Writer Aleksandra Crapanzano’s mother dominated the kitchen—until the night 11-year-old Aleksandra promoted herself to chef and changed their relationship forever.
My father still teases my mother about it. After the first bite of a particularly elaborate dish she’s prepared, he’ll turn to her with a wry smile and say, “Jane, you almost outdid your daughter this time.” In fact, he’s not teasing her; he’s teasing me about an attempt I once made to outcook my exceptionally accomplished mother. I was 11 years old, an only child, and we were living in Paris then.
As far back as I can remember, my mother, Jane Kramer, the European correspondent for the New Yorker, has been in the habit of thinking about articles while cooking. The simple, meditative aspect of stirring risotto, reducing stock or folding egg whites into a soufflé base provides her with clarity and rhythm—and her family and friends with superb food. The kitchen is a place where her thoughts are stirred, reduced and folded together.
But to achieve serenity, or even its simulacrum, you need an assistant. Someone has got to do the irritating work: rinse grit out of the leeks, chop the onions and—my special grievance—wash the lettuce. That assistant was me. And when, at dinner parties, our guests praised my mother’s cooking, I waited with growing impatience for someone to declare ecstatically, “What perfectly washed lettuce!” This, of course, never happened.
But then, every so often, my mother would vanish from the kitchen entirely. She would bury herself in her study with a case of Diet Coke and a carton of Marlboro reds and not reappear for several days, sometimes even a week. Returning home from school, I’d find a thick cloud of cigarette smoke—and a virtually empty refrigerator. In another household, perhaps, such a sudden change would have been confounding. In ours, the reason was simple: My mother, once again, was on deadline.
In Paris, finding an afternoon snack was hardly a problem. My father would take me down to Boulangerie Poilâne for punitions—the ironic name for what are arguably the best and richest butter cookies anywhere. But the oddly empty kitchen began giving me subversive ideas.
The situation reached a crisis just before my 12th birthday. My mother had been writing day and night without a break and, once again, the fridge was nearly bare. Of course, this had not stopped her from inviting six friends to dinner later in the week. Seeing a historic opportunity for culinary self-promotion, I told my father privately that I intended to cook the meal myself. After poring over my mother’s cookbooks late into the night, I emerged the following morning with an absurdly complicated menu for a child. I remember it well: gougères, followed by an asparagus velouté, a roulade of chicken with three spiraling layers of stuffing, a wedge of Saint-André cheese with Périgord walnut bread, a palate cleanser of strawberries macerated in Sauternes and, finally, a chocolate-nut torte. Espresso for those over age 11, a verbena tisane for me.
For the next two days, you might have mistaken me for a tiny surgeon implanting the world’s first artificial heart. As dinnertime neared, my mother hovered outside the closed kitchen door, obviously worried, and offered help or a quick run to the store. I told her to go away.
Our guests arrived. I heard murmuring in the foyer—perhaps my parents warning their friends that they would be eating the experiments of an 11-year-old novice. Their disappointment was palpable in the hush that fell through the house. The kitchen timer rang out sharply: The gougères were ready and needed to be served immediately.
I carried the cheesy puffs into the living room, pleased with their golden color and delicately inflated shapes. I felt sure that if I tossed them in the air, they’d sail away like tiny balloons, though I hadn’t dared eat one. Now faced with a roomful of guests, I panicked. My father followed me as I quickly backtracked to the safety of the kitchen. Together, we tested: The gougères popped in our mouths, then melted into buttery perfection. I laughed. Eating them was funny, and I was, after all, still a child.
That was 20-some years ago, and I have never cooked anything remotely as good as that dinner since, and maybe never will. I watched happily as plates were scraped clean—until I noticed that my mother’s plate was half-full. She had praised me lavishly—too lavishly?—but seemed distracted, nudging her food around with her fork and clearly thinking. I understood her predicament: To reclaim her kitchen, she would need to outcook me in return.
