Your edible heritage alive and in living color


May 01, 1991|By Linda Chion-Kenney | Linda Chion-Kenney,Special to The Evening Sun


My sister calls it "vegetable medley," because Mom doesn't use eggplant "and she started using vegetables that don't belong in it."

So what? To me, it'll always be Mom's Ratatouille.

And no matter how I slice it, I've never been able to dish up the meal in quite the same way as Mom. Lots of peppers, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, onions, scallions, carrots, string beans, peas and even garlic have gone by the wayside in my attempts to match the master chef at her game.

The reason why: communication.

I've watched Julia Child. I've listened to Julia Child. And, Mother Chef, when it comes to explaining your culinary art, you're no Julia Child.

Ask Mom for her recipe, and she'll gladly tell it to you. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, as in: "How much oregano should I use?" or: "How long should the vegetables simmer?" the answer usually boils down to: "Use your own judgment."

So, enough.

VTC I quit trying to get Mom's recipes in writing.

I put away the pen and paper and I brought out the videocassette recorder.

As an early Mother's Day gift to myself and to my family, I sought to capture Mom's recipe for ratatouille -- on video.

I would preserve for myself, for her grandchildren, and their grandchildren, the image of Mother Chion in the family kitchen, as it looked near the end of the 20th century.

I would learn, once and for all, the secret to her great ratatouille.

At the very least, I would get a healthy, heaping helping of my favorite homecooked meal.

Home to Long Island to film the first installment of "Mother Chion's Video Cookbook," I found in my mother's den an old, hardback cookbook whose pages have yellowed with age.

A passage in "The American Family Cook Book," written by Lily Wallace and published in 1952, sums up Mom and me:

"One housewife will surpass another in the quality of her cooking although both work from the same recipes and with similar tools and equipment.

"The chief reason for that difference will be experience. A hundred -- yes, a thousand -- different conditions arise each time a dish is cooked -- in each location where it is made."

Then come the words that, in a nutshell, describe Mom as Master Chef: "In her subconscious mind, without giving it a fleeting, conscious thought, the experienced cook will recognize these differences by her five senses and she will make, without any voluntary act, the minute adjustments which sometimes spell the difference between perfection and mediocrity."

And so, in the pursuit of excellence, and to settle our culinary differences, I popped a videocassette into the recorder and put Mom on stage, attempting to document each and every one of her "minute adjustments."

This time I didn't cringe whenever Mom said: "Use your own judgment."

As she sliced the zucchini to an almost translucent thinness -- "however you like it" -- the camera caught it.

As she poured the olive oil into the saucepan and sauteed the garlic, scallions and onions -- "until it's done" -- it was captured on video.

As she sprinkled parsley, oregano and pepper -- "just for taste" -- I recorded it for posterity.

Maybe that's the secret to making Mom's Ratatouille: seeing and hearing in practice her knowledge born of experience, instead of merely trying to interpret, and then replicate, a recipe from a hurried scrawl.

Is it worth it to videotape family recipes? As I see it, yes. For three reasons.

First, with the tape running, Mom took the time to explain to me what she was doing as she was doing it, in careful and controlled tones. That's a first for us. I usually ask for recipes in frantic conversations in long-distance phone calls.

Second, as I preserved on video a slice of life in Mom's kitchen, I couldn't help but think that the toddler at my feet, who watched her mother and grandmother with great curiosity, would one day share this tape with her own children and grandchildren. They might someday look at this tape not only to follow a family recipe, but also to see how their ancestors lived, looked and sounded.

Finally, filming Mom at work in the kitchen is, at the very least, a great way to get a healthy, heaping helping of my favorite homecooked meal.

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