In My Mother's Kitchen

A book that benefits Alzheimer's research makes me rethink mother-daughter cookery

I've never seen Lee Clayton Roper, or her mother Sally Clayton, now deceased, but I have this very clear image of the two of them, perhaps holding Sidecars, politely wrangling over the toasted clam rolls, in an airy, marble-countered Denver kitchen.

It's a recipe, you see, in their cookbook A Well-Seasoned Kitchen. Lee says Sally was "keen" on including it. She, probably because it involved white bread and mayo and canned clams that seemed sort of That '70s Show, was not.

Sally won, and I'm glad she did, because I tried them and they are tasty and easy and can be frozen ahead of time. I'm also glad because now Lee, and all of us, have that recipe, though Sally is no longer with us. She died during the final editing of the book, and was not "all there" for years before her death, suffering the effects of Alzheimer's. Lee started the cookbook collaboration in the early days of Sally's memory loss, and so captured not just the toasted clam thing, but lots of other, mostly more sophisticated, recipes for entertaining.

There's a cannellini bean dip with truffle oil that I'm already pretty fond of, and this thing you do by sautéing an entire Camembert in a sinful amount of butter. Stuffed salmon, brown rice gratin, mushroom enchiladas, almond macaroons—pretty much any of us could follow these careful instructions and serve up and sit down Clayton style.

It's a worthy legacy this Sally left, an indelible stamp in the collective cooking archives. A Well-Seasoned Kitchen was first sold only in Colorado, where it was published in 2010, but early this year was released in some other states, including ours, with part of the proceeds going to the Alzheimer's Association.

Their team is sweet, but reminds me not at all of any mother-daughter cooking I've been part of. In the early days, if I was cooking, my mom wouldn't have to. We had our big family meals down to a system, not particularly an art—lots of Shake and Bake chicken and instant mashed potatoes.

My mom was—and is—a great cook, once she's unfettered from the everyday grind. She taught me to always buy name-brand cream cheese and store-brand frozen orange juice; that hamburgers are best cooked on a pancake griddle; that spaghetti is most manageable broken into thirds before boiling. But my favorite recipe in those days was a stir-fry from Seventeen magazine (with frozen pea pods, a revolutionary vegetable!). And I shudder to think about it, but my specialty may have been Chunky sirloin burger soup over rice.

My own daughters, they're great cooks, too, but the closest we come to co-occupying the kitchen is me playing online cards while Frances purees pumpkin for turnovers, or me running out for more butter when Lucy wants to make gourmet macaroni and cheese. In fact, 2011 was marked by more than one squabble over whether it was essential to brown onions when they might scorch and we had guests due any minute. Unlike Lee's gracious capitulation on the clam toasts, no one ever concluded "Mother knows best!"—though that time I did.

My mom knows best, too—knows me best, that is. She always made this shrimp curry with fresh shrimp from a fishmonger in Williamsburg, Va., deveined with her own fingers; it would be ready with a crisp, fresh salad in a cut-glass bowl on visits home from college, and then Knoxville.

I have requested, received, and lost that recipe at least three times, but I can't remember my mom so much as sighing at the next request.

All this mom talk kind of makes me want to phone my mother and ask for that shrimp curry recipe one more time. But I think I'm just going to see if she'll cook me some next time I'm home—and make that really soon.