How a Single Mom Conquered Dinner, One Pound of Hamburger at a Time

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Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


Some people grow up with moms whose love language is flaky pastry or fragrant spice. Moms who say “I love you” by serving up heaping bowls of delicious food. My mom’s love language was the actual phrase “I love you.” She uttered these words frequently and generously. She spoke them, sang them, and wrote them. When it came to cooking, though, she kind of phoned it in. If recipe boxes had titles, my mom’s might be something like: “What Can’t You Do With Hamburger Meat?”

We laugh about it every time my brother, sister, and I are together. At some point in our visit, we’ll find ourselves taking turns detailing the dinners of our childhood. Murky Hamburger Soup—oddly tasteless other than the whole peppercorns that lit your mouth on fire when you accidentally bit into one. Ground Beef Stroganoff—made with hamburger meat and a can of Cambell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom soup. (It wasn’t until years later that I tried the “real” thing, with steak, fresh mushrooms, and sour cream.) She sometimes even turned our nightly salad into a vehicle for hamburger meat, and called it Taco Salad. Ground beef, browned and seasoned with a taco-flavor packet, served over iceberg lettuce and sliced black olives, sprinkled with shredded cheese and crushed Doritos, and doused in Thousand Island dressing.

My mom gamely laughs along when we joke about her cooking. Underneath the teasing, she knows—we all know—there’s nothing but respect. She was a single mom of three, juggling jobs while earning a master’s degree. It’s a wonder she got dinner on the table at all.

The author and her sister in their dining nook.

Photo by Molly Fitzsimmons

The table was a wooden picnic table she found on sale at the hardware store. With a bench on either side, it was a perfect fit for our kitchen nook. The four of us sat in no particular order. As I recall, not much else about those meals was orderly either. We knew our manners and practiced them as needed, but in the nook, surrounded by the colorful, farm-themed wallpaper, we were encouraged to be ourselves. My mom’s undergraduate degree was in psychology, and her master’s degree in counseling, which is to say: There’s nothing more interesting to her than the dazzling kaleidoscope of human behavior.

My mom gamely laughs along when we joke about her cooking. Underneath the teasing, she knows—we all know—there’s nothing but respect. She was a single mom of three, juggling jobs while earning a master’s degree. It’s a wonder she got dinner on the table at all.

One night, I grabbed the baked potato off my plate and wound back to throw it like a football at my brother, when my dog Socrates leapt up, as if in slow motion, biting exactly half the baked potato from my hand. I can’t remember if it was anger or joy that inspired my rowdy behavior, but in the stunned silence that followed, I do remember wondering how much trouble I was going to get into, before looking over at my mom. Her face was frozen in laughter, eyes crinkled, with a big toothy smile. She was probably exhausted, and most likely on her very last nerve, but she has never been one to pass up a good laugh.

She’s never minded a good cry, either.

We were having sloppy joes and salad in the same nook the night she got a call that made her cry, the yellow phone pressed against her ear, its stretched-out cord tangled at her feet.

The air in the nook stood still—

“That was my lawyer,” she said, wiping away tears. “Calling to say my divorce is final.”

—a heavy cloud rolled in.

Which is to say: The nook sometimes had its own weather system.

Which is to say: It wasn’t always sunny.

My parents had been separated since before I could remember, so I didn’t understand at the time why this phone call was such a big deal to her. It wasn’t until much later that I understood that when she separated from my father, my mom didn’t know anybody who was divorced. In her Catholic family, it was anathema. Separating from him was something she was compelled to do, but she never imagined it would be permanent, thinking instead that he would choose to return. He did come back, for us kids, on the weekends and for special occasions like school plays and birthdays. He came back like a divorced dad, flashy car and all.

But he never did come back to her.


My mom’s recipe box is filled with clippings from magazines, folded note papers, and several dozen recipe cards. They’ve been collected from sisters, neighbors, friends—stained with sauce and crammed together in alphabetical order, like an analog hard drive. All the notorious hamburger dishes are in there, as well as some old favorites like Pam’s Cheeseburger Pie, which calls for a Pillsbury Crescent Roll crust and (inexplicably) an entire can of tomato paste. There are plenty of recipes without hamburger meat, too. Marilyn’s Soupy Chicken, a warm casserole made with three (!) different Campbell’s condensed cream soups. There’s also Johanna’s Chicken, Joyce’s Texas Cake, Sally’s Turkey Tetrazzini, and Sharon’s Pecker Pie.

