Thoughts of mom often bring to mind cups of sugar and flour more than expensive bottles of perfume or fancy flowers. Mom’s best recipes offer the comfort you can taste before even taking a bite.
But cooking with mom can mean different things, especially in the 21st Century. After all, motherhood is a place where tradition and the modern world often collide.
Frank Litton learned special tips and tricks from his mom as he grew up, but others, like Megan Simpson’s family, are learning those precious tips over Zoom. Gordon and Eleanor Chin are learning right alongside their mom as she navigates retirement from Chin’s restaurant, and cooking at home for the first time in over 45 years.
The Graham Cracker Pie Tradition
“It is listed in the cookbook as a vanilla custard pie, but Mom always called it graham cracker pie,” Frank Litton tells me as he slices a generous portion of the billowy confection. It melts in my mouth: a perfect combination of creamy custard mixed with the buttery crunch of graham cracker crumbs and delicate meringue.
Frank grew up five blocks from his elementary and junior high school, where he’d rush home on his bicycle every day for lunch with his mom, Doris Litton, a superb cook who could cook anything from the traditional country dinner to a soup to nuts formal affair. Mother and son enjoyed a ritual of watching The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr together as they ate lunch. Frank’s mom pointed out tips and tricks from the program that made the recipes work.
“That was the start of my passion for food and cooking,” Litton said.
It wasn’t until he was a law student that Frank started using the lessons he learned from Doris along the way. He called her frequently for cooking advice.
“Her best cooking advice? Taste as you go. Because you know, you can follow a recipe exactly. But for a variety of reasons, it’s important to know what’s going on as you’re cooking,” he said.
Another bit of advice from Doris? Have all of the ingredients ready, advice he follows to this day: “With this recipe, in particular, it’s important because in order to get the meringue to seal and not to weep, you have to put it on when the custard is hot, so you have to have everything ready.”
Doris had a few secret ingredients and tips that made her Graham Cracker Pie perfection all around.
“The crust was moist but firm, the custard perfectly set yet still creamy and the meringue light and airy as a cloud,” Frank shared via email.
Once, after a failed attempt to make the pie himself, Frank enlisted the help of his mom. She made one with him, sharing her tricks and secret ingredients.
“So if you follow the recipe in the cookbook, it doesn’t turn out quite like this. She modified the recipe with some additional ingredients. And she adjusted the techniques on what you add when. And so the end result is this,” he said, holding up a pie so perfect, Doris Litton herself could have made it.
Today that signature Graham Cracker Pie is a staple in Frank’s house. And he’s passing on the tradition of the pie to his daughters, including having it ready when they visit or return from school.
“I have three daughters. Grace is the middle one. They all like it, but she likes it the most. And so the tradition of having graham cracker pie when the student comes home is sort of going down through the generations. I bake it for her,” he said.
Looking back on lunches with his mom, Frank realizes the merit.
“It’s really one of those things, that in retrospect really shows the value. At the time I was young, I didn’t think about it. It’s just how life was — I got to have lunch with mom every day.
“But the bonding over the food, as I look back on it, I really cherish that she was able to do that for me and with me, and it’s something that I hold very fondly,” he said.
Cooking across the miles
“Wow, this smells good!” Megan Simpson and Ryan Jenkins’ kitchen is abuzz with activity, including their laptop computer, perched on the counter beside a cutting board and ingredients.
Her parents, sister, and two nieces are there, too — via Zoom, from their own kitchens both near and far.
Prepping ingredients before logging on is key.
“Did everyone start the water for the noodles?” asks Linda Simpson, Megan’s mom. Linda, a former high school English teacher, learned to cook by observing her mother-in-law and learning tips from teachers in the school lounge. Before getting married, she told her future husband Tom, “If you don’t like it, I am still learning and there is always peanut butter and bread.”
Linda grew into a wonderful home cook, making recipes her family craves. Asked about their favorites, Megan’s laptop screen lights up with rapid-fire responses.
“Beef stroganoff and lemon pie,” says Emily from Colorado. “Vegetable soup,” chimes in Tom in Vienna, WV. “Spaghetti and pecan dip!” agree Amy in Pittsburgh and Megan and Ryan in Charleston.
The family started cooking together on Zoom in December 2020 when Megan’s sister Emily felt isolated in Colorado during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Linda had recently had both knees replaced and needed Tom to cook.
The first recipe they tried, a shrimp pasta dish, was not a hit, but the experience of cooking with together stuck. They meet on Zoom every Thursday, taking turns selecting the recipes.
