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The Most Important Thing I Learned From My Mother

The Most Important Thing I Learned From My Mother

It’s Mother’s Day, a time to celebrate the person who brought us in to this world, who taught us the basic lessons of life and planted the seeds for who we become.

Today, I want to celebrate my mother because she taught me something so essential and enduring that it has become my greatest passion: cooking. And through cooking, touching, feeling, preparing, and savoring good, real food made from real ingredients, I get to inhabit fully my home and my kitchen; to heal my body; and to connect with friends, family, the Earth, and the larger community in which I live.

Cooking, I have come to see, is a truly transformational act. The closer we can get to the food we eat, the shorter the link between field and fork, the better off we will all be. We have outsourced our cooking to the industrial food system. By taking back our kitchens—which we can do simply, easily, and inexpensively—we can create a tidal shift in our food system.

Mothers are exactly the allies we need to lead this food and cooking revolution. Sadly, most mothers today were not taught by their mothers to cook. The food industry deliberately celebrated “convenience” 50 years ago and in so doing, disenfranchised an entire generation of Americans from their kitchens and the essential act of cooking, the glue that delicately holds together our society, our health, and our connection to the Earth and to each other.

So, for Mother’s Day, I asked my mother to share her connection to food, handed down through her mother, which she then gifted to me, helping me learn the beautiful connections between gardening, cooking, eating, and wellness. And I have taught that to my children who have become wildly gifted cooks, making delicious home-cooked meals from real ingredients.

Here is what my mother shared with me:

My mother, Mary, was born in 1908 and was raised primarily in the country, when she was not boarding at the Lexington School for the Deaf. Her language, as was my father’s, was sign language. Today, it is called ASL, or American Sign Language.

Making food for her family was her passion. She shopped every day for food, so that it was ‘fresh.’ Everything she bought was organic. There were no mass pesticides, no destruction of the soil with chemical infusions, no spraying of plants before World War II or immediately after.

She cooked every day, three meals a day for my brother, my father, and me. Her instructions to me were clear when I married, “Buy fresh; eat fresh.” I do remember her hands flying in sign language as she instructed me in the purchase of cauliflower. “Make sure it is white without spots.” As for tomatoes and apples, she ignored the local inhabitants, the worms, and said, “Cut them out. Good enough for the worms, good enough to eat for you.” Summer corn was always a treat, dropped into boiling water, lid on, stove off. “Don’t spoil the vitamins.” 

She saved the water in which she sometimes overcooked the green beans, the corn, the peas, and the asparagus. It was the base for her soups, which were legendary. Sometimes, a cooked chicken leg was thrown in for flavor, lots of minced garlic, a can of whole tomatoes. And oh, her cabbage soup sweet and sour was wonderful.

I still prepare her cabbage soup. A fresh young cabbage, sliced as one would for coleslaw. Put it in the pot; salt it a bit with kosher salt, so that it wilts. Then, add a whole onion, a carrot or two, sliced in chunks, one parsnip, and a can of whole tomatoes squished in my hands. Let it cook down for about 20 minutes. Cut half a juicy lemon, slice two quarters, squeeze and drop into the soup, rind and all, add one tablespoon of brown sugar. A little water if necessary. And simmer for about an hour. It is delicious, and purely vegan. You can put in a small beef short rib, and that will give it yet another flavor.

My mother spoke with her fingers and cooked with her knowing fingertips. No recipes, not ever. Her mother, my grandmother Fanny, was a part-time caterer. So, cooking was probably in their DNA, as it is in mine and in my son Mark’s.

Her philosophy was clear. Be kind. Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your body. Know what your body wants.

My father Ben came home each night in anticipation of my mother’s aromatic cooking. Her meals were simple: a protein, a carbohydrate, and a green vegetable, usually peas. We ate meat from time to timemostly chickenand fish and spaghetti. We all loved her spaghetti, her version. Pasta, tomato sauce, a bit of butter, and that was it.

The whole concept of shopping for fresh food changed when we moved as a family to Europe, particularly to Spain where Mark was born. Food shopping happened daily; there were no supermarkets. There was the butcher, the baker, the produce stalls, the herb stallsall housed separately in a market. The most famous of these was the Ramblas in Barcelona, a treat for the eye, where rabbits were butchered as you watched, where Mediterranean fish gleamed on cabbage leaves, where piles and piles of fresh fruit and vegetable teased the eye, cheese makers with local Manchego, bakers with crusty bread all waiting for me, the customer, with a story to go with my purchase.

