How I Learned to Cook: recipes for surviving daughterhood

Everyone knows the stereotype of the classic Jewish mother: overprotective, domineering, neurotic. Even though those mothers do appear in “How I Learned to Cook (and Other Writings on Complex Mother-Daughter Relationships),” it’s comforting to know that Jewish mothers don’t own those titles exclusively.

And compared with some of the mothers in this compelling and disturbing collection of 19 essays — many by Jewish writers — they may not be so bad after all.

Any discussion of mothers brings into play the children they are mothering. For daughters, it is especially fraught with emotional ambiguities; after all, it is from their mothers that girls learn what women, wives and mothers are all about.

The myth of the “good daughter,” editor Margo Perin writes, “identified as her mother’s companion, helper, defender and savior,” goes hand-in-hand with the myth of the “good mother” — nurturing, protective, self-sacrificing.

Many of the mothers in Perin’s book call to mind “Mommie Dearest” — without the wire coat hangers. Take for instance Hillary Gamerow’s essay from which the book gets its title.

“I put rat poison in the food tonight,” Gamerow’s mother tells her one night after dinner. “It’ll be better when we’re all dead, believe me.” When no one dies, her mother shrugs it off, saying maybe she’ll put it in the eggs one day, or in that night’s tuna casserole. “Life’s a crapshoot,” she says. One understands why the young Gamerow taught herself to cook: survival.

Survival of a different type appears in Ruth Kluger’s essay of her and her mother’s years in Auschwitz together.

Before they are shipped off, her mother sends her to the movies to see “Snow White” even though Jews are not allowed. She goes, but is discovered by a neighbor who chastises her for breaking the law, threatening to call the police if it happens again. Her mother is nonplussed when Kluger arrives home, furious and in tears. “I got the impression that I shouldn’t trust my mother.” Yet her mother’s advice to pretend to be older than her 13 years as they queue up at Auschwitz for inspection proves right, and it saves her from death.

But the cycle of betrayals and mistrust are damaging nonetheless. “No one is as dependent as mothers are on the dependency of their children,” Kluger writes.

In “Fierce Attachments,” Vivian Gornick writes of her tangled connection with her mother, a widow whose mourning consumed her for 30 years: “A woman-who-has-lost-the-love-of-her-life was now her orthodoxy: she paid it Talmudic attention.” It was hard to know where daughter ended and mother began. “My skin crawled with her. I … could not escape the rich and claustrophobic character of her presence, her being, her suffocating suffering femaleness.”

Like most women, the writers question how much they are like, or unlike, their mothers. Gina Smith longed to be as beautiful as her mother, a half-Gypsy who survived Auschwitz because “I vas cute … like a Shirley Temple.”

Prone to wearing leopard-print jumpsuits, gigantic sequin-rimmed glasses and 5-inch heels, and a drunk, she tells her daughter she was on her way to abort her, but a dress in a Palm Beach storefront window, too stunning to pass by, stopped her. Dress bought, abortion abandoned. Smith does become like her mother, not in beauty but in drug use.

“I saw why she did it. Drinking and using drugs makes the happy times happier and the sad times easier to bear.”

As much as the writers fear, hate or are confused by their mothers, all try to at least understand them — not an easy task — even if they cannot always forgive them.

“I’ve been holding on so tight for so many years that I’m afraid I’m going to have to amputate my hand in order to let go,” writes Meena of her abused mother in “Domestic Silence.” “But now I realize I have to give back responsibility to my mother. I have to let go of trying to figure out how to protect her.”

It is hard to read “How I Learned to Cook” without looking at our own mothers, our own experiences, our own stories. It just may lead to more understanding, not only of our mothers but ourselves.

“How I Learned to Cook” edited by Margo Perin (324 pages, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, $22.50).