And so she did. The next evening, when it was time to wash the lettuce, I crossed my arms and announced that I had promoted myself to chef and would no longer be doing such mundane chores. My mother drily suggested that I make a spinach soufflé instead. I did, and it fell, as if punctured by my own unearned arrogance. Deflated and ugly, it was no kind of companion for my mother’s superlative beef Wellington. Yes, she had, in no uncertain terms, put me in my place. There was a dish to top all others: the crust a golden dome, the beef tender beyond words, the soubise something to dream upon.
Had she thrown down the gauntlet? I thought so. It was our mischievous Chilean housekeeper, Mafalda, who saved us decades of therapy. She used to call my mother a worker bee in the office, an angel in the living room and Pinochet in the kitchen. Seeing my mother and me in a dangerously escalating standoff, Mafalda shook her head in despair. “One Pinochet, and you have a dictator,” she lamented, “but two Pinochets, and you have a war.” I was put in charge of the salad dressing, a nice promotion from lettuce washer, and my mother regained full command of the kitchen. Revolution averted.
If I’d only known then what I know today: that being the sous-chef to a great cook is not a chore, but an education. It was only years later when, after college, I moved in with my boyfriend (now husband) that I began to enlist my mother’s cooking advice—over the telephone, that is, at a nice, safe distance. I craved the food of my childhood and needed my mother’s recipes. This took some cajoling, at first. But soon she opened up.
It was almost like cooking together. Just not in the same kitchen—or even the same city. I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she was living in New York City, so we’d spend hours on the phone deconstructing recipes down to the minutest detail. We’d discuss the season, the ingredients, and report on our latest culinary discoveries. We’d congratulate each other on our successes and bemoan our shared failures. We’d scribble notes that no one else could possibly understand and send them to each other. When we were not together on a holiday, we’d each make the exact same meal as a way to bridge the miles between us—and also, gently, to keep the old competitive flame alive. Of course, cooking like this only made us miss each other more.
When I moved a mere 15 blocks from my parents in my early twenties, my mother and I circled around cooking together for months. The very idea of collaboration made us both wary. We had always been close, and now we knew instinctively not to stir up trouble together, let alone risotto. But being within walking distance of each other, we wanted to eat at the same table. One day, we finally acknowledged our predicament, and a solution presented itself: We’d combine forces. She’d make the soup, I’d make dessert; she’d make the roast, I’d make the gratin. The key ingredient to this harmony was that we cooked in separate kitchens. She in hers. Me in mine. It worked. In fact, it worked so well that we kept to it, religiously, for years.
Then, last Christmas, something happened that proved serendipitous. My husband and I had brought our two-year-old son to my parents’ apartment in the morning to exchange presents. The plan was to return to our house to cook midday, then retrace our steps in the evening bearing several dishes. But after a romp in Central Park, our son fell fast asleep on my parents’ couch. If Christmas dinner was to be enjoyed, that nap needed to go undisturbed. There was no choice: My mother and I would have to cook together, in her kitchen.
For the first few minutes we skirted each other warily, opting for the simple things first: salting the rib roast, mixing the batter for the Yorkshire pudding, preparing the horseradish. But when it came time for me to fold the beaten egg whites into the spinach base for a soufflé, my mother hovered a few inches behind me, her hand involuntarily extending to correct my own. I could feel my old indignation flaring up. I turned, ready to face her down. But, suddenly, she stepped away. “I guess you know what you’re doing,” she offered. I gave her a kiss only to hear her panicked command, “Keep folding!”
My mother’s oven decided to break down that night, and, just like the old days, my soufflé was a mess of raw eggs and gooey spinach. My mother’s Yorkshire pudding was equally awful—soggy and leaden—and her roast an unappetizing gray. Whatever lingering competitive spirit still existed between us we devoted to deciding whose food was the worst. In the end, ravenous and oddly thrilled, we decided to open a tin of foie gras and another bottle of Bordeaux.
Aleksandra Crapanzano, a screenwriter, most recently adapted the book Reading Lolita in Tehran for Miramax Films.