Just enough food for the day. We had no refrigeration, just an icebox. Each morning, the iceman arrived, extracted any bit of ice left, and put in that day’s ice. Left over food was slipped in to a large pot of continually simmering liquid to create the next day’s soup. No scraps for the garbage can. Everything was used.

When we moved back to North America and settled in to the suburbs of Toronto, Canada, we had a large backyard. I took a portion of that yard and planted a vegetable garden. Mark helped. We planted marigolds around the perimeter to keep out pests. No pesticides. We had fun. We had our hands in the soil, dirt under our fingernails. We raised scraggly carrots, beans, lettuces, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes and had the enormous pleasure of eating our own produce.

We learned that food takes time, that life takes time. It was all part of nourishing the family, at the source whenever and wherever possible. 

On this Mother’s Day, I wish all families a happy cooking day, a happy cooking life. But today, do make sure someone else cooks for Mom.

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below – but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (30)

  • What a very lovely article! As a mom, I really appreciate it though I cannot claim to be such a wonderful cook. As a daughter it truly reminds me of my mom and all the time she spent caring for us through her wonderful cooking and gardening. And that without having had the advantage of learning from her own mom.
    Thank you so much for reminding us of the importance of this aspect of mothering. I will do my best to pass on what little I have managed to learn and continue to learn on to my son.

  • What a lovely reminisceing of your childhood! It sounds wonderful! My Mom, too, was a great cook and somehow managed to work full-time as a school teacher and have healthy, wholesome meals for us, breakfast and supper (and dinner when she wasn’t at school). She always had a garden. I remember the excitement of having an all-garden meal when veggies started ripening! Nothing tasted more grand! She canned and froze and dried everything to sustain us through the winter. She foraged for dandelion, purslane and other wild greens starting in early spring and thruout the summer and fall. My Dad hunted and so we had wild game and our own chickens, beef and eggs. Living on a farm was such a blessing. I continue to try to emulate as much of that as I can and somehow managed to raise our son with a solid understanding of what good and healthy nutrition is and how to cook….well!! We’re out ‘here’, Dr. Hyman!! There are a LOT of us and, speaking for myself, you are a constant inspiration! Thank you so much!! And a special thanks to my Mom!!! 🙂

  • This is so lovely, I am sharing it with MY mom (another one of the generation who did learn to cook and — happily for me and my sisters — shared that wisdom with her kids)!

  • I’m waking on Mother’s Day for only the 3rd time without my mother…reading this made my smile and feel connected to her….to her stories of immigrating from Poland as a young girl….to her assimilating to the culture of her friends….to her merging the foods and customs of both worlds… the lessons she offered me while alive are numerous but, unexpectedly, I’m still learning from her….her death continues to be instrumental in improving my own health….I can’t share this journey with her, but I can thank her daily for the inspiration to do so….at 56, I’ve never been healthier….thank you, Mom!

  • Dr. Hyman, what a great piece for us to consume, first thing in the morning on Mother’s Day. Thank you for sharing these intimate thoughts and memories. I feel so in step with you, as I have worked with my children and others in the area of the Montessori method, and now I have obtained my nutrition degree from IIN and am currently taking more specialized cooking/uncooking classes. I hope to bring my knowledge and passion for healthy food/living to families who want to integrate new steps into a healthier lifestyle and see the reward in the cycle continuing. You are doing such great service to so many. I hope to do the same some day, soon. You are so right, it is indeed passed on by our mothers. Mine had 9 and although she had 2 maids for household chores, but she did all the cooking and taught us well. Thank you Mama!! Gotta go do a 5K walk with my daughter and grandaughter now. Trying to promote goodness for her family is a mother’s greatest gift and legacy : )

  • Loved this article on this Mother’s Day morning. It really hit home with me since I seem to lack in the cooking arena. I love to cook…when I actually do it. But as life, kids, schedules, rheumatoid arthritis get in the way, I seem to always be failing in the cooking dept. It is “planning” that is so key to eating well..isn’t it. If you do not plan your menus, go shopping, etc.. guess what, you end up eating fast..and by fast I mean either fast food or fast, unhealthy items that never seem to satisfy…imagine. There is a special night my family calls “ratatouille night”..we watch the Pixar movie “Ratatoullie” and we all make it for dinner. And of course when you engage your children in any kind of cooking they are more likely to eat it. They love it! But once again it all comes down to simply planning. This article is a little Mother’s day gift for me today. It has inspired me to cook more with my family, plan better and in turn eat better…I always say we need to “flood our bodies with nutrition”. The only way to do that is to make a plan. Have a wonderful Mother’s Day and thank you for writing this article as a reminder for me and many others who don’t plan enough.. to start Planning!!!

