For Mom

Christine on her mother’s lap. Courtesy photo


For the first time in my life, this Mother’s Day will dawn and I will have no flowers to send, no call to make, no smile coming over the line filled with pleasure at the sound of my voice. The idea of a mom-less Mother’s Day makes me so sad I am tempted to pretend I am four, sticking my thumb in my mouth and burying my head under the pillows.

I am pretty sure she’d frown on that, though, so I am going to have to resort to drastic measures to soothe my sore heart. In my life that means creamed tuna fish on buttered toast, with peas — the ultimate comfort food, held in reserve by Mom for those occasions when you are too tired, too hurt, or too lonely to manage anything more elaborate for dinner.

My mom was not that interested in fancy cooking and left the showy dishes to my more flamboyant dad. While my dad taught me about spice and intensity in the kitchen (and in life), my far gentler mother taught me about comfort and love. Sick in bed? She’d whip up an eggnog, frothing the rich milk with an eggbeater. Not hungry? She’d tempt my appetite with a lightly poached egg, the yolk running deep yellow into the toast. Coming home from college? She always made a huge bowl of my favorite potato salad, creamy and delicious. A Thanksgiving feast? Nothing was more necessary than her sweet potatoes, caramelized with brown sugar and fragrant with cinnamon, and her herby bread stuffing — two dishes that my own holiday table is never without.

It took me a long time to appreciate my mom’s quiet strengths, as it did her cozy cooking. It can be hard to know your mom as an adult anyway, when your first impressions of her are so visceral and preverbal. Forged in babyhood, strengthened through the early years, totally upended in the teens, and then re-evaluated, rebuilt, and reassembled as an adult, feelings about moms are inevitably complex. And, like many daughters, I saw my mom as a mirror, reflecting aspects of myself that, with the snottiness of youth, I neither admired nor wanted.

In fact, I am like her. With my curly hair and half-moon eyes that disappear into a smile, I even look like her a bit, though she was a beauty. And like her I am a softy and a soft touch. I have her goofy sense of humor. I mocked her because she invariably ordered fried shrimp every time she ate out, and yet, if fried shrimp is on the menu, I, too, order it without fail. And despite my best efforts to become a cynic, I have her optimism that causes me to look with hope on tomorrow, no matter how bleak today.

When the doctors told her in November that she had less than six months, her reaction was happiness that she would get to see one more spring. She only made it to February, but watching her sit in her chair with the windows open, snow on the ground but a whiff of balminess in the chill air making her smile, I realized that through her long life she generally found spring when she looked for it.

My mom always clipped my Bloom columns and saved them. “For what, Ma?” I would ask. But she loved me and I wrote them so saved they were, along with a bunch of finger-painted works of childish art and homemade Mother’s Day cards signed in bright but clumsy crayon.

When the February/March issue of Bloom reached her home she apologized for not reading my column right away. “No worries,” I told her, “I am working on my next one now, and it’s about you.”

“Me?” she asked, incredibly pleased. “Yes,” I said, “it’s about you and it’s about food and it’s about creamed tuna fish on toast.” It’s about foods that say I love you, food that is like a hug, because when you are losing your mama, boy do you need food that feels like a hug.

When you are losing her, actually, it turns out there is no food in the world that will make it better, but still I eat tuna on toast, and wait for the hug to kick in.

This one’s for you, Mom, and this time, I’m savin’ it.


Christine Barbour recreates her mom’s creamed tuna fish on toast.

For Mom

Comforting creamed tuna on toast. Photo by Christine Barbour

I am not sure there has ever been a “recipe,” per se, as I’ve just watched Mom make it a million times and copied what she did. I’m just guessing on measurements here because I do it by instinct, but you probably need at least two cups milk to serve two people. You will also need a couple heaping tablespoons of flour in about 1/4 cup of butter to thicken the mixture. You’ll have to play it by ear on the measurements, but this is what you do.

Start by making a roux with butter and flour but don’t cook it long — just enough to get rid of the floury taste but before it becomes brown and nutty tasting. Then you add whole milk and whisk continuously over medium heat until it thickens.   Add a can or two of drained oil-packed tuna, chunk style, and break it up with a wooden spoon. Add salt and pepper to taste (it probably needs a little salt depending on how salty the tuna and butter are, but use lots of pepper). Toss in as many frozen peas as you like (we like lots) and heat over low, stirring frequently, until the peas are heated through. Serve over lavishly buttered toast.