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I’m Glad That’s Over February 16, 2011

Posted by J. in Domesticity, Genius.
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It is a point of fact that I’d be a much better cook if, at every meal, I didn’t have to deal with the soul-grinding task of cooking for my children.  Granted I’m no Ina Garten, but I could be, friends, I could be.  I know the basics of cookery and enough of the beyond-the-basics to really take flight in the kitchen if I put my mind to it.  While there are foods that I loathe and would never willingly prepare or even allow into my home (I’m looking at you, broccoli), I have a fairly accepting palate and a broader range of likes than I do dislikes.

Would that I could say the same about my children.

One night, after listening to yet another litany of “I hate this…” and “Do I have to eat it all?” and “Ohhh, gross…” I got my mother on the phone.

“Ma,” says I, “I wish to apologize for my criticism of any meal you put before me as a kid.  I was out of line.  Even if what you were cooking wasn’t my favorite, I was ungrateful and rude and I’m sorry.”

She laughed like hell, and here’s why.

Oh, to have been raised by a mother with more money than brains...*sigh*

I suspect my mother knew all along that she was capable of putting better meals on the table, and would have except for three serious limitations that she had to work around.  First, every member of the family has their own ideas of what’s tasty and what isn’t and you can’t please them all every day.  Second, she knew what made a balanced meal and knew that we had to have those be healthy, so frozen pizza and cheese doodles five nights a week was out of the question, even if we could have afforded it.  Which bring me to her third and biggest limitation: a very small grocery budget.

She managed, despite the constraints put on her, to provide at almost every meal, some meat, a starch, and a vegetable.   The meat was inexpensive: chicken parts, chuck steak, hamburger, or pork chops; the vegetables were from a can and the starch was from a package unless it was some form of potato.  We never ate instant potatoes, but Rice-a-Roni and its counterpart Noodle-Roni were on the table all the time.  The only time we ate bread with a meal was when Ma’d throw a chuck steak under the broiler, and when the last bit of fat and gristle was devoured from the plate, Sister was allowed to soak up the blood with a slice of store-brand white bread and eat that as well.

There wasn’t a lot of it either, but there were still some nights (for me, pork chop or chicken-with-the-bone-in nights) the most praise one could muster is “I’m glad that’s over.”  My father, who shared my dislike of Shake-n-Baked chicken parts, coined that particular bit of gastronomical punctuation.  It never occurred to me that it was rude to echo his opinion, no matter how much I agreed, and why my mother didn’t move out earlier than she did remains a mystery.  Kudos to her for not telling us all to go fuck ourselves and let us eat cold cereal until we developed rickets and scurvy.  It would have served us right.

I never really grasped the idea that we ate like poor people, because I didn’t realize that other families ate better or that we were, in fact, poor at all.  It’s not until we were much older that her menu choices started to make sense to us, and in a sad way at that.  But it’s testimony to her that she didn’t throw it back in our faces that she’d be a better cook if she had better food to work with and if she had kids that wouldn’t turn their nose up at anything different.

Pure canned evil. Still, better than broccoli.

She did sometimes try to branch out, poor thing, and I have to say that there were some Mommie Dearest moments at the dinner table because of it.  I can recall sitting by myself at the dining room table after everyone else had finished and all the other plates had been cleared because I refused to eat the vegetable on my plate.  I could swallow a forkful of nasty-ass canned peas pretty easily without chewing or tasting them, but I could not choke down the glazed carrots in front of me.  I know I didn’t eat them and I remember my mother letting me go–thank God she didn’t save them for breakfast and try to make me eat them then–and how MAD she was that I wouldn’t eat them.

She was trying to do something different and I’m sure my stubborn refusal to even take one bite was more than her mother-nerves could take.  I can still see the defeated look on her face to this day.

Because my dad wasn’t the most adventurous eater either, her more exotic culinary exploits were usually reserved for Thursday night.  Dad worked until 8, so my mother’s sister Bunny and her husband came down the street to join us for supper and Ma would serve things she liked but Dad wouldn’t eat.  Sister and I, I should point out, were never consulted about the menu and we pretty much hated Thursday nights.

Oh, and I know that in some families forgoing what is on the menu and just having a bowl of cereal or some toast instead is the last resort of parents who feel the need to get some nourishment into their child.  In our house it was never an option.  You see, dad ate toast for breakfast and the bread and peanut butter had to go the week.  We ate cereal for breakfast and that box of cereal and the gallon of milk had to last the whole week as well.  If you ate breakfast food at dinner, you wouldn’t have any breakfast come Friday, and there was no money until the eagle shat again to go to the store and just get some more.

Speaking of that, remember how cereal commercials when we were kids used the phrase “…part of a complete breakfast of toast, juice, milk, and cereal”?  Not in our house.  Cereal was breakfast.  Period.  You had milk on your cereal, but not in a cup beside it.  Sister remembers how she’d wake up so thirsty she’d want to die, and all she wanted was a cup of milk in addition to what was on the cereal and Ma saying no.  “You have milk on your cereal.”  We never had orange juice, and we loved it so much.  Toast was also breakfast, but you have a choice between toast or cereal…not both.  And a piece of fruit?  We weren’t Rockefellers, people.

Anyway, Thursday nights were when Ma could cut loose, with mixed results.  On the one hand, American chop suey* was always a hit.  On the other hand, she once unleashed La Choy chicken chow mein from the can on us.  When it was good, it was very good, but when it was bad it was nauseating.

Ironically, now I’m grown and living in the same house where my mother had our evening meal on the table at 5:30 on the dot every night, and I find myself facing the same struggles she did, hampered by the same set of limitations.  What goes around has come around.  We have a cheap piece of meat: chicken parts and hamburger are staples in my house too, as are easy to prepare packaged side dishes and canned vegetables.  And there are nights that Larry and I will finish eating, look at each other and declare, “I’m glad that’s over.”

