“Are you buying for an orphanage?” the grocery checker asked, eyeing the three overflowing carts that my mother and my two oldest brothers were maneuvering through the checkout line. “Because if you’re buying for an orphanage, you get a 10 percent discount.”
We were newcomers to this small town on Lake Michigan, where my dad had been hired to run the local pulp mill. So Mom smiled politely (one of the many things she did well) and said calmly, “No, just stocking our kitchen.”
Are you buying for an orphanage? It became one of our family stories, and we eight kids laughed about it. But Mom was humiliated and angry — so angry, she said later, that she was tempted to say yes and get the discount, even though she knew the truth would catch up with her. Small towns are like that.
“I can’t comprehend asking such a question,” she would say, shaking her head. “That town didn’t even have an orphanage.”
Here’s what I’m unable to comprehend: Planning, shopping, cooking, and supervising kitchen clean-up, day in and day out, year after year, for 34 long years, until the youngest of your eight kids (me!) finally leaves for college.
Here’s another thing I can’t comprehend: My mother never complained about the sheer volume of effort and creativity demanded by cooking for that many people. Not in my hearing, anyway. Of course, she did drink three pots of percolated coffee a day, and she read a lot of murder mysteries. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Unlike my calm, competent mother, I whine incessantly about food duties. Also, I swear a lot during all phases of food procurement, preparation, and clean-up. You’d think I was cooking for Napoleon’s army — or an orphanage — instead of for four people.
Occasionally I remember what my mom faced and wonder: What’s wrong with me? I have it so easy compared to her!
In my defense, however, I ask you to note the following:
I, on the other hand, must consider Items 1, 2 and 3, above, which makes it hard to stay out of the trap of Item 4. Our family consists of one vegetarian (the milk-carton-sucking teenager), one gluten-intolerant husband, one lactose-intolerant preteen, three pets whose food allergies continue to surprise and confuse me, and one omnivore. No prizes for guessing I’m the last one on that list.
The dinner scene at my house undoubtedly has my mother rolling her eyes (and probably flapping her angel wings in bemusement). Picture, if you will, the supposedly simple pasta dinner: Two large pots of boiling, salted water. One package of wheat pasta and one package of rice pasta and two different cooking times. One pan with homemade vegetarian spaghetti sauce. Another pan with the same spaghetti sauce and sweet Italian sausage. One loaf of garlic bread in the oven. Two slices of non-gluten bread cooling in the toaster. A small bowl of Parmesan cheese for those who can tolerate it. A big bowl of greens with dressing on the side, because the kids hate “salad sauce.” Sliced apples and peppers for those who don’t like greens.
The results? Chaos, impatience, cold pasta, and colder non-gluten toast. And, yes, swearing, another thing I never knew my mom to do in the kitchen, except that time the pressure cooker exploded and we had to wipe split-pea soup off every surface, including the ceiling.
So you can roll your heavenly eyes, Mom, but here’s what I’ve learned about juggling intolerances and dietary preferences:
In fact, if I’d been my mom, I probably would have said to that grocery clerk, “Hell, no, I’m not buying for an orphanage,” and then we would have been known as “that family whose mom swore at Emmeline down at the A&P,” because small towns are like that.
Instead, my friends told me they loved being at our house, because my mom was kind and our home smelled like fresh bread. I’ll bet my mom would take that over a 10 percent orphanage discount any day.
Meg Descamp doles out advice at her blog; her book Slug Tossing and Other Adventures of a Reluctant Gardener was published by Sasquatch Books in 1998.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
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