Nonfiction by Sue Fagalde Lick
Last night I threw out a moldy package of raspberries. Today, I tossed a tub of cottage cheese that was six months past its expiration date. Last week, I discarded a pound of ground beef that had turned brown in the fridge while I ate my aging leftovers. It was maybe five days old. Maybe a week. I should have frozen it, but I thought I’d be using it soon. Every day, I saw it and thought: tomorrow.
Do you know what ground beef gone bad smells like? The dead cow it came from. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten sick, but I just couldn’t eat it. Now the green bell pepper I had planned to stuff with the ground beef is getting slimy in its plastic bag under the salad, and so are the corn on the cob, and the carrots I’m trying not to waste.
A lot of what I eat is borderline. I just shake my head at the expiration dates printed on my groceries. According to these dates, my eggs expired a month ago, my rice gave up last winter, and my spices are beyond redemption.
I’ve been struggling with the issue of food mortality since my husband went to the hospital and subsequently died. I have always thought of myself as a big eater. My thighs can testify to that, but I can’t eat enough to keep ahead of the rotting food. I buy three peaches, eat one each day, and the third one is a soggy mess. I buy the smallest package of strawberries I can find, and they grow fur in their plastic container. I make a casserole and eat it for four days straight—until I can’t stand the sight of it.
When I was a child, if I didn’t eat everything on my plate, my father would make me explain why, especially if he was paying for it at a restaurant. Being full, or not being able to eat sweet potatoes without throwing up, were not acceptable excuses.
Forty years later, my father and I are both widowed, each living alone in the houses we shared with our spouses. I never expected to be exchanging cooking tips with my construction-worker dad, but our weekly phone conversations are now sprinkled with food talk. What did you have for dinner? How long can you keep hamburger? Have you tried those mini-pizzas? Did you know you can freeze corn on the cob?
I’m lucky because I know how to cook. My mother got me started making salads and baking cookies as soon as I was tall enough to reach the counter. I took Home Economics. I earned my Girl Scout cooking badge. I know which foods I can freeze for months or even years. I know how to turn leftovers into a tasty salad or a stir-fry or an omelet. I know I need to use the most fragile foods first. Apricots rot, but a can of cranberry sauce I didn’t use last Thanksgiving can wait till next Thanksgiving. What I haven’t figured out, yet, is how to do it all for just one person.
Before Mom got sick, my father’s culinary skills were limited to steaks on the barbecue and pancakes on the camp stove. He has not used his oven in the 13 years since my mother died. He believes that if meat has been in the freezer for a week, it’s no good.
My Dad and I have different approaches to cooking for one. Every day, he cooks tiny amounts of prepared foods. He’ll count out seven frozen raviolis from the bag and heat a quarter jar of sauce. He’ll cook one piece of chicken in the toaster oven, defrost one serving from a 16-ounce bag of frozen green beans, and boil a portion of instant mashed potatoes so small the amounts are not listed on the chart on the back of the box. He keeps no leftovers.
Me, I’m still cooking as if a family of eight is going to drop in at dinnertime. I cook meats, casseroles, and stir fries once or twice a week and then eat them until they’re gone. Because I’m always dieting, and I’m aware of my family’s tendencies toward diabetes, heart disease and colon cancer, I buy a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. But it’s a constant struggle to keep up, to eat everything that isn’t frozen before it gets soft, grows mold, or gets slimy.
Eating alone is not all bad. I appreciate not having to cook every day. When I was married, I woke up every morning worried about that night’s dinner. What did I need to defrost, or pre-cook, or buy?
Now I cobble together my leftovers according to what I feel like eating. I can throw everything into a salad (if the lettuce hasn’t rotted) or wrap it in a tortilla (scraping off the green mold spots) or serve it over the dubious rice. I can eat two pieces of chicken and a slice of watermelon for dinner instead of coming up with an entree, two side dishes, and a bread course. I never have to cook Brussels sprouts again. If I hit on something I like, I can eat it every day for a week, with no apologies or explanations.
I miss some of the foods I used to cook, things like lasagna, spinach soup, or potato salad. I never bake a cake. These foods are company foods, and I never have company.
Shopping for one is frustrating. Five ears of corn for a dollar? Great, but I only need one. A six-pack of pork chops? No thanks. Coupon for two large pizzas? Why?
My mother shopped on Thursday mornings. I can still picture her kneeling in front of the cupboard on Wednesday afternoons making her list, organized by aisle in the store. She’d shop once and be done with it. If I buy enough food for a week, it goes bad, even if I eat like a sumo wrestler trying to bulk up.
Lately, I go to the store several times a week. I remember Mrs. Shope, our old neighbor who walked to Ferraro Brothers’ Grocery Store every day in her housedress, white cardigan, and flip-flops. She claimed her four children ate everything in the house, so she only bought enough for one day at a time. I don’t have four kids. I don’t want to go buy one peach, one pork chop, and a potato. It’s too far, I don’t have time, and it’s more expensive than buying in bulk. Plus, I don’t want people to look in my cart and shake their heads, thinking “poor lonely widow.”