I hope my kids don’t know that we’re poor.

Now, once a week we have casserole night at my mother’s house.  If you’d have told us when we were kids that someday we’d be thrilled to the core to have Ma set a meal in front of us, we’d have told you to shut the front door.  I chalk it up to a mother’s innate ability to forgive that she makes us our favorite meals.  The menu doesn’t have a lot of variety, but what it lacks in inventiveness it makes up for in both deliciousness and volume. “What are we having?” we’ll ask her when she calls on Monday and she’ll tell us.  Macaroni and cheese.  American chop suey.  Pot roast.  Boiled dinner.  Pork chops in gravy.  Chicken fricassee.  Meat loaf.  Shepherd’s pie.  Spaghetti with meat sauce.  And we swoon with delight.  We think about it all day long.  Sister and I call each other and talk about it on the phone.

“Did Ma tell you what she’s making?”

“Macaroni and cheese, and Shake-n-Baked chicken-with-the-bone in.”

“Oh my God, I can’t wait.  I can taste it right now.”

“I know.  I might skip lunch so I have room for more at dinner.”

“I know, right?”

Not for nothing, but it’s pretty much the same food she gave us as kids and we know that.  We’ve embraced that particular irony.  Of course now she can afford better cuts of meat and higher quality ingredients, and she can afford to make a lot more of it as well.  Then there’s the added bonus that we’re now grownups and our palates have expanded considerably, so she can follow a whim and make something like glazed carrots that won’t leave us gagging.  We no longer sit there staring at the food on our plate under threat of sitting there until it’s gone.  We eat until we can’t pack in one more bite, and then take some home for lunch the next day.

I wonder how it makes her feel to hear us say “Thank you for dinner, Ma.  It was awesome” as we go out the door.  Better, no doubt, than “I’m glad that’s over.”

Macaroni and cheese and Shake-n-Baked chicken parts. This is what the dinner table in heaven looks like.

Occasionally I whip up a meal that I know everyone will like because I know how it felt to face a plate full of food that made a bowl of Cheerios look inviting.  But in truth, some of the meals I recall most vividly are the ones that I remember as being the best.  Like French toast night.  Is there anything better than breakfast for dinner?  The best part of French toast for dinner was Dad cutting our toast on the diagonal saying it was “the French cut” and putting spoonfuls of his hot, sweet coffee into our milk to make coffee milk.

I want my kids to have some favorite meals to look back on fondly when they think of family dinners.  I like to picture them someday calling each other the day before they come over for supper for some shared anticipatory salivation.

“What’s Ma making?”

“Volcanoes*.”

“Ohhhh, I can’t wait.  I’m going to eat until I feel sick.”

“Yeah, I always do.”

Family Recipes

American Chop Suey

1.  In a large skillet, saute together in a bit of oil one large onion and one large green pepper, diced.  When they are softened, add a pound of hamburger and cook until brown.  Drain off the fat and add 2 cans of stewed tomatoes with the juice.  Cook over low heat.

2.  Boil a pound of elbow macaroni in a big pot of salted water according to package directions.  Drain, and pour into a big bowl.

3.  Add the hamburger and tomato mixture and stir well.  Serve hot.  (Platinum version: double the ingredients, serve with grated parmesan cheese from the green can and some squishy white bread with butter.)

Volcanoes

1.  In a large skillet, brown a diced medium onion in a bit of oil or butter and cook until translucent.  Add a pound of hamburger and cook it until it’s brown.

2.  Make a roux:  sprinkle 2 or 3 tablespoons of flour over the meat and cook it for about three minutes.  If you use leaner meat, you’ll need less flour, and if you use very fatty meat you’ll need more.  Go for a thick, pasty texture.

3.  Add two cups of beef broth, beef stock, beef bouillon, or beefy onion soup prepared from a package and whisk it into the roux.  As it cooks, it will thicken.  If it gets too thick, add a bit more liquid.  Add some milk for a creamier gravy.

4.  Serve over mashed potatoes with the center hollowed out like little volcanoes.

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Comments»

1. Camille - February 16, 2011

You made me laugh out loud and puddle up at the same time Poops; I remember those days very, very well. In honor of your well written column, I’m making American Chop Suey for dinner tonight. Chuck hates it, but it’s time he learned to suck it up and stop denying my birthright. Love; Auntie Meal

2. bezzie - February 16, 2011

Yeah this sounds like my childhood too.
Except it was Skom for dinner. That stood for “some kind of meat.” And usually not a decent cut. Ha ha!
I do gotta say though, I kinda hope my boys know we don’t have a lot of money. Makes them appreciate a fine meal when they get one!

3. Marie Grace - February 16, 2011

Holey bob I’m still scarred from the canned peas. Can’t even look at ’em.

4. Gary M - February 16, 2011

In our house we had meat and potatoes almost every meal; living on a chicken farm and raising our own beef and pigs meant there was always plenty of meat. We would all cheer when mom would break tradition and make mac and cheese, and breakfast for supper was the best! (with our own smoked bacon of course). Still, by the time Bob came along mom didn’t care much about the basic food groups and he would eat Cheerios 3 meals a day. Maybe that’s what stunted his growth…

5. Sistah - February 17, 2011

I forgot about “the French cut” and got a wee bit puddly, but howled with laughter through the rest of it! It is indeed our story.

6. The Insider’s Guide to the 603: Part 2–How’s Your Grinder? « askpoopsplease - April 18, 2011

[…] might call this something else.  But I have no idea what. I posted the recipe the way I make it here, but it’s one of those combinations of ingredients that everyone puts their own spin on.  […]


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