Some women have a complicated relationship with food, while others have a complicated relationship with their mothers-in-law. In my case, food has complicated my relationship with my mother-in-law.
To give a bit of context, there are two things that one should be aware of about Portuguese culture. First, the relationship between mother and son is based on the fact that he will forever be her menino*, whether he’s a little boy of three, or staring middle-age directly in the face. Secondly, generally, a meal can’t really be considered a meal unless there’s a serving of rice on your plate, whatever else is already on it. I quickly absorbed this fact shortly after arriving in Lisbon. The majority of the lunches I ate at the café nearby school routinely served up a double-carb combo of chips and rice alongside the principal element of the meal. I became so used to this that I’d be disappointed if either chips or rice were missing from my plate. My blood-sugar levels must have been sky-high, but the insulating layer of fat I laid down that year served me well during the winter, as the apartment I lived in was decidedly draughty and as cold an igloo once the sun had set.
By spring, temperatures were rising on all fronts. Not only was my accommodation less chilly, but my romantic life was hotting up as my courtship with my future husband blossomed.
That summer I finally met my boyfriend’s mother. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. She was perfectly friendly, although she clearly adored her son and only child. One evening I made us all a Thai curry, which she enjoyed and she later asked for the recipe. I went to copy it down, verbatim, but was stopped in my tracks when she told me to only list the ingredients, no measurements or method – an idiosyncrasy that continues to this day, perhaps allowing her the opportunity refine or improve my efforts….
On the day of our marriage, which by this point was a signing-on-the dotted line formality after seven years of cohabitation and the arrival of two babies, my mother-in-law sat in the registry office looking forlorn. Despite my own mother’s attempts to cajole her, gently suggesting that she was gaining a daughter, not losing a son, she only visibly perked up at the celebratory lunch, presumably after a fillet of bacalhau** and sufficient rice had been placed before her.
That Christmas, and by this time aged forty and judging myself to be up to the task, I decided that it was time to cook my first ever traditional English Christmas lunch. I went all out, including all the trimmings. I was particularly pleased with my homemade bread sauce until my mother-in-law asked if I’d made it from a sachet. Adding insult to injury, she went on to question whether the indulgent sauce that accompanied the Christmas pudding, which I’d concocted using my Mum’s recipe, was from a carton. So worn out from my exertions in the kitchen by this point, I disaffirmed weakly, but if memory serves, then drained my wine glass in one fell swoop, inwardly muttering “give me strength”.
In later conversation with his mother about the festive feast, her son enquired if she’d enjoyed it. The answer was yes, but….”não havia arroz” (there wasn’t any rice). Incredulous that anything else was required on the Christmas plate, I am ashamed to admit that I was less than gracious in response to my husband when he recounted this story.
The following Christmas, mother-in-law brought a bag of Uncle Ben’s basmati rice and a packet of Knorr stock cubes, along with other British goodies from London. The message was pretty clear and despite inwardly seething at first, I’ve made a pot of rice, as well as everything else, every year on Christmas Day ever since. Annoyingly, my daughter now gets a bit hoity-toity if rice is missing from any roast dinner. Perhaps it’s genetic.
I have a very good relationship with my mother-in-law and honestly think that she’s genuinely pleased that her beloved boy has created a happy home and family independent of her. Last weekend we hosted a family dinner and I made a fruit crumble for dessert. It was devoured by all and my mother-in-law asked how I’d made it. My explanation that I’d mixed frozen fruits of the forest into fresh apples in the base was slightly lost in translation, her assumption being that all the fruit I’d used had come straight from a packet (“I’m old-fashioned, I peel my own apples”). Why I felt so judged, I cannot explain, but decided to let this one go.
This week another birthday came and went and my parents-in-law phoned to wish me a happy day. At the end of our conversation, my mother-in-law exclaimed: “I loved your crumble….and I love you!”. And hard-won as it might feel, I’m guessing that this Bifa has gained full acceptance, despite having purloined her golden boy. I’m hopeful this state of affairs will continue, which it should – as long as there’s always rice.
*Usually refers to a young boy, but it can also be used affectionately, often to denote possession (“meu menino” – my boy).
**Salt-cod. Forms part of the foundation of Portuguese cuisine. Fresh cod is a rarity.