Grieving my mother through cooking

Imogen Brighty-Potts 10 July 2021

Grief and mourning can be expressed in many ways. Debbie found solace through cooking her mother's recipes

Losing someone you love is never easy, but having to say goodbye to her mother during the COVID-19 pandemic, 58-year-old Debbie Money from Norwich, found a new and unique way to mourn and remember her mum.

Debbie found the elaborate plans and recipes from her mother’s dinner parties, spanning over 50 years, and got creative. She took these details and began cooking and in turn, learned about her mother, her family and how the way we eat and socialise has changed in the last half century. 

Growing up, Debbie remembers fondly the vibrancy with which her mother discussed her travels, from West Africa to the Bahamas. She was an adventurous and warm woman, and her attitude to life was mirrored in her culinary creativity. From corn beef fritters to a West African curry made with heapings of nuts and fruit, shredded leftover turkey from the Christmas dinner and spice—food was a vital part of Debbie and her siblings’ upbringing.

West African peanut stew curry with rice

African chicken peanut stew with sweet potatoes and okra with side of basmati rice

Food was passed down through their family, and a love of it was nurtured and explored. Former drama teacher, Debbie explained that along with their love of the domestic, her mother, and her grandmother before her, had passed down a carved wooden spoon.

It was given from one to the next, and when it reached Debbie it was worn and perfect. She inherited this spoon and the passion her mother had. After her mother’s death, she also found the planner containing these elaborate dinner party plans.

Her mother was not gone; she was guiding her through a lifetime of food and fun and Debbie has learned a lot about her since she began cooking her food and reliving her japes. 

"Her mother was not gone; she was guiding her through a lifetime of food and fun"

“I don’t know how Mum was so organised. I am retired, and have been prepping meals four days in advance. My mum was working as a school secretary!” Debbie explained. 

Without children of her own, Debbie has relished the closeness she has felt to her mother in this time and remarked tearfully that “she is and was amazing.”

When Debbie’s husband was ill, before sadly losing his battle with cancer, Debbie and her mother cooked meals for him, in small portions that could be heated up at a moment’s notice, knowing his sickness was stealing away his appetite. They cooked and talked and supported each other through this time, and now that she is no longer with us, Debbie is able to feel close to her in cooking her food. 

Someone chopping fresh vegetables

When the first anniversary of her husband’s death came around, her mother was there for her. Due to the pandemic, Debbie couldn’t be the same stalwart for her sick mother. 

Aside from this gift of food and reminiscence, Debbie was left with some confusion at some of her mother’s notes and strategies. 

“They were for Mum, the notes, not for other people, so I am still trying to understand her beyond death. Trying to see what she means by little instructions and learn more about her thought process.”

In trying to decipher her mother’s plans, Debbie has bonded anew with her father in shared grief and understanding. 

"In trying to decipher her mother’s plans, Debbie has bonded anew with her father in shared grief and understanding"

“Asking who is who, what is what and learning and understanding. Dad has been able to let me in on a new side to Mum. I have seen a new side of him, being able to talk to him about these events.” shares Debbie.

And these events were no small feat. Many were a far cry from the dinner parties of recent years, and there were complex schedules and routines. 

“Some of the things Mum references are going to be interesting because the ideas are quite outdated, like bridge suppers. I also play bridge, so I am eager to recreate those but they also did progressive suppers which are a lot more complicated.”

Plates of food around a dinner table

A relic now, a progressive supper was wild. You start with about 20 couples taking part. Four will do starters, then they all get an envelope and go somewhere else for a main course and it changes course to course and everyone is split so they are meeting new people for every course. Living on a small development in a close community, Debbie is keen to try this out.

Despite her enthusiasm, Debbie is still nostalgic, and at times finds herself wanting to pick up the phone and ask her mother for support.

“I wish I could ask her some things,” she says emotionally.

"Despite her enthusiasm, Debbie is still nostalgic, and at times finds herself wanting to pick up the phone and ask her mother for support"

“There is another meal coming up that she cooks a lot called chicken marengo. It’s  chicken and peaches and I don’t like fruit and meat much, so I have a lot of questions.”

But, everything she is cooking is inherited, as is the joy and sense of achievement she feels. When she began cooking with her mother as a tot, she was in charge of turning the melba toast, to stop it catching. Now she is brandishing the spoon, adding the spices and still looking up from the stove to her mum, because she is always going to be her mother’s kitchen protege. 

Debbie has a blog on her story.

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