As Alan and I were driving to the hardware store one day, we passed a sign in front of a church. It was written in those black plastic block letters that clip into a white ribbed frame surrounded by pontifical brick:
Mother of Sorrows
So true, I said solemnly. I didn’t really hold anything against a good chicken dinner, at least not as much as God apparently did. But I was raised in a tradition where it was best to assume that divine words were profound, even when one does not fully understand them. Alan thought it sounded more like a country song – also profound, he noted – and began to rhyme lines in a faux country twang.
I’ve only had a few religious conversations out here in the country, but I’ve never known quite what to make of them. They always seem to come out of nowhere, and emerge from a conversation I’m pretty sure had nothing to do with divinity. One woman, a mother of a friend of a coworker, started by talking about how wonderful the water was back in the day where she used to live. Cool and clear, and so pure you could drive up by the side of the road and scoop it up and drink it. It was so cold it hurt your stomach, she said as a means of endorsement. Before I knew it, her story water was polluted and she was sure it was caused by all the sin, you know. People are just so cruel these days. God must be punishing us.
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this theory. Sin has apparently caused a lot of things I’d previously attributed to humanity: littering, pollution, climate change… I suppose in a way we were both right; her version just added an extra step.
As for drinking something scooped off the roadside, the only person I’d ever seen do anything like that was a random guy I once saw walk past a garbage bin, pull a take-out coffee cup from the trash, remove the top, and drink its contents. I imagine it was pretty cold, too. My stomach definitely hurt watching him. He had just come from a bar, so perhaps it was the demon drink that drove him to it. All that sin, you know.
I watched him from a restaurant window where Alan and I were having dinner one night. Alan had ordered a flatbread and I had a chicken sandwich. As I watched the scene unfold, Alan finished his meal ahead of me. The waiter came by and made a joke about his empty plate and my barely touched food. Can I get you anything else? Alan asked for a glass of wine and I requested an extra napkin. My chicken dinner was whisked away from me before I could even blink. Sorrow indeed.
Alan stared in horror. Taking away someone’s food before they were finished was an unforgivable sin. Why hadn’t I corrected the waiter? It was fine, I assured him. I’m not one to make a fuss. It would come back in a box, after all. I’d just eat it like that. It wasn’t like he was going to throw it in the trash for that other fellow.
Alan let it drop, but it grated on him, I could tell. Over the years I’ve learned that he doesn’t put many transgressions in the capitol offense category, but most of the ones he does are food-related. It was a learning curve when we first met. I had to get used to the rules, food-wise. There were things that were sacrosanct, and others, high crimes and misdemeanors. Butter and wine, garlic and salt – these were always good, and should be used generously. Soap on the cast iron skillet, well-done anything – verboten. I had to learn them all, and studied intently.
I grew up in a home where scrambled eggs were cooked with a can of cream of mushroom soup, and it was a point of pride for my mother to feed our family as cheaply as possible. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that most people did not put oatmeal in their hamburgers. When I asked Alan why he’d missed that key ingredient one day, he told me firmly that hamburgers have ONE ingredient. Any more was sacrilege.
As a child, I remember eating things like city chicken. I don’t know if this a real thing anywhere else, but our version involved cubes of some sort of gristly meat jammed onto short wooden skewers accompanied by boiled frozen lima beans. I love my mom, but this dish was the Mother of Sorrows for me.
The lima beans were another sore spot. I haven’t touched them since reaching the age of independence. One of my students once told me she discovered she was allergic to lima beans – she’d ended up in the emergency room twice before making the connection. I wish I’d had that allergy as a child. It wouldn’t take me two ER visits to figure it out, either. It would have been the first thing I’d eliminated, just in case. Instead of allergies, my childhood maladies involved braces on my teeth. I had to give up all foods chewy and gooey and wonderful, and stick with textureless mush. All the sorrow, and all the lima beans.