  • This is my 5th mother’s day as an orphan, being orphaned at age 68. As you said, Dr. Hyman, we celebrate today the life of the one who brought us into this world and I had the privilege of being with my mother when, at the age of 98, she left this world. She was born 10/10/10, so I could always remember her birthday. Her daddy died when she was 13, leaving a widow and four children, ages 6 to 17, and no money. This necessitated the use of large gardens, canning and raising their own chickens and other pastured live stock so cooking was always done with fresh, locally grown foods, eggs and meat. The whole family also hunted so lots of wild game was available on their table. This carried over into my childhood so I had the benefits of that kind of cooking until I left home and moved into the world of pre-processed foods and so forth. Being a health care practitioner myself, dentist, a number of years ago I determined on my own what had happened to the food industry but didn’t know exactly what to do about it until I bought and read The Blood Sugar Solution. With my good genes passed to me by my wonderful mother, and my daddy had good ones too, and The Blood Sugar Solution to guide me I look forward to living a quality life until 100 and perhaps beyond?

    Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there!!

  • My mother always had a garden. She had me chasing bugs and pulling weeds as soon as I could walk between the rows. When I was big enough, my duties expanded to include digging up the garden in the spring, sometimes a new patch with sod. She was an ardent canner and I grew up with respect, but no fear of pressure cookers and did a lot of canning. If our garden didn’t produce enough of a particular vegetable to suit her, she would buy a bushel and can that. Most meals she cooked for us had vegetables from our garden. When I reached my teen years, she became more involved in the community, and I was subtly introduced to cooking for myself. It was cook or starve. Now a father and grandfather, it is gratifying to see that my children are serious gardeners, and my grandchildren, though not yet settled enough to have a garden, long for a chance to dig in. My love for gardening led me to live on several farms, one with 50 acres of vegetables. Like Mark, I moved to Toronto where I now have a 1000 square foot vegetable garden and a greenhouse which has been producing greens for us to eat since the first of May. Aided by her connection to real food, my mother lived to 98. Thanks Mom for all you taught me.

  • Thank you for sharing your mom’s story about her childhood and yours and about the importance of eating fresh foods. Sounds wonderful. My father taught me how to cook, and I will forever be grateful to him for sharing with me one of his passions for cooking and fresh food, much like your mother did. My mother liked to cook until her like got too busy and stressful working over 40 hours a week and also being a full time mom. My mom’s generation was one of the first to work full time while being a full time mother at the same time. I feel sad that my mother did not get a chance to develop a love of cooking and eating well because society was asking women to “do it all” and she could not. Something had to go, and because my father liked cooking anyway, cooking for her became extinct. These days, with fathers in general more likely to be involved in childrearing I believe it may be easier on women to have work-home life balance than my mother’s generation, and continue their love of cooking and eating fresh foods right on through their childrearing years. It is my hope that when I have kids, I will be able to inspire and teach them to cook and eat whole fresh foods like your mother and my father and help them make this a priority in their lives.

  • This is a lovely, beautifully written account of your mom’s influence–what a great Mother’s Day gift to all of us. I also love hearing the stories from other people who were lucky enough to grow up so connected to our earth.

    Thanks for all the wisdom and wholeness you bring to our lives Dr. Hyman!

  • Thank you, Dr. Hyman, for sharing your inspirational story with us. My dear mother is still living on her own at 96 and has taught me much the same as your mother did for which I am eternally grateful! I, at 70 and my husband at 78, are both “medication free” which I believe speaks to the healthy home raised food we eat.

