Around 5:30 pm I’d hover by the door, waiting to take my mother’s briefcase to carry to the hall bench as she hung up her coat and kicked off her heels. Hungrier for her than for supper, I’d trail her to the kitchen wanting to help. It couldn’t have been easy, working all day, then cooking with a kid hanging on your apron, but my mother had her repertoire and I think she was generally content making meals.
By the time I was ten or eleven I was reading cookbooks and making my own dishes. I got hooked on food because food is a great companion. It shares intimacies, gets messy and reacts to what you do, maybe more so than family, or at least without strings.
I don’t think my mother thought of food the way I do. The food she cooked showed she cared; it was tasty and mostly well prepared, but she wasn’t using the food to say, "I’m excited for you to taste this because I’m watching you grow and I think you’ll like it," or, "I know you’re studying such and such at school and this is what that food is like," the way I did with my kids. Her dinner would have been the same whether I were there or not. She just made food.
I have been cooking what I remember of her, trying to find something lost during the years of her illness. Feelings come up and forgotten memories, some while cooking and different ones when I eat, but I hadn’t felt my mother’s love, and here I mean the primordial kind, until I made chocolate syrup and drank a glass of chocolate milk.
When I was a kid we alternated between Bosco and Hershey’s. It was what made milk bearable. I had it in the morning with Cocoa Puffs and it paired surprisingly with fish sticks dipped in ketchup. On the occasions we had chocolate ice cream I’d make a big production of double chocolate shakes. The syrup was her gift, her way of fixing things. I didn’t like milk but had to drink it; she let me use syrup.
Chewing the tip of a red and white straw, I’d blow bubbles till they overflowed, sliding in slow motion down the side of the glass, popping on the table leaving chocolate milk rings. In my teens I swiped a baby bottle from one of my babysitting charges, and late at night I’d lie on the couch stoned, sucking chocolate milk, obliterating my mind on late night tv.
Closing my eyes now, I see the sanguine goo sinking in ribbons to the bottom of the glass, the edge of the spoon poking against the glass as it pulls upwards, stirring to blend though leaving unblended streaks, too. I hear the spoon clink on the side of the glass.
Tasting my homemade elixir, the chocolate’s spiciness ignites my throat while the milk caresses, hushing the flame. My eyelids grow heavy. The sip coddles like only a mother can.
1 cup good quality unsweetened cocoa
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup water
pinch of salt
big splash of vanilla
In a small saucepan over medium heat whisk together cocoa, sugar, water and salt. When it comes to a boil, remove from heat and stir in vanilla. It thickens as it cools. Can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for weeks.
Add a tablespoon or two to a big glass of cold milk. Stir.
Ame Gilbert is an artist turned food scholar and writer. Her first book, cake/meat/soup chronicled the end of a marriage through recipes. The pieces here are part of a work-in-progress: a family portrait memorializing her mother—also with recipes. Ame has been published in Gastronomica, Food, Culture & Society, and most recently Snapdragon.