When he was about 12, Hugh Achesons mom went through a cooking phase: recipes from magazines, nice pots and pans, and exciting new dishes, such as her signature chicken piccata.
It had that tenderness and crispness and this very simple but very bouncy sauce, Acheson says. But it wasnt the pop of lemon and capers that impressed the now acclaimed chef-proprietor of three Georgia restaurants as much as the meals large dash of happiness. Thats one meal that was always welcomed by everybody and it was a simple celebration.
Even though most moms wont cook on Mothers Day, their food often holds unparalleled sway over their children, even as adults.
Maybe your mom was a good cook, like Achesons, and maybe she wasnt. But whatever your mom made for you and how you felt about it (and her) can transform plain old meatloaf into your special birthday meal, or a steaming empanada into your go-to comfort food. And world-class chefs are no different.
These foods gain their power on us based on associations with primary caregivers, usually moms, says Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo who co-authored a 2011 study about comfort foods. These foods that moms make for us give us a little ability to bring up that love whenever we want. Theyre really psychologically powerful.
In other words, context where you ate something, how you ate it, whom you ate it with can be as powerful as the food itself.
For Chicago chef Stephanie Izard, the best part of her mothers moo shu pork was the monthly pancake-making session, where Mom and her friend Mrs. Cole would sip cocktails, talk girl talk and churn out dozens of paper-thin Chinese crepes. Izard and her sister got to make the filling, messing with mushrooms and all sorts of then-unfamiliar ingredients. But the best part happened when they sat down to eat.
We each made our own pancakes and got our hands dirty, the season four winner of Bravos Top Chef said by email. Interactive dining I would say. Those are always the best meals. How it should be.
Sometimes a persons mom food isnt even one that mom made, just one thats associated with her. Gabrielle Hamiltons mom was a great but challenging cook, says the chef-owner of Prune in New Yorks East Village. Weaned on the wartime cooking of her French parents, Madeline Hamilton regularly laid her table with cheese that really stank and oozed and had mold, her daughter says, plus oily stews, innards and offal.
Whats now called nose-to-tail, that was naturally her from 45 years ago, Hamilton says of her mom.
That may explain why Hamiltons favorite food memory is not of something her mom made, but of the peach Melba her mom treated her to during a trip to Greece.
She would buy it for me every day and we would sit in the plaza in Athens, says Hamilton, who was perhaps 7 at the time. To be on vacation with her and be allowed to have ice cream with peach and raspberry sauce, I was like, This is rather gentle and delicious. Thats whats cherished about it.
And who did most of the cooking when Jamie Bissonnette was growing up? Marios Pizza around the corner, says the chef-owner of Boston restaurants Coppa and Toro. Monday was pizza, Tuesday was gross-me-out night, he says, which often involved American chop suey with canned mushroom soup, and Wednesday was fend-for-yourself. But now and then, Bissonnettes mom would make a big, beefy chili stuffed with beans, bell peppers and Budweiser.
Id hang out in the kitchen doing homework and shed be making chili and the whole house would start to smell from the Crock-Pot, he says. Even before I knew what it was going to taste like, I knew I wanted it.
That is no surprise, say food psychologists. The part of your brain that processes smell also processes emotions. A bit like Marcel Proust and his famous madeleine, the mere whiff of a beloved food can take you back to that special time or place.
Its often called smell brain, says Marcia Pelchat, associate member at Philadelphias Monell Chemical Senses Center. Smell brain is also the emotion brain. And odor memories tend to be more emotional than other types of memories.
Bissonnette still makes chili at least twice a month, he says, upscaling his mothers version with seared pork belly, piment dEspelette and craft beer.
Many Americans associate certain qualities with comfort food, for example, warmth, sweetness, starchiness. But SUNY Buffalos Gabriel says the perception of something as comfort food is very culturally specific.
For one person its sushi, for another person its chicken soup, for another its lasagna, she says. Within our work we found the most important thing tended to be what the foods were that you ate when you were a child.
Take the empanadas Magdalena Garces used to make for her son, Jose, a James Beard award-winning chef who presides over an empire of six restaurants in Chicago and Philadelphia. Garces still gets lost in the thought of hot, melty cheese swathed in crisp, fried dough and sprinkled with sugar.
Its just one of those sensations, Garces says. It brings back a Sunday afternoon in Chicago, probably a cold afternoon, watching a Bears football game, and my mom making empanadas that wed eat at half time. It brings me back to a good place, to a good time in my life.
Marcela Valladolids comfort food involves a big, fiery splat of hot sauce. Valladolids mom, Lucha Rodriguez, was a formidable cook of all the Mexican classics posole, enchiladas, chili rellenos. But more than anything, Valladolid says she still craves the simple quesadillas her late mother laid in front of her each morning.
She would cut it into triangles, and I would pour a whole bunch of hot sauce on the plate, dip the quesadilla and eat it, she says. That was my breakfast my entire life. That was comfort food for me.
Sometimes a moms cooking for better or worse is the reason a person becomes a chef. Bissonnette realized early that if he wanted to eat well, hed have to cook for himself, he says, and he credits his mom a thousand percent with inspiring him, however dubiously, to his profession. In contrast, Jacqueline Winch, mom to Ace of Cakes Duff Goldman, was a skilled and adventurous cook, her son says, and her beef fondue is the dish that made him a chef.
The biggest memory, the first thing I think of when I think of dinners at home as a child, is beef fondue, Goldman says, recalling the way he experimented with temperature, cooking times, and skewering techniques around the communal fondue pot. That process discovering that I could alter what Im eating to suit my taste at that young of an age stuck with me.
When these chefs cook in their restaurants, they are performers, public figures being judged, weighed, called out, praised. But at home, many of them are simply moms and dads, creating food memories for their own children the way their moms did for them.
Prunes Hamilton suspects her two children will remember though perhaps not fondly parmesan omelets, which she confesses to serving for breakfast, lunch and dinner (though not usually all in the same day). Valladolid makes her 7-year-old son an organic version of the quesadillas she grew up on. But perhaps no one is recreating childhood food memories for his children as closely as Garces.
Thats because his mom lives around the corner and cooks for his kids every day. And what does she often make? Those very same empanadas that her son loved.
I think their fondest food memories will be the meals my mom has cooked for them, he says. When I see her with my kids, and see her in the kitchen, it brings me back to my childhood.