Cavalier about Croutons: A Reflection on Cooking, Food and Family

FullSizeRender I just finished my first Blue Apron meal – have you ever tried it? This is the Spiced-Rub Roast Beef with collard greens and potato salad. This is not a review of Blue Apron or cooking – as anyone who follows me knows, I don’t review recipes or food. 🙂 But the experience of trying this service got me thinking about food, cooking and relationships. The writer in me can’t help but think about the life parallels and metaphors.

My relationship to food is – like for a lot of people – complicated. To say I was a picky eater as a kid is an understatement. Nothing could touch on the plate. I had to eat one thing at a time before I could eat something else. I had many rules and rituals. I loved sugar. I snuck white bread with a huge layer of sugar whenever no one was looking. I loved to eat Cool Whip straight out of the tub (and put it back – yuck!!). Sugar is my cocaine. (Which is why I cut out desserts and sugar-laden foods six years ago.) There are many things I haven’t tried – burritos, collard greens until today. The list is long and ridiculous.

I am trying to change that and be more adventurous now. Never too late, right??

Meet my grandma: The woman who taught me the meaning behind the food.

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Grandma and Grandpa – 60+ years married.

My grandmother gave me a different perspective. She taught me that food was how you showed you care. There was value attached to every bite. Every crust.

Her name was Veronica. She was my hero. She made it through eighth grade, was Polish, second generation American, and she cooked like it was nobody’s business. Polish food, mostly – pierogis, beef and cabbage, desserts like kołaczki. (I have the secret family recipe for pierogis and still make them – it’s an all-day affair.) She was 4’11” but she was feisty. (Just ask the Arby’s cashier who didn’t give her her the 10% senior citizen’s discount on her coffee, circa 1976.) My grandfather’s nickname for her was “Shrimp.” She had bunions on her feet and had terrible problems trying to find shoes to fit. (My grandfather said it was because she was the youngest of 14 and always got hand-me-down shoes.) Her hands were gnarled like tree roots from years of cooking, cleaning and later, arthritis. I spent a lot of time with her and my grandfather growing up. I remember playing with my toys under the kitchen table as she and my mother and the other women prepared the food for big family meals.

I never felt more safe than I did under that table in that kitchen.

I was devastated when she died. We all were. I was 18. It was June, just before I left  for college. But this is not about that. This is about what she gave me. Not the gigantic void she left behind.

Leaves of lettuce. Lessons for a lifetime.
From the time I can remember, my grandmother always told me to eat everything on your plate, even the bread crusts, because you never know when you might need it. Not because children in Africa were starving. She didn’t really know about that back then. But she knew the pain of hunger during the Great Depression. She told me once, with deep regret and sorrow, that she took a few leaves of lettuce from a store to give my mother vegetables. (I feel bad even sharing this now, for the look on her face.) I could feel her pain, even though it had happened many years earlier – not that she couldn’t feed my mother. But that she stole. I was seven years old. I see her face even now. I forgave her immediately and wanted to hug her but knew she would not be comfortable with that.

How I wish I had.

When I went with her to the grocery store, I watched her limp on her arthritic legs, carefully examining every piece of fruit, every vegetable, everything she bought. She had a meager budget and she made it work. (After she died, my grandfather would give me ten dollars when I was ten years old and expect me to come out with $100 worth of food lol.) When we got home, I knew exactly where to place the apples in the fridge, the lettuce, the meat. Each item was valuable. Worthy of its own place on the shelf. There were rules. I followed them. I respected them. I respected her.

To this day, I can’t stand wasting food. I organize my food in the fridge the way my grandmother did. I make the effort to find ways to turn my leftovers into something else – anything to not make waste. Is it a way to honor my grandmother? Or just her influence?

Learning to cook
While I try to eat healthy and have been strict with myself on that front, I’ve never had serious food issues. I feel terrible for anyone who does. For me, it was more the fear of making a mistake with cooking, doing it wrong, not being perfect. I can follow a recipe as well as anyone. I am not “innovative” with either recipe deviation or seasoning. I am not the person who opens my pantry, surveys the contents and says – oh! I’ll put these six random things together and out comes something intriguing. 🙂 But give me a recipe and I’ll make it happen.

As a kid, I was never interested in the kitchen or cooking, much to my mother’s dismay, except when it came time to licking the spoon with raw chocolate cookie dough. (I know, yuck. But it was SOO good!!) My mom died when I was 25, so I started hosting holiday parties along with my older sister. I had some disasters. (Trying to cook multiple pastas for a “pasta bar” for 30 people comes to mind.) But as a mom, you have to cook. So I learned. I read recipe books. Voraciously. (I am a writer after all.) My mother-in-law taught me how to make a roux for homemade mac and cheese, among other things. I got pretty good. For a novice.

Where it all went wrong
Somewhere along the line, though, I also learned to be afraid. I thought I had to be perfect at everything. This extended to cooking. When I was married, I cooked all the time. My mother-in-law warned me before the wedding that things had to be a certain way or else. I was 24. I wanted so badly to do all the right things. I listened to her list. I tried not to laugh. I thought she was joking.

She wasn’t.