  • I found it most interesting that your parents were deaf. I am deaf, too, and use ASL to communicate. Do you know ASL? You must! Write more about that! and how it impacted you. I requested an ASL interpreter for your April retreat, but didn’t hear back anything. Perhaps it escaped you. Next time!

  • What a heart-felt sharing!! No wonder you are the gift of healing to us all!! My dad always had a huge garden in our backyard and grew fruit trees as well. My mother always was working in the kitchen over a pot of slow-simmered aromas or canning foods for the winter or making fresh pies from the fruit trees….such blissful memories that permeate every sense of my being. Thank you for evoking these aromas and feelings.

  • What a wonderful article Mark! Your mom is truly an inspiration to all. My mom left me 7 yrs ago but she was a fabulous cook who also cooked as fresh as possible even while living in LA and working at UCLA. Once she became the conference and catering coordinator for the UCLA then UCSD, her eyes were really opened to cooking and it’s importance. She taught us girls to cook very young(I was 8 when I started) partly because she often worked late hours and mostly so that we knew how to cook good meals. She was a fearless cook as well, always experimenting and cooking new things.

    She loved nothing better than to cook a new dish for company, something you always read never to do! She loved to entertain as well.

    I have always cooked fresh meals for my kids when they were growing up, despite working very long, hard hours as a veterinary technician. Learning about animal nutrition also made me think about our own nutrition.

    While I was married, my hubby wanted to eat out all of the time. I soon realized he was addicted to fast-food. While I went along with it for a while, as well as the white sugar he bought, the boxed foods etc, I finally started rebelling and started cooking MY way again.

    Once he was out of my house I threw out every box, dumped all the white sugar down the drain, and cleaned out my cupboards. Back in came just the things needed to help me make fresh food again and soups. Honey, quinoa, whole wheat flour (now gone as well) etc.

    I only eat organically now (about 98%) and eat very little chicken. I haven’t eaten beef, lamb or pork in over 36 yrs.

    My main mission now is to get my son back on track nutritionally and make sure that my grandson eats as well as he can growing up. His mother doesn’t care a thing about nutrition so it’s up to my son and I to help him.

    My daughter, thank goodness, is very much into organic foods and is a pescatarian.

    I am starting this years garden with high hopes for a bountiful harvest!

    Thank you for all your work Mark! I love to read your newsletters.

    Happy Mother’s Day to all you Mothers!!

  • Thanks for sharing this, Dr. Hyman (and Pilar; I actually saw it on your post). On this Mother’s Day, this is a wonderful reminder of the many blessings passed on to me by my mother and grandmother. Your grandmother’s approach sounds identical to my grandmother’s approach: Use fresh, natural ingredients, keep it simple, and don’t waste what can be put to good use.

    Some years ago, I was as usual buying my groceries late at night, after a long day at work. The bag boy commented that I had been shopping at their store for quite some time. He then said, “although I don’t know anything about you, I do know that you must be very healthy; you eat very, very well.”

    So thanks, mom and grandma. Lessons learned!

  • Dr. Hyman confirms the old adage that behind every great man is a great woman. Not sure who wrote this (Emerson?) but it certainly applies. Thanks for the great Mother’s Day gift !!

  • Dr. Hyman’s letter and every one of the responses from others are filled with love. You can feel it. It brings tears to my eyes. I’m grateful to all of you for sharing this loving feeling with me today.

  • Thank you, Dr. Hyman, for passing on to your readers the simple, important things your mother knew about food. How sad that this vital aspect of our lives is disappearing from our culture. I’m sure your mother also knew something else about food that we also are losing – the importance of a family or group of friends coming together in a quiet, loving way to share the best that we have. Coming together at table, as your mother has so well described, protects us from the frantic pace of life that surrounds us, and strengthens us through our giving and sharing of food and labor. It dissolves the so-called generation gap.

  • This article made me think back to my own time growing up in Rural Pennsylvania where food was grown organically because that was just the way the Amish did it. I always wondered why I couldn’t get produce that tasted as good as from our own garden or milk as good as in PA until the whole organic movement came along. While I am unable to grow my own garden now, I do buy my produce from local stands as often as I can and notice the complete difference in flavor. It is good to know it is also better for my health.

  • Lovely! Thanks for another wonderful newsletter & for sharing more about your family, in honor of this special day. I especially appreciate your tip for keeping pests out of the vegetable garden – I’m adding marigolds to my shopping list!

