In this season of sniffles, head colds and tummyaches, it's consoling to reminisce about the bland, pulpy foods our mothers served us on TV trays when we were confined to bed in our footed flannel pajamas. I used to delight in spooning chilled tapioca straight out of a deep stainless-steel mixing bowl, my listlessness shrewdly exaggerated to elicit maximum sympathy.
Even hard-boiled chefs become a little misty-eyed when they describe what their own mothers whipped up for them on sick days. "My mom and my grandfather were known for their good Southern cooking," says Tennessee boy Cary McDowell, co-chef at The Crossing. "She'd make me chicken and dumplings with fried okra. Now that was special." But he admits that he also had a weakness for Franco-American Spaghetti-O's and Campbell's Chicken and Stars soup. McDowell's partner, Jim Fiala, remembers that his mother often made cornbread and beans when she thought he was looking peaked. "She'd crumble the cornbread on a plate, ladle navy beans over that and top it with a finely minced onion," he says wistfully. "Then she'd sprinkle a little apple-cider vinegar on the onion."
Chef Jim Russell, of the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge, loved tucking into pillowy chimneys of his mother's homemade pancakes, the layers oozing with melted butter and Aunt Jemima syrup. But it's her mashed potatoes that really perked him up when he had the collywobbles. "She always made them with red potatoes, cooked perfectly and whipped with a hand mixer, using just the right amount of butter, cream and salt," he explains. "We try to emulate those here at the restaurant, with Yukon Gold potatoes that we put through a food mill to get them really smooth."
Phil Noe, chef at Blue Water Grill, is the youngest of five children. Noe's sister Nancy, five years his senior, cooked for him and his siblings while their mother was at work. "When I had a sore throat or something, my sister made me vegetarian vegetable soup with green beans, corn, carrots, tomatoes and peas. I make a version of it at home now, but I put beef in it." Comforting as it was, though, his sister's cooking didn't always pass muster with this future chef. "The soup tasted like Campbell's," Noe recalls ruefully, "but it wasn't as good as Campbell's, so it needed lots of crackers crumbled into it. It could've used a lot more salt."