Photos by Collin Richie

Sunset soup and sweet cantaloupe make for a tasty tribute to a late mother

Home is where your mom is. This saying, artfully printed on a gift shop mug, is a flashback to my perch on the counter next to the world’s greatest cooking teacher, my mom. 

When I was about 4 years old, I graduated from the counter to the kitchen chair, which I would push over to the stove and doctor up cans of Campbell’s soup. From there I moved up to cookbooks, some made for kids with silly recipes, but mostly the ones from Mom’s collection. She had multiple editions of The Joy of Cooking, volumes of Gourmet with enticing photos, and the classic Betty Crocker in the three-ring binder. A family favorite remains the book she picked up in Daytona Beach when she and my dad were honeymooning 70 years ago, Duncan Hines and the Art of Carving in the Home. This original copy, held together with packing tape, now lives on my shelf. Its pages are stained with 70 years of kitchen memories. She always encouraged my cooking enthusiasm, and her teachings led me to write a cookbook of my own. It houses one of her favorite recipes, a soup my daughter Sara named Sunset Soup. It’s a work of sunshiny art in a bowl and comforts all who taste it. 

My mom could multi-task like a boss in preparation for a dinner party: Pop a roast in the oven. Hop in the shower. Vacuum, tidy up and set the table with her washed hair beneath a bonnet of a portable dryer that was holstered to her waist. Somehow everything was ready right as the doorbell rang. 

Some of her most memorable kitchen advice continues to echo in my mind. Preheat the oven first. Let the butter soften. Trust your senses. Waste not, want not reminded us to maximize every ingredient. Keep an eye on it was one she really mastered. She could have all the burners going and something in the oven and in the electric skillet. While not straying too far from the action, she cranked out meal after meal in our Florida kitchen and nothing ever caught fire. She also trusted sound cues while cooking. Even if she was blindfolded, she could fry chicken for a crowd by turning and covering it when the sound was just right. Five years ago, she taught me those sizzle cues one on one while she evacuated Hurricane Irma and lived with us in Baton Rouge. We cooked around the clock for an entire month.

Florida will always be “home” even though she’s no longer there physically. Just shy of her 93rd birthday and a few days after requesting I make Sara’s Sunset Soup during my visit in June, she took her last breath. We were savoring sunset soup and sweet cantaloupe and a competitive game of Scrabble on a Saturday, and on Friday we said goodbye. My gratitude overshadows my grief and I treasure every memory from the kitchen and beyond. My house is a gallery of her handiwork, from the portraits she painted of my daughters and my handmade wedding dress stowed in the upstairs closet to the kitchen cabinet knobs we hand-sculpted together and the breakfast dishes she personalized—and the list goes on.

I am so aware we don’t get to keep our parents forever. “92 is a long sip from the cup of life,” my friend Mark wrote in a sympathy note, a reminder to sip slowly and savor. Cheers to this and thank you, Mom, for everything. 

Sweet Cantaloupe 

Not a recipe, just a life lesson of choosing the best one per my mom’s guidance. That cantaloupe we were enjoying in June was a great one, and each bite my mom took made her whole face smile. It’s a four-step selection process. Be discreet and polite while making your selection.

FIRST: THE SEASON. Summer cantaloupes from a local farm will be better than an off-season import. 

SECOND: WEIGHT. Choose one that’s heavy for its size. Juicy cantaloupes weigh more and are nice and sweet.

THIRD: SNIFF. The stem end should be fragrant

FOURTH: SHAKE. Give the melon a gentle shake to make sure the seeds aren’t loose inside (as the melon ages off the vine, the interior dries up, causing the seeds to dislodge from the center).

Sara’s Sunset Soup

It’s sunshine in a bowl, bright with lemon, warm with curry. Whip this together in minutes, for all occasions.

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, minced or crushed
1 ½tsp. curry powder
1 (14½-oz.) can diced tomatoes with juice
1 (15-oz.) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 medium potato, scrubbed and diced
4 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock
1 Tbsp. lemon juice, plus extra wedges for serving
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
Salt as needed, depending on saltiness of broth
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and curry powder and stir for 1 minute. Add tomatoes with their juices and boil for 5 minutes, until slightly reduced and thick. Stir in chickpeas, potato and stock, and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in lemon juice and cilantro and season to taste with salt. Ladle into bowls and serve with a smile and lemon wedges if desired.

Mom’s Butterscotch Brownies

These were a weekly staple in my mom’s kitchen. One bite transports me to my childhood.

1 stick (½ cup) butter, plus a little extra for pan
2 cups lightly packed brown sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 cup chopped toasted nuts (pecans, walnuts, cashews, macadamias)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center. Line a 
9 x 13-in. metal baking pan with foil with sides slightly overhanging edges. Butter the foil.
Melt 1 stick butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Remove from heat and add brown sugar, whisking to combine (mixture will look like wet sand). Transfer hot mixture to a large bowl and add vanilla. When it’s no longer hot to the touch, whisk in eggs until combined. Add flour, baking powder and salt, and stir with a spatula until flour is incorporated. Stir in nuts. Spread batter into prepared ban, and bake for 18 minutes (Mom’s oven) or until surface is glossy/light golden brown and edges are just slightly wrinkled. It will still be a little soft in the center and will firm up as it cools.
Cool completely in pan on a cooling rack. Using the foil, lift the whole cooled brownie out of pan and cut into squares. 

Mom’s tips: 

• Warm brownies can be cut with a plastic knife without it sticking.

• Only cut what you plan to eat immediately; store remaining brownie wrapped tightly in foil or in an airtight container for up to 3 days and cut as needed. Cut brownies will dry out but make a great base for a brownie sundae.

• Ovens and bakeware are different in each kitchen, which affects baking time.