhood Meals + Mother Magic.

By: Jen Shoop

A Magpie recently left a comment on my post on holiday traditions:

“Have you read Jenny Rosenstrach’s How to Celebrate Everything: Recipes and Rituals for Birthdays, Holidays, Family Dinners, and Every Day In Between? It’s part cook book, part memoir of her own family’s traditions, but I love how she frames the conversation–it doesn’t have to be elaborate to have a lasting impact on your child. I also love her question, “What food can transport you to your childhood dining room table?” For me, it’s my mom’s spinach enchiladas which she always made on Christmas eve. Is there something for you?”

I loved the provocation and was immediately transported back, much to my surprise, to the rare winter evenings my mother would serve “cheese fondue.” This nearly always transpired when my father was out of town, as he was more of a meat-and-potatoes-for-dinner guy. Writing that out also reminds me of the dreaded “liver” nights, when my mother would serve pan-fried liver topped with bacon crumbles — a tepid attempt to disguise its signature gaminess — and we would pick the bacon off the top and hide scraps of organ meat in our napkins or milk cups, covertly retching at the smell. My mother did not tolerate dinnertime complaints. She was vastly generous and supportive in 99% of the phenomena of our childhood lives, but meal preferences were not up for discussion, and were seemingly beneath her interest. I can still remember the shrugging impassiveness in her eyes: “Oh, OK. I guess you’re not hungry then.” As though I had mentioned the weather in the window. She was also uncharacteristically warden-like after dinner: “The kitchen is closed,” she’d announce, as though flipping a restaurant sign in a window. And that was that, unless we connived to inveigle my youngest sister into tiptoeing into the kitchen while my mother’s back was turned to filch crackers or dried cereal from the snack cupboard. (“You’re so good at it,” we would condescend, bluntly using well-worn flattery to grease the wheels, and this eventually became a mock trigger for her, to the extent that we now, still, as grown adults, will ask her: “Elle, can you get me a glass of water? You’re so good at it.”)

Anyhow, I now know, too-intimately, the maneuvering negotiations that birthed my mother’s mealtime jadedness. With my own children, I am desperately tired of the nighttime strain over what is being served, how much they must eat, etc. I have adopted several of the suggestions from your comments on this post, titled, “How Do You Get Your Children to Eat?”, and there have been some wins, but we are still very much in the trenches. I swear my son eats dinner every third night. My daughter will eat what is served, but not without requisite caviling. It is enough to set my even-keeled Mr. Magpie afire. His eyes flash with frustration as they cry, moan, and hiss over the $60 ribeye steak he’s lovingly prepared.

At any rate —

To the provocation at hand:

Cheese fondue. My mother would cube and toast sourdough bread and arrange it alongside crudite around a vintage fondue pot. We’d spear the items (mainly the bread) with long, thin bamboo skewers, our elbows pressed against the tabletop. It felt delightfully off-brand for my mother, who was typically formal at mealtimes. No hats permitted; collared shirts at the table. The table was always dressed with linens and candles, and for awhile, she had this antique silver “crumber” she would deploy one of us to use after dinner. We always found the task absurd, and would mock the assignment by speaking in faux English accents (“oh, master Tom, I’m just nearly done with this, your lordship”). On cheese fondue nights, though, we’d huddle in the breakfast room, kneeling in our seats, dipping into the meal with uncharacteristic casualness. I think back now and see that this was yet another way my mother practiced magic on a regular basis. She must have been so tired, and busy, with my father traveling as much as he did in those days (one year, 50 out of 52 weeks!), and five children to tend to, and yet she’d tender-heartedly make the trek to the grocery at some point while half of us were ensconced in school and the other half were clinging to her skirts in the aisles of the market to assemble all the ingredients for this unconventional meal — just to offer us a small moment of midweek joy.

I find it both strange and distinctly right that the meal that reminds me most of my childhood was its least frequently repeated and its most abnormal. With my own children, too, it’s the non-routine that implants: my daughter still mentions, three years later and about 1000 perfectly executed packed lunches intervening, the one time I forgot her lunch at home and had to buy her a strange assortment of items from the Eataly next door to her Flatiron Montessori. I would venture to guess that when I ask her, in fifteen years, what she remembers about me packing her lunch as a child, it will be: “That time you forgot.” This is, in fact, a dearness in disguise, because what it really means is: “You cared so much that I leaned on your always doing it, and was shocked the one time you didn’t.” (Or, so I tell myself when she decides to proffer this failing in company.)

