Not everyone is lucky when it comes to mother-in-laws, but I am. I got Maribeth Hill. We both remember our first meeting with perfect clarity. She remembers exactly what we were both wearing, down to our shoes, because that is one of her superpowers. I remember where we ate for dinner.
When we met, I wasn’t sure how we were going to get along. In some ways – ways that are easy to see – we are quite different. Maribeth seldom emerges from her bedroom without lipstick. She always wears jewelry to match her outfit, and had standing nail and hair appointments. I’m not very careful about my appearance, to be honest. She was raised in Enid, Oklahoma, while I came from the East Coast. We were, of course, from different generations. But it turned out that we were very similar in some less visible ways: we both love learning about new people, we can recall details about people’s lives without needing reminding, and we love to explore new foods.
Maribeth and I are quite different kinds of cooks. I like to read four or five recipes and combine them to make what I had in mind. Maribeth once told me, “I’m not sure why that dish didn’t come out – I followed the recipe exactly. I mean, if it tells me I have to stand on my head and chop the onions with my feet, I’m going to do it!” She loved eating what I cooked, though, and always made me feel so good about myself. That’s one of her superpowers too – the ability to make everyone feel seen and valued and interesting.
One of my biggest cooking disasters came quite early in our relationship. I was making Dutch babies (see Dutch Babies and Other Delights) for breakfast, which are cooked at high heat. I forgot that the day before I had cleaned some candlesticks by heating them slightly in the oven. I didn’t realize that some of the wax had dripped into the oven itself. While we were visiting over coffee, I casually glanced at the oven only to see flames leaping inside! I raced in, scooped out the wax, and hoped that no one noticed. Dutch babies remained one of Maribeth’s favorites for me to cook her, enough so that she bought a special pan for them that she kept at her home for when I visited.
That’s another favorite thing about Maribeth: she often planned ahead for my visits. I would get to her house and discover that she had the ingredients all ready for something I had made on a previous trip. It might be Dutch babies, it might be a quinoa salad, or a cocktail or delicious romesco sauce or bleu cheese and kalamata olive spread. I loved cooking for her.
We also went to the grocery store together more times than I can count. On those trips, away from everyone else in the house, we sometimes had our most intimate conversations. We talked about the things that were bothering us or worrying us while we drove to the store and back. We could read each other pretty well and are both gentle about pulling out what the other one needed to talk about. I love that those conversations happened in the most mundane space, the trip to the store.
At home, Maribeth was always moving. Cooking, setting the table with her dishes that delighted her, cleaning up after me. Planning the next meal, thinking about who would be coming over for dinner or a drink. Even when I cooked, she was completely engaged and active. She watched and prepped and suggested. She told me I was working too hard.
We liked going to restaurants together too. She loved to go out for breakfast and when we lived in Arizona, we enjoyed taking her and my father-in-law to fancy brunches at the resorts outside Tucson and Phoenix. They both loved going to places they would never think to try, like to a Mexican seafood spot in Guadalupe or the Cuban tapas place downtown. One of our favorite memories, though, was the time she and I went down to the bar at the hotel where we were staying for her oldest granddaughter’s wedding. The two of us ordered appetizers and cocktails and talked for hours, long after everyone else went to bed. She could tell you what we were wearing.
All of these small moments in food can tell you the story of our friendship, and about the person that she is, and was. Maribeth loved food as she loved life – with curiosity and vigor. She is at the end of that beautiful life now, suffering from terminal lung cancer. I have cooked my last meals for her. When we went for a visit in December, I made her a cherry pie although she had a failing appetite. She had told me that she always asked for the same birthday meal as a child: fried oysters, French fries, and cherry pie. And she ate that pie. When we couldn’t tempt her with anything else, she would agree to the pie. She agreed to several French 75s as well. She likes a fancy cocktail. Now, as she is fading, we – her family – take comfort in what she has decided to eat each day. The burrito bowl day was a good day. The day she sampled each flavor of ice cream offered reassured us.
On that visit in December, I asked her what dishes she thought she was most known for among her family and friends. She immediately said chile relleno casserole and her guacamole. Later, she told me that she’d have to add Yummy Potatoes to that list also. Last night, my 13-year-old daughter made her MeMe’s chile relleno casserole for our family for dinner. I’ll share that recipe below.
I wanted to share this recipe with you but I want to share Maribeth with you too, and my love for her. When people complain about having to scroll down to a buried recipe, they forget that sharing stories of food, sharing food experiences, is the motivation for most women who write food blogs. We write the story because the story is the point. The relationship is the point. The experience and the learning and creativity is the point. Food is culture, people, and always made in community. And every time I eat this chile relleno casserole, I will think of my beautiful, warm, fun-loving, and loving mother-in-law, Maribeth Hill. She is the reason I’m sharing this with you.
Chile Relleno Casserole
- 1 27-oz. can of whole green chiles (if you can get fresh roasted, do it!)
- 1 lb Monterrey jack cheese (we used queso fresco last night)
- 5 eggs
- 1 ¼ cup milk
- ¼ cup flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Dash of fresh ground black pepper
- 4 cups (1 lb.) grated mild cheddar cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drain the can if you are using canned green chiles. Slit the green chiles lengthwise and remove seeds. Slice the Monterrey jack or queso fresco into ¼ inch thick slices and place inside the chiles, laying them in a 13×9 inch ungreased pan. Mix the eggs, milk, flour, salt and pepper until smooth. Pour over chiles. Sprinkle the top evenly with the cheddar cheese. Bake for 45 minutes until browned.