Potpies, Mudpies, and Macaroni: On Learning to Cook

Creative Nonfiction
Vivian Wagner

Our recipe for mudpies involved adding two parts dirt to one part fresh water from the creek. When I was about eight, my sister Ann and I would carefully scoop the sand with its bits of mica and quartz up from the garden, trying to remove any stray stones or bits of leaves or twigs. Then we’d mix the dirt with water from the hose, stirring until it was just the right consistency for spreading.

Once combined, the mixture would go into little metal tins leftover from Banquet chicken potpies. We spread the dark brown mud into them and packed it down, smoothing the top with a Popsicle stick. We’d lay out an old board in the sun, and turn the pie pans over. Then we’d carefully lift them off, leaving on the splintery board little flat pies with wrinkled edges.

The pies would bake for a few hours in the hot mountain sun until hard, eventually cracking like the floor of a dry lake bed. The deep, unfathomably delicious smell of mountain sand, the coolness of the water, the imperfect circles of the pies: this was one of my first experiences cooking.

We got all of our little silver potpie pans from our weekday dinners when my mom, who worked full-time as a mathematician, would come home from work tired and spent. Often, all she could do was put a potpie or a TV dinner in the oven and then collapse on the couch. I learned to tolerate chicken potpies, with their thin golden gravy, their crunchy, buttery edges, their bits of meat and vegetable. And Salisbury steak TV dinners, with their surprisingly moist cherry cobblers tucked in the upper corner.

It’s not that my mom didn’t like to cook. In fact, on weekends, she’d work with me to teach me how to brown pork chops, how to make pie crust, how to use the pressure cooker, how to make peach jam. She taught me how to read recipes, to substitute ingredients, to make them my own. She taught me the spirit of cooking, and the fun of it.

But on those late weekdays, TV dinners and potpies were all she could muster, and somehow I understood, and was able to hold in my mind these two moms: the weekend housewife with exacting standards and a flair in the kitchen, and the weekday working mom who could barely turn the oven to 350 degrees.

As I got older, sensing mom’s tiredness and anxiety and guilt about the TV dinners and potpies, I took over more of the cooking duties, even on weeknights. Putting the spaghetti in the water, making a sauce with tomato paste, water, and an envelope of seasoning; mixing meatloaf with crushed saltines and egg; frying burgers. While I’d cook, my mom would put in a load of laundry, or iron shirts, or just sit on the couch, collecting herself.

On weekends, I tried more elaborate projects: making piecrust with shortening or lard instead on my mom’s preferred oil, baking whole wheat bread, and making minestrone soup. Those early weekend lessons that my mom had given me paid off, and soon I cooked most of the family meals. And we didn’t have TV dinners anymore.

I think of my childhood now when I come home, exhausted and spent, putting cheese and crackers and strawberries in front of my children before lying down on the couch, my eyes closed, trying to center myself after a long day of teaching.

“Can I make macaroni and cheese tonight?” my eight-year-old daughter, Rose, asked me one night.

I looked at her, seeing a glimmer of creativity, hope, and independence in her deep brown eyes.

“Sure, honey,” I said, feeling suddenly more like my mom than I ever had. “Find the box, read the instructions, and get started. Just let me know if you need any help.”

I am a freelance writer in New Concord, Ohio, where I also teach journalism at Muskingum College. I have written for American Profile, Bluegrass Unlimited, Relish, Miranda Literary Magazine, The Pinch, Vegetarian Times, VegNews, and other publications. One of my essays, “Under the Gun,” originally published in The Pinch, was shortlisted as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2007. E-mail: vwagner[at]muskingum.edu

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