  • My mom said something like that, too. That her mom told her to not discard the entire apple for one spot and to always look for the best fruits/veggies before buying them.

    My mom may not have been so lucky to be enthusiastic about cooking. Your mom started with sign language; that’s really far out and psychological! It probably helps to start with sign language to some extent! After all, you’re not using your jaw! My mom is just strong. She grew up after our elders around 60s, 70s, 80s +. She cooked for us and cooked spaghetti for our Italian heritage and side of the family. She also really wanted cooperation from us to figure out new recipe ideas for her to cook. We couldn’t really do much, since we all wanted something of our own. Me and my older brother awnted healthy recipes, but my older brother might want a different one. My little brother would complain about being extremist about it. We had no choice. It makes it a little tougher for mom, but she did cook what we all would eat, and especially what my little brother would want. I am happy she had the privilege of raising us in a middle-class neighborhood and got meet our great friends.

    I don’t know what she thinks about us growing food, but she is part of us wanting to get involved with growing: My open-mindedness + my older brother’s assertive concern for anti-police state stuff. I really hope growing doesn’t become illegal. Saying that feels like it jinks it as it is. I feel so panicy in a way, I might as well buy some goji seeds and maybe acai and just try to grow them here in Louisiana. It’s gotta be some market conspiracy as to why they took Goji off the market EVERYWHERE in a SINGLE period of time, I remember!

  • A wonderful tribute to your mother. This was one of my favorite posts from you. I love how your transperancy.

  • This is the most touching, and oh so well written, article I have read about mothers and cooking food. The consistent sustenance provided through nourishment. I love that you are giving back dignity and joy to cooking food at home.

  • Mark, Your story is filled with palpable emotion that resonates with us all. The apple never falls far from the tree. My nana came here from Russia and taught my mom everything she knew. I can almost smell the cabbage soup on the stove simmering with the sweet and sour vegetables bursting with flavor. I know that recipe. My mom’s gifts were bountiful, but one in particular was teaching me how to be resourceful with what was in the fridge, garden and on supply. She could make a meal fit for King with whatever she had in stock. She taught me how to be creative and make meals that were nourishing and memorable. Long before one knew about mantras, mom would say, ” You should eat to live, not live to eat.” Today, the mindset is to regard food as medicine. A heartfelt thanks for sharing your story, we are all connected and have so much in common. Audrey

  • “Be kind. Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your body. Know what your body wants. ”

    I so loved reading this! It looks like your mom and grandmother`s revolutionary handiwork has travelled well into the next generations. One day I hope we have a kindness revolution. When we do, I just know that there will be home-cooked food involved …and it will be fantastic!

  • I so relate to this story. I am from Spain and your mom reminds me of mine so much. My mom just passed away last October and one of my fondest memories of her is going to the marketplace and seeing her shop for the day’s meal. She knew exactly the products she wanted, always fresh, always organic, and the stand owners knew what she wanted too !!! Today, I try to follow her example, as hard as it is sometimes being in the US, but I struggle with consistency. I thank you Dr. Hyman for being my voice of reason and a constant reminder that health is worth anything. I do hope you continue to visit Spain these days. My country is not in good shape economically at all, but it is still possible to eat beautiful, healthy meals there…

  • Your story of what you learned from your mother reminded me of my grandmother living in the Caribbean in the fifties. Food then was fresh and simple and delicious. and my grand mother (Ma ) gathered fresh produce and seasonings(now called herbs ) daily from our garden , to prepare our meals. Meat was mostly on Sundays and freshly caught fish during the week. Thank you Ma for all I learned , and Thank you Dr. Hyman for all the information you send our way to help us to get on track with feeding our bodies the nourishment for good health .

  • I am so looking forward to your show on May 29th…Dr. Hyman, you will be dealing with someone who was raised by a mother who thought that giving me some money so I could go buy a pint of ice cream for my lunch, was good cooking. There was no mention of nutrition, I was told that vitamins were a hoax and not to pay any attention to them. Consequently, though I have learned much, I don’t always like applying what I know. It’s so much easier to eat “sweet.” But I intend to try the 7 day plan, because that seems so “doable”. Thank you for this chance to put a plan into practice, so I can discover the value of ‘eating healthy’. It will be a whole new paradigm for me!