Alan had his share of childhood food oddities, to be sure. There were some of the usuals, like green bean casserole and the like, but there were also some I couldn’t even fathom. He told me about one of his mom’s favorite delicacies when he was young: a pineapple ring with a slice of Philadelphia cream cheese, topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip mixed with sugar, and sprinkled with paprika. You ate that?? I asked. I couldn’t even put that into a food category. It sounded like the sort of dish someone would make if challenged to create a sculpture using only condiments.
As for me, I don’t blame my mom for her lack of culinary finesse. She was only doing what she’d been taught. I’ve had my grandmother’s cooking, and it wasn’t pretty. Mostly she made sandwiches, which was a safe default. Who could hate a sandwich? Lunchmeat between two perfect slices of white bread, with precisely six chips stacked on the side. For dessert, exactly two sandwich cookies. She lived a good drive away, so lunch made sense.
I didn’t really experience her cooking until Thanksgiving one year, when she invited us all out, then proceeded to feed seven grown people a turkey loaf the size of a can of spam. The can said eight servings, so there you go. She cut it into perfect little half inch slices, adorned with an equally gelatinous slice of cranberryish-ness. When everyone had their piece, eyes darted around the card table but no one felt bold enough to take the last slice. She wrapped it up for leftovers, remarking how she’d been afraid it might not be enough, but clearly it had worked out fine. Grandmother of sorrows indeed. We all hit the nearest Wendy’s on the way home.
My grandmother has only been inside a Wendy’s once, to my knowledge. She offered to take us all out to lunch one day, and she had a coupon, so there we went. It was a 45 minute drive into town, which she spent the entirety of asking my grandfather if he’d remembered to bring along the movies they’d borrowed from the library – the DDT’s, or DBD’s, or whatever the kids were calling them these days. Eyes darted around the backseat as we tried hard not to giggle.
When we finally arrived, it was the peak of rush hour in the small town’s business district. You probably saw us that day – we were the large family behind the tiny gray-haired woman making the cashier repeatedly explain the difference between the chicken sandwiches as the line backed out the door. My grandfather finally broke the logjam with a For God’s sake, Betty, one has sesame seeds on the bun and the other doesn’t. Just pick already. I felt the divine intervention, for sure.
I suppose my daughter probably had some sort of childhood food trauma caused at least in part by me. I certainly didn’t know how to cook in our early years, and we ate a lot of pasta. We all do what we have to to stretch a dollar. I spared her the lima beans and city chicken, but I’m pretty sure she concocted something along the lines of that pineapple-cream cheese-mayo thing when left to fend for herself.
As it was, she was a master of substitution. She and a friend once made a batch of brownies when I wasn’t home. She couldn’t quite tell the difference between flour and cornstarch, and chose unwisely. She assumed we were out of cocoa, so she added chocolate chips instead. Oh, and baking powder? She must’ve skipped that one completely. When she couldn’t find the cake pan, she used muffin tins and guessed at the baking time. The results were small, round, sickly sweet hockey pucks plastered to bottom of the tins. She and her friend both insisted on trying them, even though they were pretty sure that wasn’t what brownies were supposed to look like. By the time I got home, they were both moaning on the couch, holding their stomachs.
I tried to give her some guidance after that, since she had clearly expressed some interest. She wasn’t the easiest to teach – well – anything. A stubborn streak plus easily distracted plus wads of defensiveness made things tricky. It was best to stay in separate rooms.
We started simple. I talked her through a box of mac and cheese remotely. She did everything right except drain the water, which somehow never left the pan. She insisted she liked it soupy anyway. The next time we tried spaghetti. Boil water, add pasta, cook, drain. I kept it to as few syllables as possible. My key mistake that time was leaving an etch bath nearby – I’d been working with some metal and put the tub on the counter and stepped away for a moment. She drained my etch bath, but left the water in the pasta. Mother. Food. Trucker.
I gave up after that. I figured she’d learn on her own when she got desperate enough. Or, maybe she’d end up pulling coffee cups out of the trash – who knew. As a mother, you can only ever hope for the best, but you can’t control it. Then in high school she got a job at a coffee shop/ bakery, and now magically makes perfect cappuccinos, crepes, and macarons, and corrects people when they pronounce them wrong. Righteous indeed.
