The Invisible Thread 

How our mothers shape our plates, our tastes and our lives.

click to enlarge Natalie and Anne-Marie Irani, the owner of Natalie's Taste of Lebanon.

Scott Elmquist

Natalie and Anne-Marie Irani, the owner of Natalie's Taste of Lebanon.

She brought me the first pie mid-July.

Bill Smith’s Atlantic Beach pie, perfectly piquant, a little bit sweet, summer incarnate. “I saw it in Southern Living.” She adapted it, of course. Ritz crackers for the crust instead of Saltines. A little extra butter. Skip the homemade whipped cream and douse with a dollop of store-bought instead.

I was eight months pregnant and attempting to eat as many fruits and vegetables as possible as my long, heavy baby took over my entire frame. The lemon pie was the epitome of a health-forward choice, I decided. Mama thought so, too.

“It’s good for you—and for him,” she encouraged.

My mother has never been a baker. To follow the stringent rules of a pastry recipe is not in her nature. A freestyle vegetable pasta with extra citrus and garlic? Absolutely. A three-ingredient casserole? Let her at it. But to assiduously mix and measure flour and sugar and baking powder? Heavens no. “Who has time for that?”

Growing up, we made brownies out of boxes and kept Cool Whip in the freezer. When mama texted me that she was bringing me a pie, I figured it was from the store, or maybe a family friend had made it. When I Googled the recipe she’d chosen, I was aghast. Multiple steps, fresh-squeezed juice, freezing and baking and cooling.

But the pie was exceptional. One of the best things my very pregnant body had consumed in many months. She knew, somehow, as she always does, what I needed before I needed it.

Mama has always been an intuitive soother, so deeply maternal I have trouble imagining her as a small child. She cradles my son—now almost as old as I was pregnant when I first tasted that pie—as if he were her own.

Every week she makes the hour-and-a-half trek from Gloucester to play nanny and reorganize my kitchen and dress up baby in seasonally appropriate rompers.

When we visit my childhood home there are almost always lemon pie slices in the fridge, often mangled by my father dipping into the pan late at night. Once she learned we all loved that pie, it became rote, part of an unspoken routine. Of course she’d make it, baker or no, again and again and again.

When my twin sister visits with her 1-and-a-half year-old, you better believe my mother has slices of sheet cake (my sister’s inexplicable favorite treat) in the freezer, plus extra bread ready to toast for her carb-loving toddler. My not-so-little-brother shoots her a request for his favorite bow-tie pasta dish when he swings by on the weekend.

Always, every request is met with, “Of course, sweet pea.”

“Can you help me with the baby this Thursday?” “Can you order me that de-choker you read about online?” “What was the name of that doctor you liked, can you send me the link?” “Do you think you could make the pie for Friday?”

Of course, of course, of course.

This Mother’s Day, I hope we can all look to the mothers or salient maternal figures in our lives and thank them for their unwavering, invisible support. The kind that takes the shape of a listening ear as often as it does a favorite dish.

For this piece, we’ve collected the words of three women in the food industry who have been shaped by their mothers and who, in turn, have molded the eating experience of their own children. We hope you enjoy. – Mary Scott Hardaway

click to enlarge Kate Stephenson, owner of Kate Uncorked. - BRITTANY DANIEL
  • Brittany Daniel
  • Kate Stephenson, owner of Kate Uncorked.

Around the Table

Kate Stephenson

Owner, Kate Uncorked

Growing up, I remember that we ate dinner as a family every night and my mom cooked dinner for us every night. It’s funny thinking about it now. I didn't realize it at the time —my mom doesn't like to cook! But she made it a point for us to all be at the table together. It’s something I took for granted at the time, but appreciate so much now.

I think about how that translates to me as a mom. I’ve been introducing Theo [1 year old] to foods the past few months, and I think in watching him explore new foods and eating, I realized —of course I want him to like vegetables and healthy food and all the things that moms want for their children. But I also want him to really enjoy and appreciate food and the fact that it has history and meaning. I want him to appreciate the experience of eating food together and come to understand how sharing a meal is so important; and sort of have a curiosity and a good relationship with food and find the joy in eating it.

I love introducing new foods to him and exploring the tastes and the textures, and discovering his likes and dislikes. It's amazing he loves fish and meat and bread—all the yummy foods—but he also loves avocado and could sustain himself with blueberries.

