I was raised in a one-cook household. My mother has always been the authority on all things food in the Kaowthumrong home. Even when she worked long hours at our family’s gas station when I was a kid, Mama always found time to whip up moo palo (black soy sauce-tinged egg and pork belly stew), kaeng khiao wan (spicy-sweet green curry with beef), and other Thai and Chinese specialties for our family. She continued this tradition after her retirement, cooking three square meals a day for my father—whose only kitchen skill is managing the rice maker—and producing extra portions for me and my husband, Gavin, on a weekly basis. I’ve spent a lot of time shadowing Mama in the kitchen but never really prepared food for my parents beyond the occasional container of Louisiana gumbo or green chile. That all changed in late November, when Mama fell ill with COVID-19.
The progression of the illness was swift. Within a 24-hour period, my 70-year-old mother developed a 100-degree fever and was bedridden by chills, an upset stomach, and nasty body aches. The symptoms continued for more than 14 days. During that time, she barely had the energy to walk, let alone fire up the wok on the camping stove in the backyard (her preferred cooking set-up) to prepare a meal.
Stricken with worry, I checked in every few hours, eagerly inquiring about Mama’s condition and what they needed in quarantine. The answer was always “nothing” until Dad casually mentioned that he’d ordered delivery from Burger King and Mama was disappointed by the lack of protein in the Campbell’s chicken noodle soup my brother had sent to the house. I was mortified. While there was nothing I could do to alleviate Mama’s headaches, nausea, and throbbing chest pains, the least Gavin and I could do was make sure that she and my father were properly fed. We got to work.
We perused our home pantry, chest freezer, and refrigerator for the ingredients to produce a meaty vegetable soup infused with bone broth to appease my mom’s sensitive stomach and a multi-day menu of her staple dishes for my dad: garlic-crusted prime rib with roasted asparagus and mushrooms (yes, Mama is a meat-forward chef who produces this monthly); lard na (rice noodles in a thick brown gravy); and custard-filled sweet buns (Dad’s favorite breakfast).
Although I’m a proud Thai-American who grew up eating Asian fare, I’ve often felt too intimidated to try to reproduce my mom’s recipes on my own, especially the ones for baked goods. I think it’s because I’m spoiled by and in awe of the food Mama creates and fear that what I might make will never taste exactly like hers. Whenever I’ve helped her bake things like filled buns and pastries, she says I’m an “impatient” baker. Apparently, I struggle to knead and nurture dough long enough to reach the right consistency. I’d like to take offense, however, my custard buns, which failed to rise appropriately before I put them in the oven, proved her point. The end result more closely resembled pita bread than the yeasty, fluffy, fist-size treats they’re meant to be.
But that wasn’t the only culinary speed bump I hit. While the sauce for the lard na was the right consistency, I misread Mama’s handwritten recipe and added the incorrect ratio of soy sauce and rice wine, giving it a funky, overly salty flavor. The only dishes that turned out well were Gavin’s prime rib, which he rubbed with a heavy dose of grated garlic, thyme, and salt and smoked on the grill, and the vegetable soup, a fragrant potion enriched with beef bones I simmered overnight.
We kept the failed lard na and sweet buns for ourselves and dropped the prime rib and soup on my parents’ doorstep. While I was embarrassed as hell about the botched executions of the other dishes, the ones we did deliver were a smash hit. Or maybe they were just mediocre, and Mama and Dad were simply entertained by the tales of the cooking mishaps. Either way, the whole experience reminded me how much I have yet to learn from my mom in the kitchen—and beyond.
It might sound cliché, but what I’ve realized is that the missing ingredient in all the recipes I failed to replicate is Mama’s presence—her watchful eye, authoritative guidance, and lovingly critical laughter when I make mistakes. When she was sick, I was paralyzed by thoughts about how I may never have the chance to cook with her again and haunted by all of the time I’ve wasted failing to get the recipes right when she was healthy. If the unspeakable happened and she died, who would cook them for my dad?
Fortunately, Mama is slowly healing from the virus, but if 2020 has taught me anything, it is that time is precious. And thanks to COVID-19, I will no longer take it—or Mama’s sweet buns—for granted.