The Simpsons focus on quick, easy dinners so that they have time to eat together, too. They have cooked everything from steak tacos to Banh mi rolls and even a “viral” TikTok feta pasta, which remains a favorite. Their most challenging? A spatchcocked chicken.
Cooking together gives the family a chance to catch up and have fun. It also gives Linda a chance to offer seasoned cooking advice. “Mom answers all of our questions,” says Megan.
“My sauce is lumpy, is anyone’s sauce lumpy?” one of the daughters asks. “If the sauce is lumpy, check to make sure you added all of the ingredients,” says Linda. “Ah, I forgot the chicken broth!” Ryan quickly replies. As ever, mom is at the ready to save the day, even if she is miles away.
I watch the family whip up a delicious dinner of peanut noodles with sautéed chicken, fresh vegetables, cilantro, and lime. Observing the action unfold on Zoom is like watching a heated tennis match.
“You need to take a whisk — I’m whisking the sauce with peanut butter. Make sure you do that, Megan,” advises Linda.
“Ryan’s doing it,” Megan chimes in.
“Great, Ryan! Good job, Ryan!” cheers Linda.
“It takes some planning out of your week, we know on Thursday that meal is already planned, I just need to get the recipe and ingredients,” notes Megan.
Their best advice for cooking together?
“I would say maybe read the directions,” Megan says to great laughter and knowing guffaws on screen.
“That way you know how long things are going to take or if you need to do something ahead of time,” she adds.
I have a feeling there is a story or two there. But that is what family fun is all about: bonding over shared experiences that make us appreciate each other, especially mom, even if it requires an internet connection.
“Growing up, the joke was, Mrs. Chin had the cleanest kitchen in town because she was never home to cook, she was always at the restaurant,” says Gordon Chin about his mom, Susanna Chin.
Retirement after over 45 years in the restaurant business is giving “Mama Chin,” as family friends and close patrons refer to her, a unique opportunity: sharing cooking with her adult children, Eleanor and Gordon.
“She’s never had formal training. She can taste something and come up with their own recipe and know what to put into it and make it,” says Eleanor.
The Chin siblings, four in all, grew up with their mom cooking for them at Chin’s Restaurant in Charleston. They could choose anything their hearts desired. Butterflied shrimp with bacon and grilled onions, shrimp with lobster, chicken chow mein, and Mongolian beef were favorites.
The baby of her family, Mrs. Chin said her parents took care of everything for her so that when she married she didn’t know how to cook. Her uncle and brother helped her learn a few things and watching cooks at the restaurant over the years allowed her to absorb their knowledge and begin cooking herself, improvising and creating delicious foods without ever using a recipe.
“It’s been nice, late in life, to learn to cook with your mom,” says Gordon, a self-proclaimed foodie who doesn’t know how to cook.
“Now that mom’s retired, she has time and the patience to teach us two amateurs,” adds Eleanor with a smile.
Cooking on a smaller scale presents challenges for the seasoned cook used to cooking in a commercial kitchen. Recently, Mrs. Chin and Gordon made over 200 dumplings which they shared with friends and neighbors.
The trio plan to try Mama Chin’s famous egg rolls, roast duck and mapo tofu, silken tofu tossed in a tangy sauce with ground pork as well as a traditional Chinese dish, joong, steamed sticky rice and pork wrapped in banana leaves.
On work sabbatical, Gordon, like his mom, has extra time on his hands.
“Now that I’ve got more time, it’s been fun learning to cook more with my mom,” he adds with a chuckle.
Patience and work are key to success in the kitchen according to Mrs. Chin.
“It’s just like when you make a dumpling. The first time you make it, it doesn’t look too good, but if you want more, you get better. You keep working, you practice,” says Mrs. Chin, who teaches her children by example.
“When I make their favorites, I tell them, come over and I will show you how to do it,” she says.
“With any type of cooking, I think what people don’t realize or appreciate, especially the non-cooks, is the effort and labor of love that goes into it,” says Gordon.
“Yes, definitely a lot of love in Mama’s cooking,” adds Eleanor.
Learning their favorite dishes later in life is valuable to Eleanor and Gordon, and part of the value is the time spent together.
“Anytime you get to be with Mama is a special time,” emphasizes Eleanor.
Like any recipe that stands the test of time, lessons from Mom are rooted in nostalgia but are adapted over the years, especially to fit into a modern world. Traditions are maintained not by staying the same, but by keeping up.
Perhaps the most important cooking lesson with mom isn’t a lesson at all, but simply the time shared together. More than any particular recipe or dish, these families most cherish the special time set aside to be together with mom.
Time spent together in the kitchen offers more than pure sustenance. It is a chance to connect and feel nurtured.