In honor of Mother’s Day, we asked you to share your mother’s kitchen wisdom.
We loved reading these gems of knowledge passed down from mothers to daughters, to daughters-in-law and even to grandsons. Some were classic kitchen sayings. Others were just plain practical advice. A few were philosophies on how to best manage a kitchen, feed a family and how to not be afraid to try something new.
We were astounded by the number of submissions. We received more than can fit here, including a poem and a few longer essays, so those and many others are posted online at newsobserver.com/food. Enjoy reading these tributes and Happy Mother’s Day.
A way with leftovers
Joan Barasovska, 61, of Chapel Hill, wrote about her mother, Elsie Nax Freeman.
My mother was a fine cook and baker, but her true genius was for what she called “doctoring up” leftovers. She could take a few scraps of meat, chicken or sausage, the week’s carefully saved leftover vegetables, stock she had frozen and create a marvelous soup. Leftover fish became a fish salad. A friend of hers made a small sampler which hung in our kitchen: “Leftovers Are Haute Cuisine.” In our house it was true.
Editor’s note: Joan Barasovska also shared a poem about learning to bake from her mother. It has been posted online.
Rosemary Holmes Turnage, 88, of Farmville, wrote about her mother, Bertie Harris Holmes.
“Never bake biscuits.” This firm directive came with the following explanation: Biscuits, and they are best if homemade, should be cooked on rising temperature. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and turn up to 475 degrees when placing biscuits in the oven. When brown on the bottom, turn on broiler to brown the top. This will produce a delicious and flaky biscuit that is well worth the extra effort.
Keep mind in the kitchen
Linda Cheek Su, 52, of Cary wrote about her mother, Blanche A. Cheek.
My mother’s kitchen wisdom was “never cook out of the kitchen.” Her point was that you have to pay attention to what you are doing when you are cooking and not try to multitask outside of the kitchen. Unfortunately, I have not always followed her advice and without fail, it has led to something being burned. When I do mess up, I hear her voice in my head lovingly reprimanding me.
Keep your kitchen clean
Nancy Jones, “somewhere north of 50,” of Raleigh, about her mother, Edith Crabtree.
My mother always emphasized organization and cleanliness in the kitchen. Her mantra of “a clean kitchen makes the whole house seem clean” echoes in my ears even today. Mama taught me to clean as I cooked. I follow this practice today, and it makes cooking stress free.
Get your son to eat his vegetables
Joe May writing on behalf of Tucker May, 3, of Raleigh about his mother, Keleigh May.
Mommy makes up funny stories to help me try new foods. My favorite is when she tells me about dinosaur balls, which are spinach and kale bites. Timmy was the littlest herbivore dinosaur and was too small to reach the leaves up in the trees, so his mommy got them down and made them into dino balls.
Learn to clean a fish?
Norma Hall Hammond, 68, of Wake Forest, wrote about her mother, Janet Farrier Hall.
My mother was an absolutely wonderful mother to five unruly children. However, she was not much of a cook. I received very little advice from her, but this I remember always: “Never learn to clean a fish, and you’ll never be asked do it.”
A neat cake trick
Julie Burke, 52, of Cary, wrote about her mother, Gina Wageman.
My mother did not like to waste a lot of time standing in the kitchen cooking when she could have been out on the porch sipping a rum and coke. She did have some wisdom that I have used all my life: when she showed me how to bake a cake, she taught me to lay the cake pan on a doubled-up piece of wax paper and trace around the pan, cut out the circle, and – after placing a dab of butter on the bottom – affix the wax paper to the pan. I was always amazed at how easy it was to get the cake out of the pan when this was done. My mother was no Martha Stewart, but she was perfect in my eyes.
How to keep your food warm
Chad Brewer, 42, of Raleigh, wrote about his grandmother Helen Brewer.
My grandmother was my biggest cooking influence. Her advice was how to keep food warm for transport. She taught me to wrap baking dishes in several sheets of newspaper and tape it closed. The newspaper acts as an insulator as there is air between the sheets. For larger things, like a pot of chicken and dumplings, she wrapped them in a large towel. Both methods work so well I threw away my more modern heat preservers. Last year I made chicken and dumplings to take camping that night. Four hours after I made them, I unwrapped the towel and had steaming hot dumplings to serve.