Looking at them now, I realize the names on those recipe cards are some of the same women who sat with my mom in the nook, drinking glasses of Pepsi with lots of ice, talking for hours while we kids ran in and out, letting the screen door slam each time. The same women who sometimes filled in the gaps while our mom was busy starting a career—and a new, unimagined life—from scratch.


In the early days, with no formal training and no idea what kind of career she might pursue, my mom took whatever jobs came her way. She worked as a wallpaper installer, a community-college humanities teacher, a number cruncher for a registrar’s office, and a part-time distributor of educational film reels. She couldn’t afford childcare, so she often brought us along wherever she went—especially me, the youngest. I filled up coloring books in the backs of community-college classrooms and read Mad magazine on the sidelines of Jazzercise studios. Like a lot of suburban kids, I dreamed away entire hours waiting in the car in parking lots, while my mom ran in “just for a minute.” On the way home, she’d detour to the Stouffer’s Outlet, where she bought irregular French Bread Pizzas in bulk, for those nights when even the recipe box was too much for her to tackle.

I realize now the names on those recipe cards are some of the same women who sat with my mom in the nook, drinking glasses of Pepsi with lots of ice, talking for hours while we kids ran in and out, letting the screen door slam. The same women who filled in the gaps while our mom was busy starting a career—and a new, unimagined life—from scratch.

Then there were the nights when there were no backups in the freezer, and she decided it was breakfast for dinner, a spontaneous weeknight holiday when you could bring cereal boxes straight to the nook and eat as many bowls of it as you wanted. My mom was nothing if not resourceful, and I didn’t mind being her sidekick in the least. She may have felt like she had no direction, like she was improvising every step of the way, but to me, it always seemed like she knew exactly where she was going.

When she got a job with a grassroots organization working toward protecting the rights of women in the workplace, my mom started using words like “advocacy” and “empowerment,” and her confidence in her path began to take hold. She sometimes brought my sister and me to their scrappy rented office space in downtown Cleveland, to fold leaflets or stuff envelopes. The campaign I remember most was the “Raises, Not Roses” protest on National Secretaries Day. We gathered in front of a downtown office building with tents and balloons and signs, demanding higher wages and respect for women workers. My sister and I, not five feet tall, handed out leaflets under a rare blue sky, like professional revolutionaries.

There were nights when there were no backups in the freezer, and she decided it was breakfast for dinner, a spontaneous weeknight holiday when you could bring cereal boxes straight to the nook and eat as many bowls of it as you wanted.

After her master’s degree, my mom became a career counselor for the county library system. An easel with a gigantic notepad took up residence in our dining room, and she started giving workshops on résumé building and career planning. She rose to become manager of training at the Cleveland Clinic, coaching physicians and managers in communication skills and team building. In her 50s, once I had finally left for college, my mom got her doctorate in education. Today, she continues to work as an executive coach.

The author’s mother with a Cheeseburger Pie.

Photo by Molly Fitzsimmons

The author’s mother and son make Cheeseburger Pie together.

Photo by Molly Fitzsimmons

I asked her recently what made her think she could do it back then, start a career from scratch with three kids, a broken heart, and no roadmap. She told me she became what she had needed most—someone who helps you find your way.

When I think about it now—how exhausting it must have been for her to wrangle three kids through the tyranny of the daily meal cycle, while simultaneously carving out a life path she didn’t even know was possible—I forgive every sip of murky soup and every peppercorn I ever bit into.

I recently realized what it was about those hamburger dishes from the recipe box (besides the reliable laughs) that still inspires us to recount the details again and again. Those dinners in the nook were the time the four of us spent together as a family. We were all spinning off in our own directions—rehearsals, games, job interviews, friends—but somehow, our mom knew that just getting dinner on the table, no matter the recipe, was enough to keep us whole.




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