On June 4, 2023—two days before my father would have been 92—my mother passed away at the age of 88. Above is a photo of my mother and father in their youth—totally in love and about to get married. Today, I’m honoring her, as everything I am is essentially because of her. Every time I present a nutrition session or write a nutrition book, I begin it with a story of my mother’s childhood growing up on a farm in Arkansas. I share stories about the crops she helped grow on the farm, such as peanuts, sorghum, corn, beans, and a variety of vegetables. A common meal during my mother’s childhood was black-eyed peas and foraged greens (my mom’s job was to harvest the greens in the woods next to the farm) bubbling on the wood-burning stove, with a pan of cornbread baking in the oven—all of it grown on the farm. She loved that meal all the way through her life, and I included those recipes in my books, along with fried green tomatoes, peanut butter pie, and savory baked grits. The last time I visited my mother, I made black-eyed peas, greens, and cornbread—just like she made it years ago. She loved it! I also served it at her memorial in honor of her.
Along with her siblings, my mother labored on the farm as a child—as all farm children did—to help with the multitude of chores required to keep things going. She picked cotton (the cash crop for the family farm), harvested crops, picked off insects from the plants, hailed bay for the animals, and helped cook and care for the younger children in the home. My grandmother—whom I never met—was very sick, so the family sold the Arkansas farm and moved to a farm in Idaho—right next to my father’s family farm. My mother and father fell in love and eloped. She moved from her farm life to the suburbs of Seattle, where I was born.
Even though we lived in the suburbs, we always tended a large vegetable garden, canned our own fruits and vegetables, baked our own bread, and ate simple, wholesome plant-focused meals. No wonder I became a dietitian! My mother had a brilliant green thumb. She could get anything to grow, and our vegetable gardens flourished. Her love for the earth and growing food inspired me to have a deep connection to the soil and its bounty of sustenance. She taught me how to seed vegetables and transplant them in the spring, nourish the soil with our compost pile, and harvest the produce. Enjoying simple, local foods—a pot of lentils and “mess” of green beans simmered on the stove, home-fried potatoes cooked in mom’s fifty year-old cast iron skillet, wedges of summer watermelon on a platter—was a big part of our everyday life, and we always ate together at the table as a family every night.
Our family means were modest—we couldn’t afford motel rooms, plane trips, and meals out. But that meant we spent nearly every pretty day hiking, picnicking, and camping in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. My mother maintained a sturdy box with her old red checked tablecloth (which I have now), picnic dishes and utensils, and canned beans and olives in the car at all times for an outdoor meal—adding an abundant supply of fresh foods for each occasion, such as fixings for sandwiches, potato salad, seasonal fruit, and homemade chocolate chip cookies (she was famous for those). We had grand picnics in the most beautiful surroundings—her favorite was Mt. Rainier. I took this love from my mom, as I have been known to put together a lovely picnic or two!
As a child, every summer we hopped in the station wagon and drove across the mountains to Yakima to pick up boxes and boxes of peaches, pears, tomatoes, and green beans from farmstands to bring back home and can. The kitchen would be hot with the steam of the canning water bath, and freshly cleaned canning jars. My job was to help push the glistening fruit into the jars before they were filled with liquid and then sealed. In between canning, we loaded our bellies with earthy ripe tomatoes sliced into sandwiches with salt and pepper and peaches so ripe the juice ran down our chins. I loved those days—I can smell the sweet peaches and earthy tomatoes just thinking about it. We also picked our own fresh berries—strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries—each summer to make jams and pies, and to freeze for year round use. We ate so well!
As devout Seventh-Day Adventists, my mother and father truly lived the Blue Zones. They upheld all of the lessons from the Loma Linda Blue Zones, where I also studied nutrition. My mother and father ate a mostly plant-based diet, exercised (but not at a gym—they walked, gardened, and hiked), held strong spiritual convictions, and maintained deep connections and support from their family. They lived together completely independently in their home in Sumner, Washington until their late 80s. When my mother and father moved into a senior apartment, they were an oddity as so few couples survive together that long. My father passed away in 2020 at age 89, and my mother kept soldiering on until she joined him in June 2023 at the age of 88.
One of the most special things I have ever done in my entire life was to take my mother and father on a pilgrimage to visit their respective family farms—my mother in Arkansas and my father in Minnesota. We were able to locate—still intact, but crumbling—the farmhouse where she was born and raised, and the barn and surrounding farm that sustained their family during World War II and the Great Depression. It was a marvel to hear her talk about all of her childhood memories that formed her life.
In celebration of my mother today, I’m sharing a few of her favorite recipes with you. She inspired so much of my culinary style, and will continue to do so every day of my life. Read more about memories of cooking with my mom here.