Don’t graze between meals
Janet Barnaritz Tulowiecki, 57, of Chapel Hill wrote about her mother, Sophia Barbaritz.
My mother’s cooking was so good that she had to devise a strategy to keep her delectable dishes from being consumed before they hit the table. I call this kitchen wisdom: “Keeping the foragers at bay.” Mom made small extra quantities of dishes she prepared as a decoy for the ubiquitous kitchen nibblers and beggars (my father and sisters and me) lured out of Sunday lounging by tantalizing aromas streaming from the kitchen. Morsels of breaded pork chop, chopped apples tossed with cinnamon and sugar that didn’t make it into the pie, fried green tomatoes whose breading didn’t quite stay on – these were for the scavengers. But her vigilance was required until the final presentation of the meal. Like Yogi Bear taught: Once yummy treats are discovered, it’s hard to keep bears away from the picnic ground.
Let others do the seasoning
Brenda Medlin, 67, of Angier, wrote about her mother, Ida Whitaker.
There is too much of my mother’s kitchen wisdom to share because I learned so much from her. I guess the best advice was to keep it simple and let others add the salt and pepper.
Don’t forget the mustard
Anne Brill, 68, of Cary, wrote about her mother-in-law, Frances Brill.
Though my mother has been the greatest influence in my developing a keen interest in cooking, my mother-in-law’s four words to me early in my marriage made a lasting impact on my cooking. Mustard was my least favorite condiment for many years. Before I was married, a small jar of mustard would sit in the back of my fridge, ignored, lonely and probably expired. Marriage changed that. During a holiday with my in-laws shortly after I was married, I offered to make the coleslaw. As I mixed up the dressing, my mother-in-law advised, “Don’t forget the mustard.” I responded skeptically, “Mustard in coleslaw?” With the confidence of a seasoned cook, she replied, “Mustard makes it better.” Sure enough, it was the best coleslaw I had ever eaten and I promptly recorded the recipe for my file.
During another visit that first year, my mother-in-law served a big dish of potato salad, which was bright yellow. I groaned inwardly as I realized that I had married into a family of mustard lovers. Ugh! Much to my surprise, I discovered that her potato salad could compete with (though not surpass) my mother’s potato salad made with homemade mayonnaise. Just as we alternated holidays between families, I told my husband we would alternate his mother’s potato salad with my mother’s potato salad.
What was a mustard epiphany for me, however, was the first time I ate my mother-in-law’s home canned mustard and horseradish pickles. I raved about them so much that I found two quarts beside my Christmas stocking that year, and my mother-in-law gave me her mother’s cut glass pickle dish since she said I displayed a true appreciation for pickles. Soon I was canning her signature pickles covered in a bright yellow brine.
Today mustard finds itself front and center in my fridge, right beside the ketchup, and there is always a spare bottle in my pantry. Whether I’m making coleslaw for Thanksgiving, pimento cheese balls for holiday gifts, deviled eggs at Easter, baked beans for a picnic, egg salad for lunch or glazing salmon or chicken with honey mustard for dinner, I can hear echoes of my mother-in-law’s kitchen wisdom 39 years ago, “Don’t forget the mustard.”
A good cook is a clean one
Rahkie Mateen-Mason, 39, of Siler City, wrote about her mother, Hueyta Mateen-Pierce.
I started cooking around the fourth grade after joining a school etiquette group. To raise money for the group, we had to have bake sales once a week. After making chocolate chip cookies, I had ingredients everywhere, mostly on the floor. My mom told me that I was “such a good cook” and followed by saying “a good cook always cleans up after herself.” I say those same words to my children.
A family cookbook
Cathy Wilkerson Lemly, 52, of Wake Forest, wrote about her mother, Mary Louise Wilkerson.
My sister and I asked our mother to put together a few favorite recipes for her grandchildren (19 recipes to be exact) as they prepared to leave home for college. We were surprised when our request for a few recipes morphed into an 183-page cookbook, which includes family photos. The cookbook, “Recipes and Reflections,” includes a section titled “This and That,” which has two pages of “How to Make” items, such as stewing a chicken, “Sneaky Substitutes” and “Hints and Shortcuts.” I feel lucky to have a full collection of my mom’s wisdom, which I can reference forever along with enjoying many favorite recipes from family and friends.
