Every Mother’s Day, we thank our moms for giving birth to us, for teaching us to be good people, and of course, for nourishing us. For many of us, that sense of gratitude extends to the family meals she prepares, whether it’s her special slow-cooked beef kaldereta from an heirloom recipe or her “best ever” brownies from a Martha Stewart cookbook. But many of us will also readily admit that not all our mothers are that adept in the kitchen.
Case in point is a certain hapless Filipino-Norwegian chef who recently got in trouble and dragged his own non-cook of a mother into the fray. MasterChef Norway judge Jonathan Romano blurted out during a Norwegian TV show that Filipino food is “very bad food.” That clip was translated into English and shared by the NordicPinoy Facebook page, and Filipino food netizens, insulted by his obvious ignorance, quickly chimed in.
Romano obviously missed the mark on the diversity, complexity and downright deliciousness of Filipino food. Chastened, he ended up issuing an apology and promised to learn more. But what really got me was this line from him: “I will admit that my mother can’t cook!” Yikes, did he just blame his mom for his lack of appreciation of Filipino food?
Not surprising, really, as we tend to relate to food through our mothers (and grandmothers), via childhood memories of their cooking, so much so that we sometimes conflate a mother’s love with the preparation of the family meal. Remember the haughty food critic Anton Ego in the animated film Ratatouille melting into a puddle of nostalgia for his mother’s cooking after one bite of Remy’s ratatouille?
The late Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, the Philippines’ foremost food writer and historian, dedicates a whole chapter to Filipina mothers in Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture (1994, Anvil Publishing). She writes, “All of us have memories of tastes and experiences, food habits and information, that can be directly credited to mothers. ‘I remember’—one begins, and out it pours: how Mother used to make leche flan from carabao’s milk with rind of dayap; how Mama showed me, on the farm during the war, how to make longganiza…”
However, just like Jonathan Romano’s mother, not all nanays necessarily create beautiful food memories for their children. For every “my mom is a great cook” story, there are countless other moms who choose not to cook, or who simply aren’t that good at it. In her memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (1998, Random House), American food writer Ruth Reichl recounts her mother’s lack of prowess in the kitchen, calling herself the “guardian of the guests” as she would quietly warn guests to steer clear of her mother’s casserole. Instead, Reichl looked for food inspiration from other people, growing up to become an acclaimed food writer, editor and restaurant critic, as well as an accomplished chef in her own right.
Like Reichl’s mother, can we really get away with being moms who can’t cook? I say why not? If you look around, these moms are all around us, quietly fulfilling their motherly duties. We just don’t hear about them that much.
There’s the working mom who has to cook after a full day in the office (during pre-pandemic times), employing all the shortcuts to get food on the table in no time. There’s the budget-conscious mom who spends the family’s hard-earned income on her kids’ education, rather than splurge on pricey meat cuts. These moms cook because they have to, with no-nonsense efficiency and dedication, but without the extra TLC to make their food shine.
Then there’s the mom who strives to be the ideal homemaker. She may be trying to match up to the expectations of her own mother or mother-in-law who she sees as accomplished cooks. Or she may look up to those mommy influencers with their Instagram-perfect dishes (and equally perfect figures), but feel like she’s falling short of those impossibly high standards. Perhaps her real interests lie outside the kitchen.
View this post on Instagram
Finally, let’s not forget the doña mom, privileged enough to not have to cook herself, instead employing a cook to do all the daily cooking. (Confession: I’m that doña mom!) My kitchen duties involve grocery shopping and R&D (aka sharing new and interesting recipes with our family cook). When the mood hits, I bring out my KitchenAid mixer to bake the occasional cake or dessert. But for my own kids, those “ratatouille” moments are a rarity—and that’s OK.
Being a mother is complicated, especially these days. We dance around the traditional model of the all-virtuous, all-nurturing Filipina mother, continuously negotiating with ourselves on how close to that ideal we should be, and how far can we stray from the socio-cultural and gender norms that it entails. And it may be time to peel away some of those societal expectations, starting with cooking.
I’m dedicating this Mother’s Day tribute to Jonathan Romano’s mother and to all of us moms who can’t cook, choose not to cook, or try our darnedest but still can’t make our children fall in love with our food. We may not be magicians in the kitchen, but we have other talents for sure. All we ask is that you wish us moms well in our ongoing life journeys to wholly accept and love ourselves for who we are—even if we can’t make an adobo that our kids will remember.