By JESSICA SOFFER
MY mother is a great believer in takeout. She has her reasons.
First, she lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where you can summon salmon skin rolls, palak paneer, ropa vieja or a chicken Caesar, and have them at your door — fresh and delish — in 20 minutes flat. Why compete with the professionals, she wonders, when her kitchen accommodates only apartment-size appliances and her stove, ancient and packed with copies of The New Yorker, has refused to break the 200-degree mark for years?
Too, she is a pragmatist. For her, it’s about the destination — not the journey. Five minutes devouring something scrumptious does not justify, in her opinion, hours and hours of shopping and chopping.
Perhaps most important, she’s not a big eater. She could survive on a steady diet of grapes and books. When smoothies became the fad, she jumped right on the bandwagon. Not for their health benefits, but because they freed her from the pretense of a traditional meal.
Food in a cup. Call it done. Call it dinner.
It’s not that she never cooked. She had her go-to recipes (a penne with grilled salmon and capers number; pea soup; eggs and more eggs), but even had she not, I wouldn’t have minded. Growing up, I pined for nothing in the mother department. My mother is the stuff that dreams are made of, minus the meatloaf and marble cake. The fact that she preferred talking to me while paging through the Times’ Book Review than while stirring a caldron of Bolognese did not mean that she loved me less, was any less motherly.
And yet it seems that everywhere — in commercials, films, books — I find the conflation of parental love and cooking. Somehow, we’ve come to believe that mothering can be smeared onto a sandwich, nurturing tucked between the wings of a garlicky roasted chicken.
My first novel is about food: an old woman and a young girl find solace in the kitchen and in each other. I hope that love — for cooking and between people — is evident in the book. But it’s more about food’s power to make meaningful connections at random. It’s not about my mother.
And yet, in many of the interviews I’ve done, it has been suggested that my mother must have been an incredible cook. I should be honest, and say, no, not really. But my impulse is to defend her — as if telling the truth would be revealing a dark family secret, my mother’s shortcomings, and worse.
And so, I do what I have to do, singing and dancing my mother back into the interviewer’s good graces: she worked two jobs, she took care of my father, who was sick for many years. As if I have to justify it. As if she didn’t feed me. As if she didn’t love me. As if she wasn’t quite simply the best, which she was. Is.
My love of food comes from where it comes from. My father’s sister is an incredible cook and her long-simmering things, Iraqi stews and pastries laced with cardamom and cinnamon and cloves, are some of my fondest food memories, and what I try to replicate these days.
My father used to spend summer days at our house on eastern Long Island making vats of lemony hummus and towers of Iraqi flatbread, asking my mother to wipe his brow as he twirled a shriveling eggplant over a flame for smoky baba ghanouj. That’s a lovely food memory, too.
But cooking accounts for only one part. Whenever I visit my mother for dinner there is all the love a person can handle in the tidy form of endless sashimi, shumai and Stella Artois. Love is evident in takeout, too.
When Hurricane Sandy hit last fall, my boyfriend and I headed north from our apartment in Lower Manhattan to my mother’s place, on higher ground, where there was electricity, running water and cellphone service. After the storm, more than one person said how nice that must have been: a home-cooked meal.
But no. Yes, it was nice. But the nice part was her: being with her, ordering Indian for dinner, watching the news and eating apples on the couch, reading as she tucked my feet into a blanket.
The nice part was being in my mother’s hands, whether those hands held a spatula or not — then, now or ever.
Jessica Soffer is the author of the novel “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.”