Close that oven door
Joy Mucha Drew, 49, of Cary wrote about her mother, Camille Mucha.
Although my mom was constantly offering cooking and baking tips, the one I still use to this day is this: When you open your heated oven to insert or remove your food, close the oven door as quickly as possible because the oven temperature will drop dramatically as the heat is escaping. Whenever I’ve baked with someone and they leave the oven door open to check their food, I can hardly keep myself from shouting, “Close the door! Close the door!” I have taught my kids this same lesson.
Occasionally I pull a recipe from my recipe box that my mom had written out for me years ago and it’s usually in at least two ink colors: one for the recipe and another for all the comments she makes (“Don’t bake too long!” or “You can use canned Mexican tomatoes.”) Once an annoyance, these comments now provide a precious memory of a time before macular degeneration took away most of her vision and Parkinson’s disease robbed her of the ability to write clearly. At 83, she still manages to cook a bit here and there, but her best days in the kitchen have passed.
A must-have for a hostess
Pam Piper Kirby, 49, of Atlanta wrote about her mother, Joyce C. Piper.
I picked up lots of wise tips over the years: keep your kitchen spotless, don’t let dishes pile up in the sink, make a shopping list. But my favorite bit of wisdom was something I always saw my mom do for big family gatherings. Make a list of everything you are serving and its assigned serving dish. On the list include how long it needs to cook and at what temperature in order to group things appropriately. Then make your plan: turkey in at 8 a.m., dressing in at 10:30 a.m., etc.
As the wife of a retired Naval officer, I entertained large and small groups of people all over the world. But that planning list that my mom crafted with each lovingly prepared spread served me well. I was always able to appear organized, and the food was perfectly cooked and ready to serve, all at the same time. Whether it was for a small dinner party or entertaining 100 Navy family members after a return from a long deployment, the list was my go-to kitchen tool.
Eat dinner as a family
Debra Hayek, 61, of Youngsville, wrote about her mother, Dee Wright.
No matter how tired she was or how much pain she was in due to a heart condition, Mom always prepared a lovely meal with a meat, starch and two vegetables until she passed away three years ago. She always made dessert even if it was just Jell-O with Cool Whip. We didn’t have a lot of money to spare when I was growing up, but we always ate well-rounded meals and always ate together at dinnertime. I continued that tradition with our two daughters. Eating as a family is the best thing you can do.
Rub that smell away
Diana Turner, 66, of Wake Forest, wrote about her mother, Mair Turner.
My mother was a great cook who was a young wife and mother in Wales just after World War II. She always used fresh ingredients and all the leftovers were used up. “When food was rationed, it made you become creative and frugal,” she said.
Her advice on how to get the onion and garlic smell off your fingers: rub a stainless steel spoon over your wet fingers and the smell goes away instantly.
Don’t stir those beans
Linda Massey, 47, of Durham, wrote about her mother, Nancy Traylor.
Growing up in Ohio, I remember the excitement in the kitchen when we picked the first half runner green beans of the season. My mother, and her mother before her, always cooked them in a pressure cooker with salt pork. After that process, they had to “cook down” so that the liquid would evaporate. The trick here was never stir the green beans during that process. I still cook beans that way, and because I never stir them, I never have mushy green beans. Thank you, Mom, for that important tip that isn’t in the cookbooks.
A sticky recipe instruction
Denise Smith Cline, 57, of Raleigh, wrote about her mother, Mildred Smith.
Once again I gather what I need to make my mother’s yeast rolls. Now that she is gone, I worry over the enigma of her recipes – for rolls, for child-rearing, for patience and kindness. The ingredients for rolls are simple enough. Warm water, flour, yeast, oil, an egg, a bit of salt and a touch of sugar for the rising. That’s what it says in my own handwriting on the recipe card. She dictated the recipe to me while she was stirring something else, her then-steady voice hinting at the first grade teacher she had been.
Even though the handwriting is mine, it baffles me now. I can barely recall what my life was like when it looked as my handwriting does on the card. Neat, confident, legible and suggesting the hope of a new wife, eager to learn and please, to master old, hard things like marriage and yeast rolls. But now the recipe card is stained from my many efforts, partial successes, utter failures.