As you get older, and your tastes change, and you watch food culture evolve, there are still these foods we have all been eating forever; and simple recipes and traditions that stand the test of time for a reason. For instance, I feed him meatballs, things we ate as children. Who doesn’t love meatballs? I think that speaks to the fact that food doesn't have to be complicated or fancy, it just has to be real and authentic. And there’s something so special about that.

My mom would always make a breakfast casserole for every holiday, and she still does that. Something very traditional with white bread on the bottom and sausage—it’s such a comforting taste. The other thing she made a lot was a chicken casserole with chicken and celery and probably mayo and breadcrumbs. Again, very traditional, but I can still remember the taste of it.

Looking back, she definitely had her repertoire of meals but it’s so funny to realize now: Oh, she didn’t like cooking at all.

I created the Mommy Meal Plan before I was pregnant and when I was postpartum, I think it definitely reiterated the fact that there is such a need for a particular kind of nourishment right after you have a baby. It’s to have foods that are healing and give you energy just so you can wake up feeling the best version of yourself, whatever that might be.

After having my own baby, I realized that women can be postpartum a month after birth, or six months, or beyond and still order the meal plan. There’s no way to really define that period in your life. When we initially created this, we were thinking of women in their fourth trimester, but the fact that women further along than their pregnancy and birth continue to use the program really speaks to the fact that it’s okay to give yourself a break. You don’t have to confine yourself to specific terms.

click to enlarge Carena Ives, owner of Jamaica House & Carena’s Jamaican Grille. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Carena Ives, owner of Jamaica House & Carena’s Jamaican Grille.

A Taste of Resilience

Carena Ives

Owner, Jamaica House & Carena’s Jamaican Grille

My journey into food began with my grandmother, Mary.

She was a phenomenal cook and taught my mother a lot. Mary raised goats and my grandfather was a fisherman [in Jamaica]. When my grandfather died suddenly in his early 50s, my grandmother and my aunt and my mother would take out his little boat. They’d set traps and catch fish. That’s how the family kept going after he passed away.

Where I grew up it was a small village, maybe a dozen or two dozen families living there. Everyone knew everyone, each family had a little plot of land. There was a bartering system so my mother had pigs, and she’d trade with other families. If you have chickens, I’ll get eggs. If I’m slaughtering a goat, I will trade you goat meat for a couple chickens, same with pigs and fish.

We’d trade whatever we produced. It was very communal. We didn’t have a supermarket, we didn’t have those kinds of things. When I first moved to the U.S., to see the abundance of food here blew my mind. I thought, “Look at the shelves, it goes on forever!”

From early on, I knew that my mother had sort of special talent with food. She knew how to make things really delicious with the simplest ingredients. She’d take the toughest pieces of meat that no one would bother with and she’d make a stew or do something with it so it would break down and be so tender and rich. I always thought, "How does she do that?"

One of her biggest things to make was soups, she loved making soups on Saturdays. We didn’t have a regular meal that day, it was soup market day. She’d go to the market, and there’d be a pot of soup on the stove, no matter how hot it was outside.

My grandmother and mother were very strong women. When my grandfather died, all they had was the land. It was my grandmother’s wish that it would be paid for and wouldn’t have to go back to the bank. So everyone in my family started pitching in, and my mother dropped out of school in sixth grade to help her. For many years, they planted what they could and raised what they could until the land was paid off.

That kind of work ethic and that strength ... any normal person would say, “We can’t do this, it will take forever, it won’t happen.” It was very simple for them. We go to work, we will save and put money aside, and get it done. I’m grateful for those lessons and I’m hopeful that I’ve passed that down to my daughter and son.

I hope they are gaining something from that, that there has to be that idea of persevering, even when not everything is going to be perfect. You may not have a perfect house or a perfect job—there are going to be a bunch of things that with jump up and bite you in the butt—but there has to be some resilience. That is what we do. We dust ourselves off.

I think about all those years my grandmother was alive. We were all in that one house cooking and eating. It was such a wonderful time. We didn’t have all the fanciest of things, but the things we did have were so wonderful.

When I moved to Richmond, I think it was a combination of being displaced and finding myself in new surroundings: I craved something familiar to me. One of the things I missed the most was my mother’s cooking, so I was trying to recreate that sense of comfort and security here, which drove me to get into the food business.

When I think about home, the food is what brings me back to my childhood. I’ve watched my mother so closely when she cooks, and I try to make the same thing but it’s always different. It’s not terrible, it’s just not the same. Maybe that’s the thing that has been driving me all these years with these restaurants: When you distill it all the way down, maybe it’s the thing I’m chasing.

