Here’s full disclosure: I am not an enthusiastic cook. I come by it honestly. When my brother and I used to ask my mom “What’s for dinner?” her response was, “How the hell should I know?” She taught dance classes and ran a dance company so her energies went elsewhere. Usually, Dad brought home pizza, subs, or fish boxes from a seafood carryout. Some days we’d come home and our combined cook/cleaning lady/babysitter, Lucy, would be standing over the stove with a Winston Salem hanging off her lip, about to drop ash into a pot of collard greens. Extra flavor. (I’m not kidding — those greens were good.) When Lucy wasn’t around, my brother and I devised all kinds of crappy snacks like butter and sugar sandwiches, and we invented a toxic kiddy cocktail we called “TeaGaySu,” which was Nestea powder, Gatorade, and copious amounts of sugar guzzled from a huge pitcher. It caused us to run around the house and yard, beating each other up until exhausted, then we faded into sugar comas until one of us revived and mixed a fresh pitcher of TeaGaySu. Anyway, we entertained and fed ourselves.
So I never realized how a segment of the population is still wired into hunter and gatherer mode, except that instead of tracking sabertooth tigers and growing corn, people go to Publix and Piggly Wiggly. There’s a neurosis at the other end of the pendulum, and its voice is the cry of “Did you get enough to eat?” “Don’t spoil your appetite!” and “What time do you want to eat?” “How are you going to cook that?” “Is that going to be enough?” Basically, it’s just having all kinds of food at all times, and talking about food all the time, and it is fucking exhausting.
My mother-in-law, Gloria, has taught me some new survival skills, like:
1. Hours — sometimes days — before going shopping, you must prepare a grocery list. If you already have an item in the cupboard, you’d better buy two more ( in case future generations roaming the earth after a nuclear disaster are hungry). That way, at least you’ll have it.
2. There are some items on a grocery list, like Caesar salad lettuce kits, that are purchased solely so they can rot in the vegetable drawer. They are not intended for actual consumption. In fact, if you make the mistake of preparing and eating one of these kits, an alarm is sounded that Caesar salad supplies are depleted and you must go out and buy another one immediately. That way, at least you’ll have it.
3. The discovery of a new restaurant is cause for anxiety, speculation, and advance reconnaissance. You need to pull the menu up online, study it, select what you’re going to have at least three days ahead of time, and every person in the household must announce their choice. You may make another selection once you arrive at the restaurant, but that’s highly irregular.
4. The most important part of dining out is securing leftovers in a styrofoam box and then a bag (to prevent spillage). One you get these leftovers home, you can put them in your refrigerator and talk about eating them later. Most likely, they’ll go bad, because all the styrofoam boxes look alike and you can never remember what’s in them. At some point, the boxes go into the garbage and this is extremely upsetting because NOW there’s an empty refrigerator and it must be replenished ASAP.
5. House guests ratchet the food drama up to an almost unbearable degree. Especially “special needs” guests, like vegetarians or teenagers. A guessing game ensues about what these people want to eat, what time will they arrive, what time they want to eat, where they want to eat their meals. It inevitably results in a bunch of food that never gets eaten. A few weeks ago, a perfectly good meatball sub sat forlorn all weekend simply because it couldn’t compete with the five pizzas, tacos, Burger King, 10 bags of Doritos, cookies, ice cream, and other goodies bought to feed our teenage son JR and his friend. Well, at least we had it. Just in case somebody wanted it.
6. Any trip to the grocery store is so exhausting that nobody wants to cook. At these times, it is best to supplement the $500 worth of food you’ve just bought by getting fast food or ordering delivery food. This way, everyone will get enough to eat, and as for the food that’s already there — well, it’s already there, just in case you want it.
A few days ago, a girlfriend came to visit. We were lolling around talking, and she said her mom is very similar. Every time she goes to Atlanta to see her mom, she is cross-questioned. “What do you want to eat while you’re here? I have to go shopping! Last time you were here you didn’t eat all the yogurt I bought.”
“Mom, please don’t worry about it,” she says, knowing she’ll be ignored.
So we’re talking about all this, and Gloria hollers down the stairs, “Mimi, I’m going to fix Sloppy Joes tonight! I think there’s some frozen hamburger in the freezer, but we may need to get some more next time we go to Publix.” This is still morning time.
“Okay, great,” I said, rolling my eyes ungratefully. Soon after, my friend and I went out to lunch, and yes, we did invite Gloria. She didn’t want to go, but she DID want to know where we were going and what we were going to eat.
Over lunch — which my friend and I completely acknowledged as another “women having lunch” food ritual — we decided that almost ALL human interactions center around food. Many people, especially women, love to control their situations by feeding others, shopping for food, sharing recipes, and even minimizing their own food intake as they watch others eat. Gloria, always an attractive, Twiggy-thin, woman, has always nibbled sparingly, while everyone around her chows down. She can starve herself, but at least nobody else is going to bed hungry. This is also common eating disorder behavior — if you watch others eat while denying yourself, you are strong.
To be fair, belatedly, I love to eat. I just resent the overwhelming effort it requires. My dad represents the happier side of food obsession. After my brother and I were grown and it became crystal clear that my mom was never going to love cooking, he started doing all the grocery shopping and all the suppertime prep. Nowadays, he is a virtuoso cook who shops daily for specific meals, treasures his recipe books, and works in the kitchen with an orchestra conductor’s finesse. He sets out his ingredients with as much pleasure as I choose clothes from my closet every day. Simply, it’s his passion, although my stepmom will attest he’s very messy. My stepmother Bobbi, who is also a gifted cook, sets an exquisite table with her many fun dishes and glasses. Meals are beautiful, delicious, relaxed, and I always think, ‘Okay, this is how to do it.’
Then I come home to: styrofoam plates, food that has to be packed away and stored fifteen minutes after eating, endless grocery lists of food that we never eat. I avoid the kitchen at all costs. My poor, ponytailed husband is a really good sport. He went upstairs tonight to prepare spaghetti and meatballs for everyone. As I was typing this, I heard, “Where’s your hairnet?!” “What kind of meatballs are those?” “How many are in the package?” “Will that be enough for JR?” “Why didn’t you eat that key lime pie?” “That’s it, we’re never buying any more pie!” “We might be out of spaghetti sauce.” (Trust me, we must have 30 jars.) “There’s no room for you to put leftovers in the fridge!” “What kind of pan are you using?” “We never used to fix spaghetti like that!”
Jesus Christ, just give me some vodka and TeaGaySu.