Like the ingredients, some measurements are straightforward: One egg. Two packages of dry yeast.
And then the clarity disappears. “How much flour?” I’m sure I asked. And the answer on the card reads as it always has, “Enough so that the spoon doesn’t stick.”
As a young woman writing on the card, I didn’t understand how narrow the path is between the soft dough of the right consistency and the dough of too dry, too much.
What does that mean, “doesn’t stick?” Doesn’t stick at all? What kind of spoon? A wooden spoon seems a good guess but there is a big difference between a wooden spoon and a silver one.
“Don’t worry about those small things,” she would say, a lesson in her tone. “Just add it till it seems right.”
When I could still call her and ask these questions, I did. But she often offered more ambiguity: “Well, when it’s wet, you need more flour, and when it’s not, you need less.”
Once, covered in flour and flushed with frustration, I called in a panic. She could not look through the phone line and figure out what I had done or failed to do. But I knew she understood my predicament.
Then she told me that as a young wife who could not even boil an egg, she tried to make Daddy a batch of biscuits for his birthday.
“I don’t know what got into me, thinking I could go from nothing to biscuits, but I was young and dumb,” she laughed.
She told me she had used her own mother-in-law’s recipe, but put in a quarter cup of soda in instead of a quarter teaspoon. After tasting the dough, she rushed to bury it in the back yard before he came home. By late afternoon, the biscuits had risen so much Daddy found them peeping out of their shallow grave when he went out to feed the dog.
We both laughed at that baking story, and now I think she was trying to tell me: Sometimes there is too little. Sometimes there is too much. Sometimes when we try to bury our mistakes they rise up from the grave. And sometimes we can laugh at that.
A mother to five, she had the same gentle ease raising children. “Let them play,” she would say when I tried to enforce strict schedules with my own children. I despaired at mothering when my own 13-year old daughter did what she was supposed to do and suddenly became my most devastating critic. Mother listened and offered advice for bakers and mothers alike: “Honey,” she said, “It’s not personal and it’s not permanent.”
Other times, she tried to soften that most difficult answer – that there is not one. But how do I go forward when the yeast is stale, the water won’t warm? Must I stay in this dry job? Do I leave this sometimes kind man? Most essentially, how will I know?
I remember her frail, thin hand tightly clasping my own, her nails polished a rosy pink even to the end of her days. Her answer: “I don’t know. But you do.”
And yet I don’t, and the boxes I brought back when we cleared out her house are still stacked in my own attic. I held out hope that in those boxes, filled with paper and drying relics of her full life, there would be further guidance, her own handwritten recipe. Instead I find clippings of us all, Daddy’s successes, our school plays, printed programs from decades of garden club and Circle meetings, letters from her sisters.
So many things I failed to ask. How to forgive, to dissolve years-old lumps of betrayal and arrogance I’ve held onto, mine and others? How to move beyond big and little failures and exhaustion and keep rising as she did? “This is the day the Lord hath made, rejoice and be glad in it” she would say as we groaned awake on Saturday mornings.
I weep to remember the times I made her cry – I was sassy, selfish, and now, it seems to me, young and cold. Perhaps she knew it wasn’t personal, wasn’t permanent.
And so today, I pour in the flour – a lot because it’s damp – and stir, enough so that on the third or fourth try, the spoon, wooden this time, mostly doesn’t stick. The result is yeasty and warm and the smell calls up memories of her and all that she did to try to explain the unexplainable. I set the bowl on the back of the stove and watch it rise.
A poem for Elsie
Here is the poem Joan Barasovska, 61, of Chapel Hill, wrote about her mother, Elsie Nax Freeman.
As a girl I stood by my mother in her kitchen, swaddled in white apron, to watch her careful art;
All ingredients set out, all measurements exact, technique practiced and sure.
I have her measuring spoons and sifter, her mother’s largest mixing bowl.
Pound cake made with cream cheese, peach pie, gingerbread,
Rugelach with a circular diagram drawn on the page.
They are the best of her I have, my mother, cook and baker; her daughter, cook and baker.
Our fame is served by the slice.
What does Mrs. Rombauer say?