An old widow I know from church recommends cooking lots of good food and freezing it in meal-size portions. That’s also what most of my friends have suggested. Makes sense, but I don’t do that. I’m always thinking the casserole will last one more day. I’ll eat it tomorrow.
When I visit my father, we usually go out to eat, but sometimes he insists on cooking. I have watched him boil pasta for 30 minutes, until it turns to mush. I have eaten half-cooked chicken breasts and two spoonfuls of instant mashed potatoes that tasted like sand. Only the salad-in-a-bag tastes like Mom used to make.
Once, I cooked him dinner: meat loaf, baked potatoes, and sautéed zucchini, tomatoes, and mushrooms. He hovered around me the whole time, complaining about all the dishes I was using and the leftovers I was creating. “You can eat it for dinner tomorrow,” I assured him. But I’m sure he threw it all away after I left. He has a TV in front of his place at the table. To sit in silence with all those empty seats is just too hard. He watches the news three times a day while he eats from knife-scarred plastic plates on a plastic tablecloth. One man, one plate, one meal. No leftovers.
Early in my singleness, when my husband was alive but in a nursing home, I found little moths in my oatmeal. They were crawling in my crackers and partying in the cornstarch. I threw away masses of dry goods that had sat on the shelves for months or maybe years. I scrubbed the cupboards with foul-smelling cleaning solutions, but the bugs kept coming back. One memorable night, a friend and I got drunk and spent a couple hours waving our fly swatters at the moths who flew overhead and tried to take cover in the corners of the ceiling. It was funny and horrible at the same time. I kept cleaning the cupboards and throwing things out. I learned to buy less and seal it up tight—and to look before I poured. Eventually, the moths moved on.
There are ways to manage this cooking-for-one business, and I’m learning. For example, I didn’t eat ALL of the spaghetti I made last week. I put some in the freezer. And I have learned that you shouldn’t wash ALL of the grapes the minute you get home from the store because they’ll grow fur more quickly. I can go to the deli and ask for two chicken breasts or one fish fillet. I can make the tiniest cartons of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream last for two weeks.
With nearly 50 percent of American homes housing only one occupant, retailers are learning, too. Check any bookstore and you’ll find dozens of “cooking for one” recipe books. At my grocery store, you can now buy single slices of pie or cake, and you can buy half a carton of eggs, a single serving of soup, and one-portion packages of everything from cereal to macaroni and cheese. We’re not doomed to “TV dinners,” anymore.
Today, when I open my refrigerator, it looks empty. I see a loaf of whole grain bread, a tub of margarine, half a grapefruit, some leftover rice, a cooked chicken breast, a pint-sized carton of milk, a partial bag of salad, and miscellaneous condiments. In a bowl on the counter sit an avocado, a tomato, and two apples. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s enough. I don’t have to fill the refrigerator. I don’t have to prepare a four-course feast every night. I don’t have to eat everything at one time. A little bit is enough. I fill my plate once and put the rest away for another meal. Not only do I waste less food, but I have lost 20 pounds since I started eating alone.
I’m learning what older widows figured out a long time ago. You go to a restaurant, eat half your meal, take the other half home and make another meal. One serving of pasta primavera with a salad is enough. Or one pork chop, a potato, and a sliced tomato. Or a bowl of chicken noodle soup and half a tuna sandwich.
Life is not a competition to see who can have the most food, or a race to see who can eat the most at any meal. When I was a kid, my brother and I rushed through our first course so we could grab seconds before they ran out. I don’t have to do that anymore. Nor do I have to be like my mother, always cooking what others wanted to eat, always taking the smallest portions for herself.
This afternoon, an hour before dinner, I ate a tiny chocolate cheesecake that I had just bought at the grocery store. I ate it walking around my house, moaning with pleasure at every bite. I didn’t have to share it, and nobody complained that it was too close to dinner or too fattening. I wanted it, I ate it; it was all mine.
When I eat from my new blue china plate, set on my single placemat on my family-sized mahogany table, I always read. I’ve got books and newspapers piled up next to me.
I’m learning to eat what I want, when I want, and how I want. Some days after a lunch of a grilled cheese sandwich, a perfectly ripe peach, and one chocolate chip cookie, or a dinner of raviolis with Italian sausage and a salad loaded with vegetables, dried cranberries, and nuts, I say to myself, “Man, this place serves good food.”
Sue Fagalde Lick escaped from the newspaper world and earned her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her essays and poems have appeared in Apple Valley Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Skirt! Magazine, Biting the Bullet: Essays on the Courage of Women, and other publications. Her books include Stories Grandma Never Told and Childless by Marriage. Website: www.suelick.com. She just cooked a meat loaf, which will keep her fed for a week. Add a microwaved potato and bag salad, and it’s a meal.