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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

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