For Mother’s Day: Restaurant critic still in awe of mom’s cooking, and not because it was fancy _lowres

McNulty family photo - With Mothers Day this weekend, memories of the family table stoke feelings of gratitude for food writer Ian McNulty, shown here (right) with his brother Colin at their childhood home in the early 1980s.

I was raised by an Irish mother, but I grew up eating a lot of Italian food.

Sure, potatoes were a staple, and when we had company, my mother Mary could put out a dinner worthy of Julia Child.

But when I think back to her everyday cooking, the stuff that ensured that my kid brother and I found dinner on the table, it was her chicken parm pulled from Tupperware trays in the fridge, her made-ahead meatballs tumbling out of the freezer bag and the tomato sauce splattering a bit over the stove top as she multi-tasked while reheating it.

To a kid, it looked like lava bubbling away in the pot, and to this day, the aroma of slightly singed red sauce is the smell of my childhood home.

We didn’t eat Italian because of ethnic roots or family tradition. We ate it because it was inexpensive and easy to make ahead in large quantities.

It was the answer for a busy mother who had a husband working the night shift, who worked her own long hours teaching school and tutoring afterward and who had two young boys at home.

Maternal love meant weekends spent cooking, batching, bagging and freezing to supply supper on the workdays ahead.

Mother’s Day often brings to mind a fancy brunch or a nice feast honoring mom. But as the holiday approaches, I’ve been fixated on meals far in the past. A lot has changed with my family since I was a kid, but old memories of what were once unremarkable meals have deepened into something like awe.

Of course, I was not grateful then, which is precisely why I’m so grateful today. My mother’s cooking was just something I expected, something I felt entitled to as a child who knew he was loved.

This was all a generation ago, but I don’t think the twin pressures of family and career have lessened much for mothers.

And today, there’s the added needling of other people’s domestic perfection as shown on social media. There are entire industries built around telling you how to improve your parenting with this tip or that product.

I’m not about to start giving anyone advice on mothering. But I can attest that the reason I treasure my mother’s cooking has nothing to do with chef-tested products, celebrity-approved recipes or pristine ingredients. It was the time she put into our meals, and her grace to keep us from seeing when it really was a strain.

So this Mother’s Day, I’m thinking about all those mothers out there now who work hard, who have to juggle, who can’t do it all, but who still manage to make their kids believe they can. Don't worry, someday they’ll get it.

Note: a version of this column was earlier published May 9, 2020

Love New Orleans food? Pull up a seat at the table. Join Where NOLA Eats, the hub for food and dining coverage in New Orleans.

Follow Where NOLA Eats on Instagram at @wherenolaeats, join the Where NOLA Eats Facebook group and subscribe to the free Where NOLA Eats weekly newsletter here.

Email Ian McNulty at