I want people to love this food as much as I do.

click to enlarge Natalie Irani and her mother, Anne-Marie Irani, owner of Natalie's Taste of Lebanon. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Natalie Irani and her mother, Anne-Marie Irani, owner of Natalie's Taste of Lebanon.

For Natalie

Anne-Marie Irani

Owner, Natalie’s Taste of Lebanon

I was born and raised in Lebanon and attended the American University of Beirut for med school. I came to Boston to get board certified and then I planned to go back to Lebanon. I had no intention of staying here. But in Boston, I met my husband and here we are.

Natalie is the baby. The first time I took her to Lebanon she was about 3 years old. I would take her and her three older brothers every summer and spend three weeks there. None of my kids really spoke the language. I grew up speaking French and Arabic, but everyone in Lebanon speaks English, so they used that. They made friends-and I’m one of six girls-so they have lots of cousins.

They all really liked visiting, but for some reason it was much more special for Natalie. She loved the food and the culture and the music and dancing. When she introduces herself, she’ll say, “Hi, my name is Natalie Schwartz and I’m half-Lebanese.”

Natalie has Williams Syndrome. She just turned 30 and she was diagnosed when she was 18 months. As a parent, and especially as a physician, when we got the diagnosis we reached out to the patient advocacy groups. And they’re wonderful, but it depressed me even more so than having the diagnosis. It was a shame because we were receiving all this negative talk about how difficult it is. I was dying to see a role model of how Natalie would be when she was 15, 20, 25.

Thankfully, Natalie got unbelievable support with the Henrico school system. She’s still in touch with her middle school principal. She graduated from high school with a normal diploma and then did a community college program for two years. She was happy, she had a schedule, and things to do. But when that was over she was just at home, scrolling Facebook. She could have gotten a job filing mail in a small room by herself, but that wasn’t going to work with her personality: She loves people.

At the time, Richmond’s first Lebanese restaurant had just opened called Nora’s Taste of Lebanon. I went in and said, “You have to hire my daughter, I’ll eat here every day!” And they did. She was the hostess and absolutely loved it. She loved the food and the music, and they had some Lebanese workers there, too. But the restaurant only lasted six months.

Natalie was able to work at a couple of other restaurants, a few hours a week, but it wasn’t enough.

I looked at my husband (he’s a saint) and said, “We’re going to reopen the restaurant.” He’s like, “Are you out of your mind?" We’re both physicians, we have no experience running a restaurant.

But I said, “We’re going to do it.”

So we took on the crew from Nora’s and hired a few more people. And Natalie was so happy. The food was delicious, the place was beautiful. She was so happy and we were so lucky we could do that for her. We ended up recruiting a number of other young people with special needs. We had eight people before the pandemic, but then during COVID it was hard. We only closed for two weeks and did takeout, but we totally lost the lunch crowd from the offices nearby.

After five years in our original location, we started looking elsewhere. Now we’re in the old Max’s Positive Vibe Café [grand opening was April 2022], and they’re still running the Positive Vibe training program in the space.

All of my friends who own restaurants have told me, “You have to be onsite,” and it’s very true. It’s been rough, to put it mildly. I mean, the whole restaurant thing is difficult but the move has been particularly tough.

I don’t hide things from Natalie. The night before last, she came to me before she went to bed and says, “Mom, can I ask you a question? I know it’s been hard right now, but can you please be positive?”

She makes it so much worth it. It has changed her life, really. She’s so happy and proud, and she loves her customers.

There are times you think, “What am I doing? I could be sunning on the beach!” Lebanese cooking is a full-time job. All of our food here is freshly made. We make our own dough for the cheese pies, hand-roll the grape leaves. When we’re short-staffed, I’ll be in the back baking bread.

I remember when I moved to Boston, I missed the food so much and I wasn’t much of a cook. I was a bookworm growing up, I was too busy studying to cook. My then boyfriend, now husband, sent me a gift while I was in New York and he was in Boston. It was my first gift from him and I was so excited. In Lebanon, boyfriends send you fancy jewelry and designer bags.

But I unwrapped the package and it was three cookbooks -not one, or two ... three! I was like, what are you trying to tell me? I can cook when I want to, it’s like running a lab experiment. It drives my sisters crazy, the way I measure everything out.

My mom was an amazing cook, though. There’s a dessert on our menu that is literally my mom’s recipe, word for word in her handwriting, that we found after she passed away. We call it “Martha’s Namurra.”



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