My family likes to joke about the fact that I never have a way to finish the sentence, “I really miss my mom’s…” There are no gooey chocolate chip cookies to crave, no bubbling casseroles filled with cheese and holiday memories, no sun tea to slurp through a straw. My mom still asks, every time I come home, if I have any special requests for dinner, and then we both laugh and I remind her to pick up my favorite cereal from the store. It’s not that my mom can’t cook, or doesn’t cook; it’s just that for her, our kitchen has never primarily been a place of recipe crafting or apron wearing. Rather, it serves as the perfect space to enact her identity as a do-it-all mother of three with a firm belief in joy and a Scarlett O’Hara attitude about worries (“I’ll think about that tomorrow”).
When I picture my mom, I see her lunging and skipping around the kitchen, preparing not meals, but aerobics routines for the classes she will teach the next day. With her short blonde ponytail swinging behind her (slightly stiff from years of heat and dye), and her classic uniform of tight-fitting workout attire and neon tennis shoes, she whispers ideas to herself while obnoxious remixes of bad pop songs blare from her portable speaker. Every once in a while she pauses to make notes about her routine in the sparse blank spaces of a tattered composition notebook. I used to emerge from my room after an evening of studying to find her in the midst of this ritual. Slightly breathless and with a bright smile reminiscent of her high school cheerleader days, my mom would finish planning her routine and then pause to talk to me about my day. She asked hungrily about every part of my life, always bubbling with pride and excitement. As our conversation drew to a close, she would suddenly remember that she had vegetables on the stove and frozen organic lasagna in the oven. When I would ask whether she should have uncovered the lasagna or adjusted the oven temperature some time ago, she would always respond with an unconcerned, “Eh, the lasagna doesn’t know if it’s covered.”
My mom’s forced collision of fitness and food in our kitchen tends to work its way into our meals through whatever health-food craze happens to be popular in sources like Clean Eating Magazine. I swear I saw grass growing in my fridge once. There was also the six-month gluten-free period when my breakfast cereal was called Panda Puffs and bread had to be thawed. My brothers, dad, and I make fun of my mom pretty frequently for whatever health fad we happen to be half-following at the time. But then she laughs and yells, “Let me tell you something!” followed by a playful rant about nutrition. We all acquiesce and admit after a few minutes that whatever dish she has made is pretty good. That is, except for the night of the muted mush.
One fateful evening, about five years ago, my well-meaning mother presented us all with plates overcome by heaping mounds of brownish lentils. I am not sure she had ever made them before, and lentils were not a current fad in our house. If she had intended for them to be, we quickly shut her down. After our typical taunting subsided and we dug our forks into the soft piles of steaming legumes, there was a brief moment of silence. The lentil dish did not taste bad; it just didn’t taste like anything. I’m sure the memory has been altered and exaggerated over the years, but from what I can recall, this meal was a bland mountain of soggy, lumpy…well, mush. It was as if my mom had said, “Eh, the lentils won’t know” one too many times and substituted one too many healthier ingredient options. The slightly green tint led me to believe that what I was eating had once been a living plant, but now it was lying limply on my plate, desperately calling out for salt with its last breath.
When our brief, confused moment of silence ended, a stream of loving teasing began that has run through countless family gatherings and meals with close friends. Any time we sit down to try a new, hastily made dish, someone breaks into a grin and begins, “Hey, remember that one time mom made muted mush?” Neighbors, boyfriends, roommates– everyone knows about muted mush. Each time it is mentioned, we all explode into passionate opinions and giggles as we dig into our healthy and probably very adequately seasoned meal. My mom feigns offense for a little while before clearing our plates and pressing play once more on her speakers, smiling as she springs again around the kitchen.
***The original recipe for muted mush has (thankfully) been lost in the void of flavorless, failed meals. Even if it had not been, I’m not sure my glowing review warrants a recreation of the recipe for anyone. Rather, I have set out to redeem lentils (and my mom), with this new recipe adapted from Todd Porter and Diane Cu’s contribution on foodandwine.com. Please note that these lentil fritters have both texture and color.
1 cup plain yogurt
1 small cup of minced cucumber
2 tablespoons of freshly chopped mint
1 pinch of sea salt
1 cup of lentils
1 ½ cups of water
1 clove minced garlic
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup flour
Vegetable oil, for frying
Cracked black pepper to taste
1. To make the sauce- combine all ingredients in a bowl. Chill until ready to serve
2. Rinse lentils and combine with water in a saucepan. Bring the water to a simmer
3. Reduce heat to low and cook covered for 10 minutes (the lentils will know if they are not covered)
4. Remove from heat and allow lentils to absorb water for 5 more minutes
5. In a bowl, combine lentils with garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper
6. Put egg and flour in separate bowls, large enough to dip fritters in
7. Form lentil mixture into 2-inch flat patties
8. Heat oil in a pan
9. Dip patties first in egg and then flour (and yes, they will know if you dip them in flour first)
10. Fry each patty in the oil until golden brown, flipping midway through
11. Serve with sauce