In a cab from the airport to our hotel last weekend, my best friend told me that her four year old daughter had woken up in tears the two nights following Halloween, wailing: “Halloween is never happening again!” We laughed about this, but also settled on the insight that, for children, the out-of-the-ordinary is wider, and more intense, than we think. Their lives are so narrow, their patterns circumscribed. They can barely see beyond the perimeter of their homes, libraries, and schools — or the handful of places they spend the majority of their time — and so when they catch sight of the expanse beyond, it is thrilling and paradigm-shifting for them. Halloween represented one such glimpse for my friend’s daughter. I’ve seen this play out many times for my own children, including last Friday, when my daughter went on a field trip to Mount Vernon. You would have thought she was being flown to Mars. She talked endlessly about the trip, George Washington’s teeth, something about seeds falling through the slats of the floor, the bus and who she sat with, the chicken strips at the cafeteria. The experience was so expansively new that it sat like a ponderousness in her mind, squeezing out thoughts of all else.

I write this today as preamble for a theme we have been talking about a lot over the years, as a community of mothers and daughters:

How, in the end, the small, special things we cultivate with care often outshine all else. The moment you sit down at eye level with your child and really ask how they feel when they are out of sorts, as though a dear friend rather than a toddler in tantrum. The time you permit your daughter to stay up twenty minutes past bedtime to curl up in your arms in bed watching a TV show together. The little love note you tuck into your son’s backpack on an important test or game day. The holiday cookies you made with your grandmother that you now make with your own children. The cheese fondue.

A Magpie reader wrote earlier this year that she often reminds herself, as a mother, to “do the small thing.” Not the enormous birthday party that requires weeks of planning and dramatic expense, but the small huddle of children around a very average magician. Not the day packed with distraction and activity, but the afternoon unspooled around crayons and legos in the family room. Not the pricey children’s indoor park but the walk outside in the woods, collecting leaves and spotting deer in the foliage. (This, in fact, scared my son, but I digress.)

I know it is easy — perhaps irritating — to romanticize these things, to suggest that the everyday can upstage the dramatic — but as I sit here reflecting on my own experience with motherhood, I find this to be the rule rather than the exception. And as my mother proved so well in the days of cheese fondue, it only takes a small break in routine to accomplish it.


+Would you please share in the comments what “transports you to your childhood dining table”? (Veronica, thank you so much for this beautiful prompt!)

+My Grub Street-style food diary.

+Indoor shrimp BBQ — one of our favorite weeknight meals.

+Motherhood is also a surfeit.

If you want more Magpie, you can subscribe to my Magpie Email Digest for a weekly roundup of top essays, musings, conversations, and finds.

Shopping Break.

+If you missed out on the metallic J. Crew turtleneck I shared a bunch last week, don’t worry — this silver lurex one is still in stock, and currently on sale for 50% off. I ordered it, too. I can’t help myself (!!!) — very into metallics. I was waiting to find something to pair with my La Ligne skirt and this is perfect and only $25! (Upgrade pick here.) BTW, if you also got the gold sheer turtleneck, mine arrived and will require a nude camisole beneath. I’m currently deciding between this or this. Spanx is clearly the better investment and I’m always impressed with the quality/fit of their pieces, but…? $15 is tempting.

+My son has needed a waste basket for his room for awhile now. I just ordered him this $30 one in the navy pattern! Always looking for small ways to introduce new pattern/texture to his room. Speaking of, I just ordered him an armchair (currently 25% off!) for his bedroom as a part of a project with The Inside. He is long overdue for a proper seating situation — we’ve been reading in his bed, or on the small upholstered bench in his window, for the past two years. I picked out the dusty odalisque fabric and will be pairing with this pillow in Katie Ridder’s Beetlecat print. I’ve long loved that pattern and had wanted to get him curtains in it, but for now, making small strides forward.

