The Most Important Ingredient

By Felice Prager

The Most Important Ingredient

“Thank you for coming to pay your respects,” I imagine myself saying to each funeral attendee. “And here’s a cook book for you. My mother would have wanted you to have this.”

This is the joke my sister, sisters-in-law and I often make about my mom’s far-off-in-the-future funeral. Mom is alive and well at 62, and although we plan to have her with us for many more years, I do worry what will happen to her cook book collection when she is no longer here to enjoy them.

My mom has literally thousands of cook books, hence the joke about handing them out like door prizes at her funeral. When I asked if she had any vegan friends, Mom said, “Why? Are you worried you might accidentally gift them with my ‘365 Days of Beef’ cook book?”

We all got a laugh out of that one, but even Mom admits that the cook book thing has gotten a little out of hand.

As a kid, I always gave Mom a cook book for her birthday. (Now we buy her more book shelves.) Mom would make a list of the ones she wanted and then drive my siblings and me to the bookstore. She’d hang out in another aisle while we made our selections, and then she’d pretend not to see which ones we’d chosen when she paid for them.

My siblings and I would find as many of the books from her list as we could and then we’d look through them, searching for that perfect recipe. “Perfect” meaning that we wanted Mom to make it for us. When we discovered a deliciousness our tiny tummies simply could not live without, we knew that was the cook book we wanted to give to Mom. (As we got older and had our own money to pay for Mom’s gift, the choice became more based on price, and yes, sadly, I went the cheap route more times than I care to remember.)

On Mom’s special day, each of us would present Mom with the cook book we’d chosen and then show her the recipe that made us pick that book in particular. Mom would smile and promise to try out those new recipes just as soon as possible.

And now as an adult, I remember those annual experiences and think, “Did Mom actually like that?” In reality, Mom’s birthday gifts were To Do Lists in disguise. I gave Mom a cook book – that she paid for – and she used it to make a special dinner for me. And that was her present?

How did I not realize how selfish I was being?

The answer to that lies not in my selfishness, but in Mom’s generosity. She loved to serve her family by cooking for us, and she still does today.

Thanksgiving at Mom’s house is an event. She prepares the turkey, the stuffing and the pumpkin pie, but her table also features some less-common treats. She always serves shrimp cocktail, (my favorite) sweet pickles (for my niece) and brownie pie, my brother’s favorite. Mom enjoys an exclusive relationship with Pepsi, but on Thanksgiving she stocks her fridge with Coke products because that’s what several of her guests prefer.

Mom prepares Thanksgiving dinner for 30 people, yet always manages to make every person in the room feel like she made it just for them. It’s truly amazing.

And of course, this is a constant source of stress for me, her heir apparent. Several years ago, my sister and sisters-in-law nominated me as the one most qualified to take over the Thanksgiving duties when Mom decides she can no longer do it.

And to that, I say, “This is the worst idea in the history of the universe.”

While no one in my immediate family has starved to death thus far, that hardly qualifies me to step into Mom’s culinary shoes. My cooking skills are adequate, at best. (Translation: My dinners have not induced bouts of vomiting in anyone that I’m aware of, but they often induce bouts of whining and griping – but only from my children. My darling husband eats whatever I put in front of him. Lovely man, he is.)

Several of my best recipes are ones I’ve inherited from Mom. I follow the recipe to the letter, but somehow hers still tastes better. It’s just not fair.

Just thinking about stepping into Mom’s overachieving shoes gives me a pit in my stomach. But the thought of missing Thanksgiving with my family gives me a lump in my throat, which is infinitely worse, unless you’re wearing waterproof mascara, and then it might be a draw.

Regardless of my cosmetic choice, not seeing my family for Thanksgiving is just not an acceptable option.

So I guess I’m it.

Someday, I will have to cook a turkey and all of the fixings for 30 people. Will it be as good as Mom’s? Will I remember all of her special touches? Will I ever be able to do it as well as she does?

I’m sure I won’t.

But then I remember, Thanksgiving is about more than food. It’s about family and friends, and the bonds we share. (Bonds that are strengthened by moist turkey and from-scratch mashed potatoes, but still, it’s not all about the food.)

Mom is a wonderful cook, and she’s served her family through her culinary creations, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day, for more than 40 years. And while, I’m not the genius in the kitchen that she is, I have learned a thing or two from her.

Everything Mom does, she does out of love. I’m definitely not there yet, but I’m working on it. Like Mom, I look for small ways to make people feel special. A chocolate chip cookie and a listening ear can do wonders for a kid’s bad day. (Or anyone’s, really.)

And most importantly, Mom taught me that when it comes to family meals, family is always the most important ingredient.

About this writer

  • Felice Prager Felice Prager is a freelance writer and multisensory educational therapist from Scottsdale, Arizona. She is the author of five books: Waiting in the Wrong Line, Negotiable and Non-Negotiable Negotiations, TurboCharge Your Brain, SuperTurboCharge Your Brain, and Quiz It: ARIZONA. Her essays have been published locally, nationally and internationally in print and on the Internet. Learn more at

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One Response to “The Most Important Ingredient”

  1. Your last line succinctly sums it up. Happy Thanksgiving.

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