These rules went way beyond mine. No mayonnaise. Ever. Only one brand of peanut butter and sour cream were allowed. Never generic for anything. The butter had to be on the counter and soft, so it was not too cold to spread on toast. And when you spread it on the toast, it had to be done evenly and across the entire slice of bread, to each and every corner. Perfectly. Sandwiches had to have a certain number of slices of meat. Dinner meat had to be fresh, not frozen, even though with two little kids and working, getting to the store each evening before dinner was simply not feasible. I remember a big fight over me cooking frozen potatoes. I threw them in the garbage can in front of my kids, babies at the time. (I thought of my grandmother; she’d be simultaneously proud of my grand potato stand yet horrified by the wasted food.) I couldn’t even cut mushrooms right, without proper direction and guidance. I couldn’t do anything right. I tried to learn. I tried to get everything right.

Food is love. Right?

After each meal, I would always ask, “So, how was it?” And I would get a long stare. Maybe an “okay” if I was lucky. Mostly, I got a critique of what spice I didn’t use enough of, the meat was overcooked, what he would have done differently and what I should do next time. I got two “good’s” in 22 years.

Kinda makes you wanna give up, you know?

So I did.
When I went back to work full time and had to travel a lot, I left the cooking to him. I made vegetables up ahead of time, since he never made them and I wanted to make sure the kids had them while I was gone (lots of motherly guilt – knowing the veggies were there in those perfect containers made ME feel better). I’d come home and the perfect containers of broccoli and carrots would still be there, untouched. I was told it was ridiculous that I made them at all since “no one likes vegetables reheated.”

He loved cooking more than me. He took a lot of pride in it. Deep down, somewhere, I knew he needed that. So I let him have it. I played the role of “bad cook.” But that was my mistake. You should never put yourself down to make someone else feel better. No matter how much you think they need it.

Or how much you love them.

And then…
My first meal that I made for a friend in my home post-divorce, I was a hot mess. I burnt the garlic toast, unsure of the new oven and kitchen set up. My hands were shaking as I pulled out the baking pan and saw the blackened edges of the bread. I fought the panic attack, embarrassed by my reaction, thinking, what the fuck is wrong with me, I have a master’s degree (in writing, but still!) and I’m freaking out over burnt toast?? I overcooked the parmesan chicken. I drowned it in marinara sauce (ugh, store bought sauce, should have made homemade, this will be unacceptable). I berated myself for being so stupid. The salad came out perfect though! 🙂 I kept apologizing for everything.

I was terrified.

My dear friend, Meg, unaware of the behind-the-scenes drama, said casually, “No biggie! We make croutons out of the overcooked garlic toast pieces.” (I will be forever grateful to her for this.) At that moment, I realized how much I had allowed someone else to limit me. Define me.

I realized in that moment how badly I wanted to be cavalier about croutons.

Reclaiming my kitchen. Myself. One dish at a time.
Ordering Blue Apron and trying a new recipe today – spending money on something that was a risk, pushing my cooking boundaries – I am sitting here now feeling like, Hey! I did it! I don’t suck at it! I never made collard greens before, but so what?? (I didn’t like them – but I tried them.) I just did it. I wasn’t afraid. Those days are behind me. The fear creeps in at other times, unexpected, but here I am. Still standing. Cooking. And it looks pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. 🙂

I don’t blame my ex. I blame me. I should never have let someone else define who I was. About cooking. Or anything else. It is what it was. I’ve made my peace.

Cook – or plucky sidekick?
Truth? I will never “love” cooking. But there is something about making a meal for the people you love that will always make me happy. Opening a refrigerator and seeing it stocked with healthy, carefully prepared meals for the week, knowing my people are taken care of, always makes me feel centered somehow. Whether they like the food or not. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Today, I enjoyed cooking a new meal on a Sunday. I never thought once that I couldn’t do it. Or worried what anyone would think of it when I was done. I cooked just for the fun of it. My hands never shook, although my eyes rolled at the actual prep time.

Progress!!

All that said, I’d prefer to be the plucky sidekick in the kitchen, sitting at the counter with a glass of wine, chopping stuff as directed, making funny commentary or dancing around to music as someone else directs the culinary show. I’ve never done that, but it looks good in my head. I never like to eat what I’ve just spent two hours making. Food always tastes better when someone else makes it. Which reminds me…

I love you, Grandma. I hope you are eating yummy homemade pierogis somewhere and you know how much you meant to me. How much you influenced me and made me appreciate – everything. I think you’d like my spice-rubbed beef but I know you’d not like the collard greens either. 🙂 I wish I could cook you everything you never got to have. I wish I knew where that store was (and it still existed) so I could give them their lettuce leaves back and make you rest a little easier.

I miss you. Every day.

XOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXO

Writing and cooking music inspiration for this evening – positive, hopeful, lovely. Just like this day. Go cook something yummy!

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3 thoughts on “Cavalier about Croutons: A Reflection on Cooking, Food and Family

  1. Your grandmother pushed back against the depression, you pushed back against oppression. I’m betting your daughter won’t be pushed thanks to the strength that has been passed down by you and your grandmother 🙂

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