+While searching for his trash bin, I came across the cutest Etsy boutique that sells scalloped waste baskets in designer patterns, like this Bowood.

+The scalloped top of this skirt is so adorable.

+Larroude is running a huge sale. I’ve heard so many people rave about these Annie sandals as THE perfect wedding guest shoe, but also, like HOW good are these embellished slippers?!

+One of my favorite home decor boutiques, Half Past Seven, just launched a whole collection of beautiful colored glass products. They sent me this lovely carafe that is now living in my guest bedroom — I just went upstairs before writing this to assess what needed to be done in advance of Thanksgiving house guests next week and settled it in on the nightstand. I also referred to the comments on my “What Do You Keep in Your Guest Bedroom?” post. SO many good ideas, but I especially loved many of the comments from the Magpie named “D.” I will be adding a small box of chocolates and a hand-written note to the nightstand as well as full-sized shower products and dental supplies, per her rec! Thank you for the detailed ideas!

+Also in that post, you can see our guest bed made up entirely in Boll and Branch bedding. I just learned that you can get 25% off sitewide with code CYBERDEAL — a better deal than the promo listed on site. This includes the waffle bed blanket I won’t stop yapping about — we use in guest bedroom and our primary bedroom. I’m obsessed with it.

+I recently received a question on the nightstands in our guest bedroom after sharing a photo of it on Instagram. They’re actually these inexpensive Da Vinci brand ones — $139 apiece! I was in a mad dash to outfit the room before guests were arriving maybe two years ago and I liked the simplicity of these. They’d also be great in a child’s room. This was more or less my calculus: if we eventually buy something else for the guest room (we’ve not yet worked with our interior designer on this area of the home), these could easily be handed down to my children.

+My beloved tee, in the cutest brown color!

+Everyone’s favorite fleece belt bag, in a new, limited edition pink color. So good! (But also, I’m still rocking this $20 Amazon one in the brown fleece. It’s also excellent.)

+Obsessed with this rug, and it’s currently 25% off. I also just bought this magnolia garland (35% off!) for the holiday season. I like to have it right down the center of my dining room table as a permanent centerpiece. It looks great as it turns from green to brown, and you can easily enjoy conversation with holiday visitors over top!

+This gown is absolutely breathtaking. Black tie pick! Also love this and this (and of course this one I’m wearing here) for formal winter occasions.

+Received two separate messages yesterday asking for details on my beloved Lake relax set, asking about sizing and care. On sizing: I take an XS (my true size) and find it perfectly loose and drape-y. I might be able to size down to an XXS but I like the looser, swingier fit. I also do dry in the dryer — not what you’re supposed to do — but have had no issues. It’s still as beautifully soft and swingy as ever!

+Speaking of laundry, this limited edition detergent from The Ouai is currently in my cart. I love to launder bedding and towels in beautifully scented detergent! Their handwash is also incredible. It smells divine, lasts forever (!), and has tiny micro-beads to gently exfoliate. We’ve been using this in our main floor powder room.

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14 thoughts on “Childhood Meals + Mother Magic.

  1. Sunday night supper was always buttered, salted popcorn and apples sliced and dipped in peanut butter. And maybe a glass of milk. As an adult, I learned from my mother that this meal was a financial necessity. But to us kids it felt like great fun.

  2. My dad makes Bernard Clayton’s sugar cube bread Christmas Eve, a massive batch, and delivers to all our neighbors and loved ones. A big slab of soft yeasted white bread with sticky cinnamon sugar pockets, crystallized like jewels and slathered in cold butter is my ideal Christmas breakfast while opening presents, before the later formality of brunch. I haven’t had it in years, but he’s visiting me this holiday season and will mix up a gluten free batch.

    I love our family’s celebration foods. I remember my dad frying crunchy Swiss German fastnachts for Fat Tuesday, making delicate linzers and insanely buttery molasses cookies for Christmas. No one’s molasses cookies are quite like his because he massively heaps the spices. I had to have him do it over the scale one year in order to replicate the effect he achieves by muscle memory. He made popovers nearly every Sunday, slathered in honey butter, and when he didn’t, my mom made orange currant scones. We went through pounds and pounds of bacon on Sundays, and the ease and comfort of those weekends made up for all the stoic mornings my parents rose before 4 to eat their Special K cereal in silence before a long commute.
    My brother loves squash rolls, a family bread recipe made at thanksgiving that absolutely no one else enjoys, because they’re orange and leathery dry, only good with lots of butter. Their rare inclusion centered them in his mind.

