The actress, who played moms on Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle, was no cook when she first got married—but now she excels in the kitchen.
- Posted on Mar 25, 2018
My husband, David, and I had just gotten married and were living in L.A., trying to make it as actors. In his crisp British accent, David asked me one evening, “What are we going to have for dinner tonight, dear?” We were happy to order out, but for the first time it occurred to me that I wanted to learn how to cook for my family, how to pick the best recipes and make them—and how utterly clueless I was.
There was no trove of family recipes for me to rely on. My mom was one of 15 children, and her mother didn’t have time to pass along any culinary secrets. To feed my four siblings and me, Mom scrambled to figure out what other moms—and dads—already knew. I’d come home from school and see her in front of the TV, watching Julia Child and taking notes. We never feasted on boeuf bourguignonne or a perfect French soufflé, though. It was just too complicated. Mom stuck to the standards: meat loaf, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken, pork chops, burgers, pot roast and fish sticks on Fridays.
We couldn’t have afforded anything fancier anyway. We lived in a Cleveland, Ohio, suburb called Bay Village. In warm weather, we kids stayed out riding our bikes until the streetlights went on and our mothers would yell from behind screen doors to come home “right this minute.” Families made pilgrimages to the Dairy Queen, and neighbors threw potlucks with cheesy casseroles and marshmallow-topped treats. Mom far preferred reading theology, like the works of priest-philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to peeling potatoes. She wasn’t a natural homemaker.
When I was 12, Mom died of a brain aneurysm. I was devastated. We all were. My bewildered father was suddenly responsible for the care and feeding of our clan. My older sister tried to help. I remember the time she made a tuna salad orange Jell-O mold. It was awful, but everybody choked it down without saying a thing. We were in such mourning. Our family lived on Kraft spreadable cheese sandwiches, beans on buttered bread, Pop-Tarts and canned cream of mushroom soup washed down with Tang.
After college, I moved to New York City to launch my acting career. I survived on pizza and Chinese takeout. I’d grab a slice between auditions. On sweltering summer nights in my un-air-conditioned studio apartment, I gorged on cold sesame noodles with crisp slices of cucumber.
No wonder I had no idea how to cook when I got married! But I wanted to learn. Not just for my husband and myself but to be the kind of mom my own mother had tried to become. I pored over cookbooks and watched chefs on TV. David’s mother gave me a copy of her favorite cookbook, and I figured out how to convert British measurements to American. I tried recipes, then adapted them to our tastes, learning how to cook one meal at a time.
The acting jobs came. And so did the children—four boys. When I was working on Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle (playing a mom on both) I didn’t always have time to cook, but I made sure our family ate together, even if it was breakfast at dinner. Pancakes, bacon, eggs, cereal at night. The boys loved that.
Serving others is a holy thing, like Christ washing the feet of his disciples, something Mom understood. As wonderful as it is to say “I love you,” sometimes it’s the meatballs that do the talking. (Thanks, Mom. I got those meatballs from you!) Cooking is my chance to bond with friends and family, to show love to my husband and to our sons. The boys are teenagers now and just mumble at me, but when they take a bite of something I’ve cooked, close their eyes and sigh, I feel like they’re loving me right back.
Try making Patricia's recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles With Cucumber at home!
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Patricia Heaton is the author Patricia Heaton's Food