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Mommies Dearest

How I Learned to Cook: An Anthology

To get the gist of How I Learned to Cook (and Other Writings on Complex Mother-Daughter Relationships), one need look no further than the cover photo: a homey Fifties-era shot of an apron-clad mother icing a cake in front of her pigtailed daughter. How nice. But there are a couple of creepy twists. The daughter's arms are locked behind her back, one hand clamping the wrist of the other as if someone has told her, "You better not touch." And the picture is cropped to cut off the mother's head.

The essays in How I Learned to Cook, an anthology of original and previously-published nonfiction edited by University of San Francisco writing instructor Margo Perin, are rife with just this kind of dissonance. Once you've soaked up the cover photo, jump straight to the title essay by Hillary Gamerow. Gamerow learned to cook and overcame dyslexia by reading cookbooks, which pleased her cruelly unsympathetic mother.

But that's about as good as it would get. One day her mother warned her that she had put rat poison in the meatloaf the family had just eaten for dinner. Gamerow waited through the night to die. When the sun came up and she was still alive, her mother said, "Oh, that. Well, you never know. I could do it any time, right? So maybe it's in the eggs." (She was making scrambled.) "Maybe it'll be in the tuna casserole tonight. Maybe I'll wait a while, and you'll forget about it. Then I'll slip it in when you least expect it."

Hillary became the family cook after that.

Gamerow's mother is an extreme case, but in one way or another, all the mothers in this anthology are not good mothers. (Nor are they even good-enough mothers, to borrow a phrase from Bruno Bettelheim's childrearing books.) They are too overwhelmed or self-absorbed for parenting, hollowed out by bad marriages and unrealized dreams. They are sadistic, or crazy, or ill-equipped to do a better job than their own parents did.

Yet the book is neither an indictment of motherhood nor an opportunity for car-wreck literary voyeurism. Instead it is a showcase for some of the best writers of the last couple of generations: Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, Paula Fox, Joyce Maynard, Vivian Gornick, Kate Braverman, Ruth Kluger, Nawal El Saadawi, and Kim Chernin. Along with such notables are emerging writers like Gina Smith, a San Francisco-based journalist whose alcoholic Yugoslavian mother withheld from her for years the identity of her father before finally confessing he was actually Gina's stepfather. Smith's mother said she was afraid Gina would find out she had slept with another man while married to her first husband. Smith hopes the story is true but realizes that after years of demurrals she can never be sure.

In her essay "The Body Geographic," editor Perin tries to reason out how her mother became so cold-blooded that she wouldn't even extend Perin the offer of comfort when Perin was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease at nineteen. Was her mother's lack of affect caused by her own mother's suicide? By her time spent in an orphanage and foster care? Perin's efforts to understand what her mother suffered in childhood come to nothing; her mother alternates between lying and shutting down Perin's inquiries altogether. Whatever events shaped her, Perin's mother has so few maternal instincts that she chats about her shingles when Perin informs her that the radiation she endured to cure Hodgkin's has given her breast cancer. Perin finds that even in the face of such callousness she cannot stop herself from pursuing her mother's love, no matter how incapable her mother is of responding.

With the last essay, the book changes moods. Alice Walker's essay is a love letter to her daughter who, despite Walker's attempts to raise her differently, has grown up with the same feelings of abandonment and anger that Walker experienced. Walker writes: "I've discovered the world is full of mothers who've done their best and still hurt their daughters: that we have daughters everywhere."

By ending with the point of view of a mother who has tried to give her best after not receiving it herself -- Walker's mother cleaned house and babysat for another family to make ends meet, leaving little to offer her own family at the end of the day -- editor Perin suggests that the other writers in the anthology will smack into the same inevitability as they try to pass their awareness and understanding to their own daughters. But will they succeed? It is a final, ironic blow that the mothers in the book deliver to their writer-daughters: in parenting so poorly they may have doomed their daughters to fail to be good-enough mothers themselves.

How I Learned to Cook
edited by Margo Perin
J.P. Tarcher; ISBN: 1585433916
Hardcover: 336 pages (March 2004)