    My dad was famous for his rosemary focaccia and made it for every event in town, and it always disappeared while rocket-hot no matter how much he made. The men in my family are the bakers, and I’m so thrilled to see my youngest brother making dad’s recipes or experimenting with sourdough.

    When I get homesick I make my dad’s shepherd’s pie, which is really a cottage pie. On top of spiced ground beef and peas and mashed potatoes is a really absurd amount of cheddar and our family’s signature touch, crushed potato chips, a topping my dad learned from the lunch ladies at his catholic school as a kid.

    What a lovely prompt! I wonder what meals my son and daughter will remember.

    1. Deeply impressed with your dad’s incredible baking skills. I want to try everything! Rosemary focaccia?! Yum. The way you write about these baked goods, and your father, is so touching — the affection shines right through.


  3. This is verrrrry specific- and maybe only resonates if you have Eastern European heritage. But my grandmother lived with us growing up and would make a Polish bread that is both savory and sweet and pure heaven called kolacz. This bread- I tell you, triggers a memory of every sensation. The messy sensation of helping her mix it in a massive bowl with my hands and trying to scrape off the clingy dough. The smell of yeast dough rising and baking. The visual wonder of watching a small dough ball expand to fill the massive bowl. The sound of her singing or praying in Polish or talking while she mixed. Seeing that bread out on the table (she taught us all to make it without a recipe just like she did) and I’m 5 years old again. A time warp in a bite.

    1. Wow – I love this so much. The tactility of these memories shines right through your writing! I’ve never tasted this but it sounds divine!

      Thanks for sharing, Jenny.


  4. I told my mom recently that my favorite dinner was her “plate of little things” and she laughed and said those were her most tired, least inspired, most fed-up nights. She would just grab random items in the kitchen, cut them up, put them on a plate. But to me, magic!

    1. This completely underlines my insight — that sometimes the little, out-of-the-ordinary things (occasionally born of shortness-on-time or fatigue!) can be SO special to little ones.

      Going to tuck the “plate of small things” idea away for myself on a frenetic night!


  5. I grew up with divorced parents. My sister and I lived with my mom and every Thursday was “girls night” (which looking back makes me chuckle because every night was girls night at our house! Ha!) but on Thursdays we’d venture into town for Chinese takeout and a stroll through the video store to pick out a chick flick. We watched so many wonderful movies over takeout. After finishing dinner, we’d sit on the floor and my mom would paint our toenails. It was the absolute best. My mom had a rule that we always had to have clean/polished toenails and to this day, I get a pedicure if I know I’m going to see her!

    1. I absolutely adore this tradition — !! So incredibly sweet and special. I am now wondering if there’s a way to have a “girls night” maybe once a month with my girl and do something similar, just for us…


  6. I I sent your essay to my grown children and a close friend. It was lovely and spot on! I also went down a rabbit hole on some of your recipes. They sound really delicious. I know this is a big ask, but is there any way to make them pinnable? I’m not smart enough to figure it out for myself. So far I am copying and pasting into an email and sending to myself. You could easily write a food blog on the side!!

    1. Hi Marsha! I’m so glad this resonated, and thank you for sharing with your loved ones! I’m so flattered by that. Thank you also for the great idea on recipes. This is a fantastic idea. I’m going to try to get my ducks in a row to create more pinnable recipes. Will report back when I’ve done that!


  7. Growing up, my dad surprised us every Friday with gas station candy he’d pick out on our behalf for me, my sibling, and mom. I’d often got Sixlets. Mom preferred a Pay Day. We’d wait anxiously for him to walk in the door with the treat. Of all the spoils we had growing up, this Friday evening memory of him walking through the door with cheap sugar stays at the top of my memories. I do it now for my own three kids.

    1. Oh my gosh – how sweet is this? Love this tradition. Such a small but special pick-me-up at the end of the week.

      Thanks for sharing.


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