My mom can cook. The woman actually majored in home economics. In the summers, we’d go camping and she would whip up chicken á l’orange MacGyver-style with nothing but a spoon and a gum wrapper. Mom is always improving on recipes, adding her own touch to this and that. I grew up not knowing what green beans actually tasted like. She’d spruce them up with hairy dill and coconut or some seedy little spice that I’ve been eating for years with no idea what it is.
While not a cook, my dad is the self-appointed family food critic. He doesn’t beat around the bush either; he tunnels right through it. When I made meatloaf, he said, “I’d throw this in the garbage, but I’m afraid the can might spit it out.”
While visiting my parents’ house, I had been trying to eat “just peaches” for over a week. But Mom insisted on cutting them for me and every time she did, she’d dress them up with sugar or homemade whipped cream.
“I really just want a plain peach.”
“It’s better this way,” she said like I was a 6-month-old being introduced to solids for the first time. Dad nodded in agreement, making it fact.
They wanted fancy peaches? Then I’d give them fancy peaches. And I’m not talking ol’ pedestrian peaches topped with hand-churned ice cream and streusel imported from Germany. I’m talking walking-on-the-red-carpet, paparazzi-stalking peach dessert: Paula’s Peach Cream Tart.
Mom and Dad were critical from the start. I sent Dad to the fruit stand to pick up six mouth-watering peaches that the recipe calls for. He handed them over as if he was giving me the keys to a Porsche and said, “Don’t ruin them.” Mom added her two cents as well, “That’s way too many peaches.”
Mom and Dad weren’t allowed into the kitchen and I would only ask them for help if I needed a fire extinguisher. I knew they didn’t have a food processor—according to Mom, that’s like using a chainsaw to spread butter—so I mixed the dough by hand, which by some miracle formed into a neat little ball. At that moment, Mom came into the kitchen under the false pretense that she needed a drink. “Here, let me show you a little trick,” she said, pushing me out of the way and grabbing at my dough ball. I am all too familiar with those words. It’s how the coup d’état begins. Next, she’ll transform my follow-the-recipe dough ball with ancient spices and incantations. Then she’ll make those fancy scalloped edges. I wanted “just crust,” but she wanted crust á la Mom.
Like a sleep-deprived only child, I snatched my dough ball from her hands. “I don’t want to see your tricks. I just want to do this by myself!” I said and shooed her out.
The recipe says to pour the custard over the top of the peaches once they’ve been placed in the pie. I missed that step. Instead, I stirred it all together in one very large bowl. I’ve always struggled with spatial relations and this was no exception. It was painfully clear that the contents of the bowl were not going to fit into my pie dish, in spite of my attempts. The dish overflowed to the sound of Mom’s voice in my head singing, “See, I told you that was too many peaches.” So I threw the remaining filling into the garbage and covered the evidence with two of my daughter’s drawings from the fridge. I know—seriously bad karma.
Once assembled, it actually looked okay, but having dumped half of the custard out, I realized the chemistry was all wrong.
One hour later, I pulled the tart from the oven, at which point Mom asked the same rhetorical question she asks every time I cook: “Are you sure it’s done?” As it were, the tart was not fully cooked. The custard was runny yellow, like egg yolks, which I have an irrational fear of ever since I learned the word “embryo.” The crust was soft and pasty. When Dad took a bite, he considered the flavor for a moment and then declared, “It tastes like pasta.” Mom took her jab by posing rhetorical question number two: “Is it supposed to be like that?”
“Look, I followed the recipe,” I said, washing my hands of any responsibility even though I knew better. I saw the reader comments on the web site, saying how easy it was to make and how beautiful it turned out. I imagined those people looked a lot like my mother.
They ate the tart, because in the end, that’s what good parents do. They put your Jackson Pollock drawings of squiggly lines and circles on the fridge and tell you that you can be a ballerina in spite of your wrestler’s build.
I, however, didn’t eat the tart because I swear I could hear the faint sound of clucking if I stood too close. Instead, I ate a peach á la Coward: plain, perfect and untouched by me, just as nature intended.