Okay, not exactly in Lucky Peach, but on their website. So close, yet so far. But, I was still honored that they asked me to contribute to their Mother’s Day edition of “We Love Mom,” sharing our stories and our favorite recipes from the hands of our mothers. But, I was raised equally by two women (my mother and grandmother), so while the recipe is definitely 100% from my mom, the first paragraph is all grandmother. I had to give a shot out to nana and I’m glad I snuck it in, because she was in the hospital when this was published and has since then passed on.
We Love Mom: Carmen Maisonet’s Smothered Mushroom Chicken
In 1953 my mother was born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. Vega Baja is equal parts rural and town, with narrow streets sandwiched between cotton-candy-colored Spanish colonials. In the late 1950s, my grandparents left PR and headed for a neighborhood in Sacramento less than a mile from where my mom currently lives. They worked in the fields harvesting seasonal produce. Eventually, my grandpa started his own gardening business, my nana gave birth to seven more children, and a 1957 tropical turquoise Bel Air sat in the driveway. It was a traditional and devout Catholic family, where my grandpa worked and my nana took care of the house. Working with a strict budget, nana often fed nine people with just one whole chicken. If you were late, your chicken ration was forfeited. But you were always guaranteed rice and beans. They always sat at the kitchen table. My grandpa would eat first, the children second, my nana last. Every special occasion saw a homemade pineapple upside-down 7Up cake. The recipe was attained by an Italian neighbor, and it was my mother’s favorite.
My mother worked at what is now known as Blue Diamond. It was a factory job where she sorted nuts on an assembly line for almost twenty years. Then she worked at UCD Med Center, dragging herself through twelve-hour shifts as a unit coordinator. On weekends, she’d make Bisquick pancakes, bacon, and eggs. She’d cook the eggs in the bacon grease until the eggs puffed up like a soufflé, the edges brown and crispy. She’d also cook boiled yucca, yautia, bacalaítos, arroz con gandules, carne guisada, and fried chicken with white rice. But, I mostly loved her pumpkin fritters. She’d only make them around Halloween, drying out the seeds in the sun and then roasting them in the oven, using the leftover flesh from my jack-o’-lanterns for fritters. She’d add vanilla, cinnamon, salt, eggs, and flour, mix and fry. She and I would sit in the corner of the kitchen, in our one-bedroom casita, and consume them piping hot.
My mother is calm. She cooks calmly; she solves her problems calmly; her food is calm. She is the oracle. These days she only makes two things from back in the day: smothered mushroom chicken and Christmas balls.
Smothered mushroom chicken is one of the simplest things to make, yet I can never get mine to taste the same as hers, even though I have watched her make it. I am not the oracle. I am not calm. It’s a dish that’s umami-heavy: it’s meaty, it’s earthy, it’s dark. My mother and I are polar opposites. It’s been said my personality matches my deadbeat father. Where my mother is calm, patient, and approachable, I am skittish and make babies cry. We both have the ability to wrangle stray cats into our lap, turn the bullshit detector up to eleven, and offer people advice with a warning. (“You want the nice version or the honest version?”) We both love nature, are artists, and we’re both romantics. While my mother had dreams of traveling to Europe, being an exhibiting artist, and going to college, I actually did all of those things.
I went home and asked my mom to make mushroom chicken. We sat down to eat afterwards, and when I bit into the forkful, the crust of the chicken was so crispy it shattered under the pressure of my teeth. My mom looked up at me and said, “Hear it?” —Illyanna Maisonet