Agnes Stevens, 54, of Raleigh wrote about her mother, Barbara S. Stevens.
My kitchen bookcase holds probably two dozen cookbooks. My mother only used one, the blue-checkered “Joy of Cooking,” published in 1946.
Today, a fat white rubber band holds that book together. When I open it and flip to one of the bookmarked recipes, the front cover detaches, and it becomes what my cousins call “the fan edition” – handy for cooling a cook’s cheeks on a hot day.
I still refer to the old cookbook more often than I use the modern, white-covered edition. The old blue book has the recipe for quick tomato aspic and a truly amazing strawberry sorbet, among other things that aren’t in any other recipe collection I own.
The book’s full title is “The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer .” It was my mother’s book. But she didn’t call the volume “Joy ,” like everybody else. My mother was somewhat formal and exact even when we were in the middle of a cooking project. So, Mama would direct me to “see what Mrs. Rombauer says about how long I need to let this juice boil,” when she was making her grape jelly.
This did not happen often, though, because my mother hated cooking, although she was perfectly competent.
Long before she owned a microwave, Mama claimed the title of “world’s fastest cook.” She always wanted to get meal prep over with and the plates on the table without lingering over a sauce or skillet.
She did not relish the challenge of creating elaborate baked desserts, either. I really don’t know how old I was when I discovered that other people’s homemade cakes did not start out with a box of Duncan-Hines or Betty Crocker. (Mama was not particular about the brand – whatever mix offered the better coupon and net price from the A&P would become our birthday cake.)
The most practical thing I learned from my mother about baking is that baking powder needs to be fresh – or else pancakes will be flat, dense disks. Mama knew this because she did, in fact, make pancakes from scratch. She did not even need Mrs. Rombauer for the recipe, since she served pancakes every Saturday morning.
And they were delicious.
The other days of the week we would have an egg or oatmeal or corn flakes – something quick. Mama liked to vary our breakfasts, but they always needed to be speedy since we all had to get off to church on Sunday and to school during the week – including Mama, who was a teacher. So, six days a week, Mama would get our breakfast started, call upstairs to tell us to “get dressed and come down here before it gets cold,” and then we’d all eat and quickly clean up before starting our days.
But Saturdays were different. Saturdays were luxurious. Saturdays were pancakes.
We still had to scamper downstairs when we were summoned to the table, but hot, fluffy pancakes with warmed syrup and crisp bacon made the day start with a relaxed smile for everybody, even for the world’s fastest cook.
Unlike my mother, I don’t make pancakes every Saturday. I might make them twice a year, if that often. But when I do, I turn to a reliable resource to make sure that I’ve got the right ingredients in the right proportions. That’s when I ask myself, “I wonder what Mrs. Rombauer says about that?” Luckily I’ve got the fan edition at the ready and Mrs. Rombauer is pleased to speak her wisdom to me across the decades.
Keep it simple
Lee Graybeal, 61, of Cary, wrote about her mother, Mary Ann Graybeal.
When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, my mother cooked every night except for Tuesday (Kiwanis night for my dad, so we had leftovers), and Saturday night (parents’ night out, so my three sisters and I had frozen chicken pot pies). We ate dinner at the table as a family and ate what we were served, whether we liked it or not.
My mother’s motto was “keep it simple.” She believed a good grilled hamburger was better than any fancy beef dish. We had a garden and ate a lot of fresh vegetables, never with a sauce – totally unnecessary. Nothing is easier or tastier than grilling out and we grilled out a lot, either barbequed chicken, hamburgers, kebobs or steaks. No reason to have scalloped potatoes when a baked potato would do. Salad? Grab some fresh veggies from the garden and toss them. Mother also loved to serve a wedge of iceberg lettuce with French dressing poured over it. How easy is that!
To this day, when I am planning to cook for my mother, she’ll insist I make it easy on myself. Most of the dishes she cooks contain five ingredients or less, and I am the same way. Why go to all the fuss and bother for a complicated recipe when a simple one works just as well and is every bit as tasty? My mother is 88 years old and I still follow her example – keep it simple.
Do not waste a crumb
Ellyn Smith, 54, of Raleigh, wrote about her mother, Babette Sartorius Hirsch.
My mother is no longer living but I practice what she taught me every day. She was living during the Depression so she made every crumb count.
