“Can you make Mom’s Mac and Cheese and her Maque Choux corn casserole?” my sister, Shannan, asks me three weeks before Thanksgiving.
“Sure! I’ve never made Mom’s Mac and Cheese,” I reply.
This will be another first. The first time I cook a dish my mother prepared over and over throughout the years. Our Thanksgiving dinner won’t be complete without the food we grew up with on our turkey buffet. The idea of comfort food takes on a new meaning when your mother is gone. It is a poor substitute for my mother sitting at the table with us on Thanksgiving day!
I dig out our Nanny Cookbook that my sisters created years ago after our Grandmother “Nanny” passed away. It is filled with recipes from Nanny, Mom, my sisters, friends, and other family members. There is a beautiful black and white picture of Nanny in her twenties on the pink cover. Each page of recipes has family photos too. This Nanny Cookbook is super special because it was the one my sisters presented to Mom at Christmas. She spent hours writing notes about the pictures on each page in her beautiful handwriting. I open the cookbook and start to cry.
I’ve made my mother’s cajun Maque Choux corn dish many times for my friends while living in Los Angeles. It is pronounced “Mock Shoe” and is frozen or fresh corn sauteed with butter, olive oil, onions, red and green bell peppers, a can of spicy tomatoes, and cajun spices cooked down until it carmelizes into a sticky explosion of deliciousness. It is a dish that keeps them coming back for more. My friend, Lance, fell in love with the Maque Choux and now makes it every year for his Friendsgiving at his office.
These are the delicious dishes that remind us of our mother. The smells will fill her empty kitchen next Wednesday as I chop, sautee, and prepare my assigned sides. On Thursday, when I pull the aluminum foil off the casserole dish, my mouth will water. The first bite is always the best and will fill my mind with memories of Thanksgivings gone by. However, this comfort food won’t bring me any comfort. My mother’s absence can’t be replaced by a casserole dish. I will go back for seconds trying to fill the emotional void of getting through the day without my mother. I will eat my feelings.
As we sit together eating, talking, laughing, I will be thinking about how special it would be to have another Thanksgiving with my mother at the table. As annoyed as we were hearing her stories over and over again, I would give anything to hear them again. If I could hear her endless laughter one more time, I would smile brightly again. If I could feel her spirit fill the room, I would breathe deep again. If I could smell her perfume, I would feel alive again.
This is our second Thanksgiving without my Mom. She passed away on July 2, 2019, of Alzheimer’s. When she was diagnosed in 2016, I left Los Angeles and moved home to Baton Rouge with my husband, Jimmy. We put our stuff in storage and moved in temporarily with my parents. We never left. We helped my father trudge through the A-Zone with Mom, and now we are helping each other deal with the grief and emptiness. We are still reeling from the experience. The pain and sadness changed me. I’m not the same person I was before and not sure who I will be tomorrow.
Last Thanksgiving was a blur. My father had a knee replacement the month before and we were just learning to navigate the holidays without Mom. We celebrated with my sister Shannan’s in-laws while my other two sisters went to celebrate with their in-laws. We were grateful to be away from our family home. With the ongoing pandemic, our family will be divided up again. Dad, Jimmy, and I will join Shannan and her family. I will cook in Mom’s kitchen, but we won’t sit in her dining room. We will drive across town with the car filled with casserole dishes in warming bags and an ice chest of sodas, waters, and wine. After lunch we will return to the beautiful home my mother loved so much with leftovers and for the rest of the week we will eat bites of her comfort food relishing each microwaved bite before soaking the hardened crusty cheese dish in the kitchen sink. We will cross another Thanksgiving without her off the list with a sigh of relief then realize we still have to get through Christmas.
I skim through the cookbook, find the recipes, and create a grocery list of ingredients. I pour a cup of coffee and forgo going to the store. Instead, I settle onto the old green sofa and dive into the cookbook. My mouth waters for all of her recipes – Irish Stew, stuffed bell peppers, rice dressing, spaghetti and meat sauce, chicken fricassee, meatloaf, and more. I may not be able to cook with my mother or share Thanksgiving dinner with her, but I can read her recipes and cherish the memories of happier times. The Nanny Cookbook with my mother’s notes is comfort food for my soul today. Life is delicious and goes by too fast. “It’s Lalicious,” as Mom would say and I will try to savor every minute even without her.
Peggy Sweeney-McDonald is an actress, author, producer, speaker, and writer. She is the host of Life in the A-Zone, a storytelling podcast series where she chronicles her bittersweet journey of moving home to Louisiana after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Peggy is the author of Meanwhile, Back at Cafe Du Monde… Life Stories About Food.
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