I can still hear their voices. “Close your eyes, Mommy.” And through half-shut lids I would see my two girls walking into the bedroom, carefully balancing a tray bearing my Mother’s Day breakfast. I can smell hot (but not quite strong enough) coffee, and eggs, and see a tiny vase, wobbling on the wooden tray and filled with the first spring daffodils and tulips from our garden.
“Happy Mother’s Day to you . . .” they would sing to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” as if it were a real song. And every year, from the time they were tiny until their early teens, I would try hard not to tear up from the joy of seeing my daughters do something so special for me. The fact that it involved food, my own passion and vocation, made it that much sweeter.
When the girls were very young, breakfast would be rudimentary: scrambled eggs, (sometimes burnt) toast with puddles of melted butter, and coffee.
The deal was that I was supposed to stay in bed “relaxing,” surrounded by the Sunday paper and enjoying whatever novel I was reading, while the girls cooked. But I can still hear them bickering. “No! I’m older and I’ll make the eggs. You’re too little. You just cut up the fruit for the fruit salad.” “No, that’s totally not fair!” Screaming, a few tears, their father’s reasonable voice in the background, trying to keep the peace. I would will myself not to get up and intervene.
They would nestle into bed with me (often in pajamas coated with flour or egg or bits of dirt from the flower gathering) and ask for a taste of the eggs or the toast or fruit. One bite would lead to another, and before we knew it, Mother’s Day breakfast had been devoured not just by me, but by all of us. Then we would trudge down to the kitchen to eat more as a family.
As the girls got older and their interest in food and cooking grew, my Mother’s Day breakfasts became more sophisticated. Poached eggs on sauteed spring spinach with a chive-butter sauce. A frittata with red pepper, leeks and aged Gruyere. Fruit salads flavored with garden mint. And savory crepes, paper thin and golden brown, flavored with sharp grated cheeses and fresh garden herbs, drizzled with a lemon-and-herb-scented butter.
As pre-teens, they would try to outdo each other. “But we did eggs Benedict last year. Let’s do a whole-grain pancake with toasted walnuts and a blueberry-maple topping?” “No, she loves omelets. Let’s make one with sauteed scallions and tomatoes and crumbled goat cheese.” And the inevitable: “No, Dad. We don’t need any help.”
One year, the Mother’s Day breakfasts stopped. My daughters were no longer cuddly little girls, but sullen teens. They slept until noon on Mother’s Day Sundays, and I would walk around the house like someone waiting for time to move backward. When they woke, groggy and fussy with too much sleep, they would claim it was way too late for brunch. (Apparently, part of growing up is suddenly calling weekend breakfasts “brunch.”) “Let’s just go out for an early dinner,” one or the other would say, as they wiped the sleep from their eyes and closed their bedroom doors to start homework. I was heartbroken. Not so much because I had lost our annual ritual, but because they had seemed to lose all enthusiasm for cooking. As much as it saddened me that they might end up not sharing in the joy of something so important to me, I kept my mouth shut.
My daughters are now in their mid-20s, living far from home on opposite coasts. And they call me on Mother’s Day, usually around noon. They talk about their lives and their work. What they’re doing, where they’ve been, what they’ve eaten. And, almost always, what they’ve cooked.
The older daughter loves to cook. She tells stories of fabulous Brooklyn parties featuring Chinese feasts or Middle Eastern dinners. The younger works as an editor at a California publishing company that specializes in cookbooks. She is constantly cooking for friends, texting photos of her latest creations. It makes a mother proud.
Who knows when their love of cooking and entertaining began? Growing up with a mother who is a cookbook author and food writer meant they were around good food all their lives. Sitting around a table and sharing simple, fresh meals was a focus of their childhoods. Maybe it was always there.
But I like to think it was those early Mother’s Day breakfasts that first got them truly excited about feeding people they love. When their interest seemed to flag as teens, I let go of wanting them to be great cooks and keep family recipes alive. And then, of course, that’s exactly what they did, all in their own time.
Gunst, who lives in South Berwick, Maine, is the author of 14 cookbooks, including “Notes From a Maine Kitchen” (Down East, 2011), and is the resident chef on Boston NPR’s “Here and Now.”