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food for thought
by juli mccarthy
9.30.02
general


When I was a child, I used to fantasize that I would grow up and marry the man of my dreams, and we would eat gourmet meals by candlelight every evening, as we discussed politics and museum openings. Soft music would play in the background. I imagined that I would cook glorious meals with unpronounceable names, and use exotic ingredients like capers, artichoke hearts and kumquats. We would live in a world of epicurean bliss together.

I had nothing to base most of this fantasy on. My childhood home was a chaos of conflicting schedules. Mom was a single parent raising four kids whose ages spanned twelve years. Cash was often in short supply. But no matter how tight things got, or how hectic our schedules were, we never ate pot pies or TV dinners. Every evening, Mom was in the kitchen preparing dinner while we did our homework, and every evening, we sat together at the big kitchen table to eat.

Dinner time was family time. The phone was ignored, the television shut off. We talked, laughed, fought and cried over beef stew and dumplings or meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Mom taught me that cooking is another way to express love. Taking the time to select quality ingredients, prepare food carefully, present it attractively – it was more than providing sustenance, it was nourishment for the soul of a family. You put a little bit of yourself into every meal.

When I was only five or six, my mother put me to work in the kitchen. I started by doing simple tasks, such as tearing lettuce for salads and grating Parmesan cheese for spaghetti night (where I occasionally put a LOT of myself - or at least my knuckle - into the meal.) As I got older, my kitchen skills progressed, and by the time I was twelve, I could put a complete dinner for five on the table by myself.

When we got married, the man of my dreams was suitably impressed by my kitchen prowess. As a single guy, he’d been subsisting on carry-out and frozen dinners, and cadging the occasional pot roast dinner at his mom’s house. The simplest home cooked meal was sufficient to impress him, but it wasn’t enough for me. I started buying cookbooks and trying new recipes. Where I was once proud to produce an edible spaghetti and meatball dinner, now nothing less than three-cheese ravioli with porcini mushroom sauce would do.

Then one day, I found myself at the grocery store frantically searching for sun-dried tomatoes. I had never heard of sun-dried tomatoes, but the recipe called for them and, since I didn’t know what a sun-dried tomato was, I didn’t trust myself to come up with an adequate substitute. I went to three different grocery stores in my search, and finally found them in the tiny produce section of a specialty store. I returned home triumphant, and made dinner.

Later that evening, my daughter held her fork up with a puzzled expression on her face. “Is that a raisin?” That was the night I decided it was time to return to my roots: meatloaf on Mondays, spaghetti on Sundays. Occasionally I would find a new recipe that we all liked, but for the most part we stuck to the tried-and-true: simple food, prepared with love and eaten together.

With the onset of our daughter’s adolescence, cooking has taken the back seat in the Minivan of Mom Skills. I’ve been spending a lot more of my time monitoring phone calls and double-checking attire for bellybutton exposure. Mealtimes are a hit-or-miss proposition these days, and we order pizza far more often than we used to. Sometimes, I even cook with canned soup! Yes, that’s right – I pour a can of mushroom soup over some chicken breasts and broccoli and ten minutes later, it’s dinnertime.

The only candles in my kitchen these days are on birthday cakes. We don’t talk much about politics, and we’ve never been to a museum opening. I’ve tasted a caper, and I can say without reservation that they’re nasty little pickley things best left in their jar. We gather at the kitchen table, turn off the TV and ignore the phone, and we talk, laugh, fight and cry over our shared dinners. It’s not precisely bliss, but there’s enough love for everyone to have second helpings.


ABOUT JULI MCCARTHY

A whole gallon of attitude, poured into a pint container.

more about juli mccarthy

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COMMENTS

robert melos
10.1.02 @ 1:00a

Okay, now I'm hungry. I'm also envious. I rarely eat an actual home cooked meal. My mother's idea of cooking is reservations, or more accurately, to go to a local diner. She convinced my father it was in his best interest to go out to dinner every night, shortly after the passing of my grandmother, and since 1984, I have seen approximately 22 home cooked meals. I might be off on that number, as I did sometimes manage a quiche or steak, but mostly it was diner food. No wonder I have constant indigestion. You inspire me to return to the kitchen. Now if I can only fine it?

tracey kelley
10.1.02 @ 1:49a

Oh my - I resemble most of this!!

I remember once as a newly married, I thought I was creating something pretty spectacular - seared pork with cranberries and rosemary. My darling husband took one look in the pan and said:

"It looks like a snake has been chopped up by a lawnmower."

Not that he doesn't appreciate a good home-cooked meal - he grins from ear to ear when he sits down to one, which is often. But it reminded me I didn't need to get fancy to show him how important sitting down to dinner together is.

Because of our weird schedules (me still up at this hour, him about to get up in two hours) we'll still watch tv - usually something we've taped from the night before. Or Jeopardy - and whoever wins final Jeopardy doesn't have to do the dinner dishes.

adam kraemer
10.1.02 @ 1:37p

Yeah. I got lucky that my mother was a piano teacher, and worked from home. I was a semi-latchkey kid; she wasn't around to supervise us, but she was there in an emergency. The nicest part about it, though, was that she could cook dinner while she worked. I could probably count on my fingers the number of non-homecooked meals I had Sunday-Thursday growing up in that household. Didn't hurt that she's a gourmet cook, either, though that means she experiments so much that actually getting a recipe from her is almost impossible:
"Wow, mom, that was great! Can I get the recipe?" "Let's see... what did I put in that..."

[edited]

juli mccarthy
10.1.02 @ 1:58p

I do that, too, Adam. And I measure things the old fashioned way: a handful of this, a pinch of that, two shakes of the other things. I once gave a recipe to my friend and she called me to ask me how much was "two galloomps" of oil. (Duh, you hold the oil bottle upside until it makes the "galloomp" noise twice.)

[edited]

adam kraemer
10.1.02 @ 2:00p

That's an excellent description. I'm going to have to remember that one.



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