It's a strange feeling when you order a dish that your parents used to make at a restaurant, while proclaiming something like, “No one made lasagna like my mother,” and then slowly realize that it's true no one made it like her; they make it better. Suddenly, you're not sure about your father's burgers. A cold shiver runs up your spine.
Believing that your parents were the greatest cooks in the world is only natural, and for years, I was utterly convinced that all my childhood meals were worthy of three Michelin stars. This worldview is similar to being told you're the “most handsomest boy in the world,” an assertion that seemed true until I attended high school and realized I, well, wasn’t.
Back to the food: There was the giant, floppy pizza; the bleeding-pink roast beef; gooey caramel popcorn balls; lasagna so wonderfully dense it could stop a mortar; the sloppiest of sloppy joes; and mashed potatoes that I wanted to make into a fluffy bed. Whenever I saw a snarky restaurant sign that said something like, “Better than your parents' cooking,” I felt compelled to storm into the kitchen, grab the chef by the collar, and yell, “Take it back, you son of a bitch!”
Part of the reason we over-romanticize childhood meals is because they were our initial introduction to each dish, similar to when you first saw a movie and are now afraid to go back and watch in case it doesn't hold up. All restaurants resemble Hollywood remakes of your parents' cooking. “I can't believe they remade my mother's pizza,” you might say. “The original was so good.”
So when you step out into the world and order your favorite childhood meal at a restaurant, you risk injuring the honor of your parents. But what about when this other rendition tastes really good, and the superior craft and ingredients shatter every scintilla of nostalgia? You may run to the bathroom in an existential cold sweat and begin questioning everything: Was all my childhood food subpar? Did my parents even love each other? Am I not the most handsomest boy in the world? What else is a lie?
“How is everything?” the waiter later asks.
“Terrible,” you respond. “But the food's good. Whereas once I was blind, now I can see.”
Before you drag your parents’ cooking through the mud, consider the following: Your mother and father may have had a tight budget with which to buy decent ingredients; they certainly didn't have a team of sous chefs and line cooks working for them; and they had to come up with meals every night while working a full-time job, raising you, and hearing crap like, “Chicken again?”
When you bite into the once-cherished lasagna as a fully grown person, you can't help but say, “Ever been to that Italian joint on 3rd? They do a great version of this. The sauce is actually...” And then you stop and realize what you've done.
In the same way that it's disingenuous to compare sports teams from different eras, it's difficult to compare the food you enjoyed as a kid to your diet now. What are kids but a bunch of non-paying customers who whine and yell and know nothing about the culinary arts? No chef has ever had to tell his or her patrons to stop feeding the dog from the table.
So, how can one tell if your mom’s meatballs were actually good or not? The real test comes when you head home for the holidays after eating the forbidden restaurant fruit, and with this expanded palate, re-sample your favorite home-cooked meals. There's a change in the air. Your parents know that you've seen other worlds, and learned that people outside your house have the ability to cook, too.
When you bite into the once-cherished lasagna as a fully grown person, you can't help but say, “Ever been to that Italian joint on 3rd? They do a great version of this. The sauce is actually...” And then you stop and realize what you've done. Maybe your mother appears disappointed, or maybe she grabs the plate of food and throws it against the wall while walking out of the room. Whatever occurs, the idyllic comfort of your kitchen implodes, and the warm embrace of thousands of childhood meals dissipate into nothingness.
This is not always the case, though. Sometimes the meals won't hold up, and sometimes you'll realize they came from a can. But a few will manage to subvert all that artisan, farm-to-table horseshit fare you've eaten since, and once again make you feel like a tiny child sitting in a too-big chair, barely able to see above the table. Because so many restaurants are annoyingly focused on doing “our version” of traditional dishes, they often lose the ability to do that basic dish well, and that's where your parents come in.
Thank god I wound up in custody with the parent who knew how to cook.
Tender pot roast, decadent macaroni and cheese, deliciously hearty spaghetti bolognese that requires a change of clothes afterwards—many will stand the test of time and experience. Sometimes, parents will even call you up before visiting to ask what treats and meals you'd like when you come home. Now that's service. Would it kill chefs to do the same before visiting their restaurants?
Your parents' kitchen is the first and best eatery you'll ever experience, but not just because of the food. It’s because for many of us, it was lovingly dependable, night after night, even if you showed up five minutes before closing, and even if your parents got divorced into two separate kitchens. Thank god I wound up in custody with the parent who knew how to cook.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter to me if my mother's cooking was better or worse than any restaurant. What matters is that it was infinitely better than all the garbage they were slinging at my friends' houses. You heard me, Pete.