Today, I am going to make doughnuts for my sons. “We’re going to make them?” my 5-year-old responds as if I have just announced my plans to make a television. “Like, from the ingredients?”
“Yes,” I reply. “Just like my mother used to make.”
I still remember those Saturday mornings when I awakened to the clanging of pots downstairs. If the rattling went on long enough, my sister and I knew that Mom was searching for the big pot.
The big pot was only used for doughnuts. If we got downstairs fast enough, we could help with the ingredients: two cardboard tubes of white biscuit dough, a paper sack and a box of powdered sugar.
We weren’t allowed to help with the oil.
Mom handed me the biscuits. I peeled the paper encasing the tubes away in a messy spiral, then bashed the tubes against the counter. They burst open with a satisfying sigh. Pressing the top of an empty aspirin bottle into the dough, Mom carefully popped the centers out, making perfect wheel shapes and tiny little spheres.
A moment in the grease, a quick flip with the slotted spoon, a short rest on a paper-towel-covered plate, and they were ready to be sugared.
My sister and I fought over who got to shake them in the bag of sugar. We also fought over who got the first one and who had to clean up.
My boys are waiting expectantly in my kitchen now. I want this to be perfect, so I call Mom.
“Hello?” She sounds slightly worried. I think she was asleep; it is 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning.
“Sorry, Mom,” I say. “I just need a recipe.”
She laughs. I have been married for 11 years, and I still call her every time I attempt one of “her” recipes. Hey, I’m not that good of a cook. I’ll take all the help I can get.
“What are you cooking today?”
“Well, I was telling the boys about my favorite breakfast when I was a kid, and I’m making that.” I pause. “I bet you can guess.”
“Huh? Waffles?” she asks. “Don’t you know how to open a box of Bisquick? The recipe’s on the back.”
“No, Mom. Doughnuts.”
“I never made you doughnuts,” she replies, confused.
“No, Mom, the ones made from biscuits. I think I have everything, the powdered sugar, an Advil bottle for the holes …” I trail off. She is laughing at me.
“That was your favorite breakfast?” she splutters.
“Why in the world?”
“Well, because you only made it on special days, I suppose.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” she says, laughing. “I made those on the days when we had absolutely no money.”
What is she talking about?
“Those biscuits only cost a nickel a can,” she explains. “So at the end of a really bad month, if I had a dime, I could feed you kids. I hated making those doughnuts. Those were the worst days of my life. I used to try not to cry into the grease.”
I am dumbstruck. Those mornings when my sister and I raced to the kitchen, wondering at the miracle that had brought us doughnuts … those were the worst mornings of her life?
As a child, I knew we weren’t well-off. My parents both worked two jobs most of the time. Mom said chores were character building, and so my sister and I did the dishes, the dusting, the vacuuming … you name it. Of course, Mom was usually working while we cleaned, teaching piano lessons in the living room or making our clothes at her sewing machine. Sometimes, the thought of the homemade clothes made me cry; for her, it was those doughnuts.
She almost never cried in front of us. But I remember a few times when she did: that awful Mother’s Day when we all forgot to get her anything, the night when Papa, my grandfather, had a stroke. She taught me to be careful with my own tears and how to be strong for my children in bad times.
We are both quiet, remembering. “Wow,” I say at last, wondering if it’s appropriate to make the doughnuts now.
“How much do the biscuits cost these days?” she asks.
“About 50 cents a pop.” I had bought the cheapest ones, the brand she had used.
“What a rip-off!” She laughs, and everything is OK again. She talks me through the simple recipe, warning me not to let the boys near the oil. “Don’t let my grandkids eat themselves sick, OK?”
I hang up, and my boys rush to help open the biscuits and pop the centers out.
I lean over my big pot full of oil, testing it with one of the doughnut holes to see if it’s hot enough. It is, and the dough bobs and hisses as it cooks.
My kitchen fills with the smell of doughnuts, the same kind my mother made. I am not as good a cook as she is and not nearly as resourceful; I haven’t had to be. But when I have moments of indecision, wondering if I am doing this right—this whole mothering thing—I stop, remember what she did and try to get the recipe as close as possible.
I smile when my boys start to fight over the powdered sugar, and I try as hard as I can to not cry into the grease.
Nikki Loftin, a freelance writer, lives with her family near Austin.