I suppose her coffee shop job taught her many things I simply could not – including how to master that caffeinated beverage. I wasn’t a coffee drinker when she was young. I’d tried once in college – the local bodega sold those weird flavored coffees you stirred into a cup. It didn’t dawn on me that if it didn’t need a filter, it probably wasn’t real coffee. I was so sick to my stomach after drinking it that I didn’t try again until decades later.
One day when she was young after we’d moved into our house, an appliance broke. A family friend of my dad’s generously offered to fix it for me. I offered him a cup of coffee in return. It just seemed like the sort of thing you say to a guest. I hadn’t owned a house long enough to be sure. I assumed he would politely turn it down, as would have been my response. When he accepted happily, I panicked.
I had a coffee maker that someone had given me as a housewarming gift, but I’d literally never taken it out of the box, let alone learned how to use it. I quickly unwrapped it and tried to figure out what went where. I did okay until it came to putting in the coffee. I pulled a dusty bag from the corner of the cabinet and stared for a moment, unsure of how much to put in. A third of a cup should be good, I guessed randomly. It didn’t look like much in the giant brown filter. I put in a bit more just in case and pushed the button for one cup.
As I handed him the mug, I watched nervously. He took a sip, then did that open-mouth exhale that said everything was okay. I breathed a silent sigh of relief. Then he stared into the mug for an eternal moment. Well, that’ll put hair on your chest, he finally commented, but politely kept sipping. I quietly slid out of the room. It wasn’t until later that I found out he’d assumed I drank it like that, and questioned my dad thoroughly later.
By the time I met Alan, I’d mastered a few culinary things, most of them involving pasta. I could make a lasagna with tofu in place of ricotta that fooled most experts. I perfected a flexible dish I referred to only as “pasta with stuff on top”. I stayed away from most meat, as the surest way to reveal your ignorance in the kitchen is to cook a food you can ruin so easily. The only one I tried to master was chicken, but it rarely ended in more than a plate full of sorrow.
Thankfully Alan was mostly interested in my wine cabinet anyway. It was filled with wonderful vintages I couldn’t even pronounce. I’d fallen in love with the cabinet – rich dark wood with a beautiful embossed metal door. I’d splurged on the purchase, feeling very adult at the time. I stored tea in the enclosed part, and filled the shelves below with bottles of wine I’d gotten as housewarming gifts a decade earlier. I didn’t drink. To me, wine was decor – a sentiment that would horrify most of my friends if they knew. The problem was, anyone who visited saw that lovely cabinet and assumed a bottle of wine would be a thoughtful gift, so I kept getting more. By the time he came into my life, I had quite an enviable collection – which he was more than happy to enjoy for me.
Alan treats food and drink the way others might regard a religious experience. A good meal or a fine glass of wine is to be savored and revered. He’ll philosophize now and again, but refrains from telling other people what to do. If they want to live a sheltered existence and eat crappy food and drink cheap wine, that’s on them. He’s judgmental, but only from a distance.
He wasn’t always like that. He grew up on a farm, so his childhood involved fresh fruits and vegetables as a matter of course. He ate his breakfast eggs still warm. They went from hen to pan, without a chance to get cold in between. Because it is a rite of childhood to take everything one has for granted, this meant that he valued food that came in bags and cans and tubs over that which nature provided. Hamburgers from the drive-through, gelatinized beets, margarine… all the wonders the grocery store and fast-food chains held. If packaged food wasn’t superior, then why did it come wrapped like Christmas? It was a gift to be opened. It took him a long time to come back around, but now he sees processed food as a sin.
As for religion, one of our favorite establishments has a policy they teach their staff: all conversation is allowed, except politics, religion, and NASCAR. The first two keep them free from verbal danger zones like littering, pollution, and climate change. Whatever side of the divide you’re on regarding the sins of mankind, they’re carefully avoided. As for NASCAR, I don’t know much about it other than what would already fall in the pollution category, but I’m pretty sure chicken dinners should be added to the list. There is nothing that will make people more profoundly righteous than that plate full of sorrow.