I’m so pleased to introduce you to today’s guest-poster, friend and beloved magazine veteran Mindy Berry Walker, who was, most recently, executive editor of Parents. (She’s now helping out on the content end at her sister Cheree’s company, Cheree Berry Paper.) I love this story about her mom, shown above on the left eating cake with Mindy’s aunt and father in the late 70s, and I can already tell that “What Would Mrs. Berry Do?” is going to be my new favorite mantra. Take it away Mindy…
Last night, I made braised chicken thighs for dinner. The night before we had turkey Sloppy Joes. If you’d told my teenage self that someday I’d be roasting carrots while sautéing chicken, I would’ve said that’s bananas. Back then, I assumed I’d figure out meals the way my mom did—with fast food.
Here’s how it went down: We’d all tumble in from our day of work, school and activities (basketball games, pommie practice, church choir…), and my mom would place of bag of takeout on the kitchen counter. Staples included chicken and broccoli and crabmeat rangoons from Ho Wah, the local Chinese restaurant, and burgers and fries from Lamplight Inn, the cozy restaurant the Berry side of my family owned. Fast food chains were still making their way into our rural Midwestern town, about 70 miles south of St. Louis, so options were not robust. When Taco Bell finally opened its doors, my sisters and I could not believe our luck that MexiMelts could be added to our weekly rotation.
I didn’t think much about my childhood dinner routine until about a year ago when I was out with fellow over-worked, over-stretched friends, and we were discussing the impossibility of finding time to exercise. I mentioned that my mom had played tennis nearly every afternoon after teaching when I was growing up. “How did she squeeze it in?” they asked. I explained it probably helped that she didn’t have to rush home to prep dinner. Brows furrowed in question. But the audible gasps didn’t come until I said, “And she never felt guilty about her choice! I never heard my mom say, ‘What’s wrong with me? I should cook more.’”
Part of me would like to imagine my mom deciding not to cook as a form of 70s-era protest. Against the rule that she had to wear dresses or skirts, not pants, when she first started teaching, or the lingering notion that pregnant teachers shouldn’t work up until their due date because their appearance would distract students. But I know her reason, in fact, was much simpler: She didn’t like to cook. She didn’t find it relaxing or rewarding to “have something in the oven.” Her own mother didn’t get satisfaction from making meals, and she didn’t encourage my mom, or any of us, to take it up. Sure, two to three times a month my mom would brown ground beef, open a bag of Doritos and call it taco night. She could also bread pork chops and heat up canned green beans. But once she decided that she could be a good mom—the best mom, I’d venture—without being on stovetop duty every night, and that she and my dad were okay with the cost, the routine was set.
As adults, my sisters and I have all learned to cook. Out of the three of us, I probably enjoy it the most, and I give full credit to my husband Peter, a Brit I met at a crowded New York City apartment party about a year after I’d made the move from Missouri to Manhattan. He cooked the very British Delia Smith’s leg of lamb for our third date, and I was in awe. It was a revelation to me that sifting through recipe books and chopping vegetables could be a worthwhile pursuit.
Now when my parents come stay with us in suburban New York, we cook for them, and they gush over my chicken piccata or Peter’s ribs. My mom doesn’t frown upon the mess or wonder why I go to the trouble. She’s proud of me, and I realize that’s because her goal wasn’t to raise me to be just like her, but to be empowered like she was. To make my own choices and do what works for me.
It’s a lesson that’s carried over to my friends. Says one of my oldest friends Heather: “When I start to feel guilty about relying on the drive-thru more than usual for dinner, I think, ‘Look at Mindy. She turned out fine!’” And Kerry, one of the women who was at the table when I first revealed my fast-food childhood, recently told me how my mom has inspired her. She said, “I was running home to cook after a long day, and I thought, “What would Mrs. Berry do?”
“Seamless?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she said.
On My Dinner Rotation…
I’m a long-time fan and reader of DALS—the blog and the cookbooks! It’s my cooking inspo nearly every week. Here are a few of my faves:
-Turkey Sloppy Joes, p. 98 of Dinner: The Playbook. My 13-year-old loves her sandwich even more with the Dilly Cucumber Salad, p. 161, and I agree it’s a great pairing.
-Black Bean and Avocado Salad, p. 143 of Dinner: A Love Story. The salad is part of a full dinner recipe with fried flounder, but I often just make the salad for potlucks.
–Game Day Dip. I’ve taken this to so many gatherings it might be called “Mindy’s Artichoke Dip” in some circles! Oops! As a Midwesterner, I can’t resist an easy dip that calls for mayo. Neither can my mom. I gave her the recipe and she even makes it for her book club!
For more Mindy, follow her on instagram at @mindyberrywalker.
Related: Dahlia Lithwick on Other Mother’s Recipes