Nonfiction by Joanna Rose
My mother made a fine dinner for the six of us every single night — lamb stew with barley, stuffed green peppers, pork roast cooked in sauerkraut so tender it fell away from the bone. There was always a vegetable, and usually a salad with homemade bacon vinaigrette. There might be scalloped potatoes with buttery crunchy crust, or creamy mashed potatoes, or sometimes fluffy white rice. When we had baked ham for Sunday dinner there was pea soup on Monday. Pea soup included cornbread.
And there was always dessert. Spice cake with raisins. Sheet cakes made from scratch, either yellow with chocolate frosting or chocolate with white frosting. Chocolate pudding with a thin crust, or rice pudding with cinnamon, or tapioca pudding, each pudding in its own little cup.
She hated to cook.
I might enter the kitchen while all this preparation was going on, and say something like, Boy, Mom, that smells good, I’m starved.
She’d say, You have homework to do.
She’d say, I hate to cook.
And she had this shrug, shaking me off, even though I wouldn’t be touching her.
She’d say, Leave me alone.
So I left her alone. My job was to set the table, every night, with a tablecloth and napkins folded at the right under the knife and spoon. The fork went on the left. We stood by our chairs until my mother came and sat down, and then we all sat. My father lorded it over dinner, talking on and on to my mother while we ate. If there was a pause in his talking, we had to count to twenty before saying anything, because he liked long dramatic pauses, and hated interruptions.
We had our regular seats and they never changed. I sat on my mother’s right. She would rest her hand on the table, her thumb clenched in her fist, the tip of her thumb sticking out between her fingers, her fingers clenched so tightly that the tip of her thumb was sometimes bright red. I don’t remember her eating, although neither do I remember her not eating. There was nearly always a cigarette burning there, in a cut-glass ashtray on the table at her elbow. I would blow at the smoke during long boring dinners, watching it shift and waft away.
I know now that she was hyper-tense and depressed before such things were easily diagnosed. She was probably miserable. All I knew then was that she didn’t like being a mom. It didn’t seem like such a big deal. It was the fifties and sixties. She was just something to avoid. Stay out of her way. Stay out of the kitchen. Leave home as soon as possible.
My first few tries at cooking after I left home were disastrous. I didn’t understand how to follow a recipe, or how to mix dry ingredients, or how to make scrambled eggs that weren’t rubbery lumps. I lived on celery and peanut butter the whole first year on my own, not coming home even once, and lost 15 pounds. When my mother finally saw me again she thought I was on drugs. Whether or not that was true was, by that time, beside the point.
The point was I had learned to equate food with hostility. Actually, I had learned to equate family with hostility, and I was kind of a happy (if stoned) person. So I left. I traveled for a while and then settled 2500 miles away. I sent friendly little notecards to my parents.
I worked in bars and restaurants, eating whatever was on special, standing up in the break room, or at a back table after my shift. On my days off I ate cheese and crackers. Celery and peanut butter continued to work just fine. Most of my friends worked in bars and restaurants too. We all ate out a lot, especially 2 AM breakfasts at greasy diners after the bars closed. I showed up at potlucks with flowers or wine or candles.
I never gained back the 15 pounds.
Years went by. I got married to a lovely man whose eating habits were similar to mine, as was his work life. On those few occasions of visits to my parents, we tended to gather for drinks. Not meals.
My drinking life had gotten pretty wild, and I decided to quit for a while, almost on a whim. That led me to try therapy, another whim. Everyone I knew had a therapist. I discovered my childhood wasn’t normal, was, in fact, pretty sad, and a good reason for drinking a lot and having a borderline eating disorder. But by then my mother had had a disabling stroke that left her gentle, pleasant, and not very good with speech, or memory. My father drank himself to death not long after that. So there wasn’t really anything to do with my interesting insights into family life. I felt sorry for them both.
A natural part of not drinking was giving up working in bars. I started working in bookstores, and my husband got into real estate. We bought a house. It had a sweet little tiled kitchen with sunny windows.
A friend gave me the newly revised Joy of Cooking. Maybe it was a joke. But it had these short essays at the beginning of each section, and, being a reader, I read them. I learned that you should read the whole recipe and assemble all the ingredients before you begin. I learned that if you stir scrambled eggs gently and slowly, and cook them on low heat, in a double boiler, they turn out fluffy and golden. I bought a double boiler.
Lentils — I buy pretty french green lentils. I cook the celery and onions for a long time on low low heat, which I figured out when a friend called once in the middle of the celery and onions and I meant to turn the burner off. When I got back to the pan of celery and onions, they were still cooking, and had turned translucent and tender. I remember that first time; I ate most of them before I added the other ingredients. When I read up on onions in Joy of Cooking I discovered this is called sweating them.
I learned to make a hell of a grilled cheese sandwich. The secret is toasting the bread first. Then, when it’s grilled, the crust is buttery and crunchy instead of soggy. I figured this out for myself, shortly after we bought our first toaster.
I make a decent roast chicken by stuffing it with a whole orange. There were several other steps in the magazine in the gynecologist’s office but this is the step I remember.
I roast it at 350˚ for an hour. I let it rest and cool just a little bit.
I pull the orange-scented chicken apart with my fingers, feed it in small bites to my husband.
I say, Is it alright?
Is it good?
Do you know I love you?