For instance, she would bake a ham. We would eat the ham, then we would have ham sandwiches, then she would make ham salad for more sandwiches. And last, but not least, she would boil the bone for either soup or to flavor green beans.
If she found, say, apples on the reduced rack in the produce department, she would buy them, peel them and cut out the bad spots and make applesauce. Or she would buy a large bag of reduced mushrooms and cook them with garlic and wine, then either use them in sauce or freeze them to use later.
She taught me to be creative and thrifty. I am very thankful for her way of thinking: nothing goes to waste.
A kitchen full of memories
Linda Lee Heizer, 74, of Chapel Hill, wrote about her mother, Marguerite Lawson.
I was 8 years old when mom taught me how to dissolve yeast in water and let it stand on the counter for 10 minutes, while I carefully measured flour, just the right way, before adding all the rest of the ingredients to make delicious Parker House rolls and sweet cinnamon rolls. We then moved onto Southern spoon bread, biscuits, cornbread, French bread and sourdough bread.
My mom also taught me the importance of a pretty dinner table. Mom always said the dinner table should be as pretty as the food is delicious. We always set the table with china, cloth napkins and silver. She also taught how to arrange all the knives, forks and spoons, the correct way.
My best days are when the day is over and I look back on the counters and see loaves of bread, cookies or jars of jams and pickles for my family and friends to share. It also was a day that I remember all the wonderful kitchen memories and wisdom that my mom so lovingly shared with me.
An enthusiasm in the kitchen
Thelma Baker, 90, of Chapel Hill wrote about her mother, Tillie Kramer.
My mother came to this country from Eastern Europe in 1912. By the 1920s when I was born, she had learned English and had been learning to cook “American.” This meant trying new recipes with new ingredients. Her textbook was The Boston Globe’s women’s page. She tried everything with enthusiasm. She learned to make great fruit pies with Crisco. One memorable dessert was a chocolate sponge cake, spread with marshmallow fluff and then rolled into a round jelly roll form.
When I grew up and had a family of my own, I continued the tradition of trying new recipes. “The Joy of Cooking” was my text and my first lasagna from scratch was memorable. Later with the help of my four children, we made Peking duck.
Those children have continued the tradition. Last week celebrating my 90th birthday, one daughter’s 60th and a granddaughter’s 22nd, my son cooked an international menu and ended with bananas Foster, complete with flames.
Meals fit for a king
Denise Brown, 56, Raleigh, wrote about her mother, Nola Collins.
My mother was one of 10 children raised in Detroit during the Depression. I have no doubt my mother learned to be thrifty, creative and inventive growing up in her household. I recall folks marveling at the meals my grandmother could put out with seemingly nothing in the pantry or the icebox. Even with simple ingredients, my grandmother would produce a meal fit for a king. My mother has all those qualities and then some! She was never, ever afraid to try new things – be it a trendy new ingredient or kitchen gadgets. To this day at the sweet young age of 84, she reads cookbooks like they are good novels and continues to put out food that warms the heart and feeds the soul. Everything I learned to do and appreciate about cooking and feeding others came from my sweet mom.
How to season correctly
Cindy Williams, 56, of Chapel Hill wrote about her mother, Cleo Williams.
Be careful to add salt or any spice, but especially salt, just a little bit at the time and taste. “You can always add more, but you can’t take it out if you put in too much.” If you season to taste while cooking, there’s less need to use salt at the table. People tend to over-salt when they use a shaker. Or consider seasoning vegetables with lean bacon or a few small pieces of lean ham. It gives it a better flavor and you don’t need to use as much table salt.
Grace Pennington, 77, of Fuquay-Varina, wrote about her mother, Louise Jeffries.
My mother made the best chocolate and lemon meringue pies with beautiful meringue piled high. She could get the most volume out of two egg whites of anyone I’ve ever seen. She used a flat wire whisk, put the egg whites in a platter and whipped by hand. Pretty labor intensive but worth it. She used very little sugar. The pile of meringue was unbelievable and browned so perfectly. She never owned an electric mixer and everything was mixed or whipped by hand. The other day I was wondering why my meringue never looked like Mom’s, and it dawned on me about her method versus mine. I would pay big bucks for her wire whisk.