05 May 2009

slinging hash

I am a housewife. Some people may call me a stay-at-home-mom, I prefer to call a spade a spade. I am highly educated and intelligent, and I like being a housewife. It is my trade, and my dharma. Like many jobs, housewifery can be extremely dull. The financial renumeration sucks, but it is also the most satisfying, rewarding job I've ever held. So in addition to the child care and cleaning, and diplomacy, one of the things I do to amuse myself, which also happens to be an essential part of the job description, is to cook.

Although I think she would deny this, my mother hated to cook, so I did not learn at her knee, but from books, when I was in my twenties, after I set up my own household. Marcella Hazan and Laurie Colwin were my constant companions. I had a lot of time on my hands for such pursuits, as a graduate student in art history. And while I loved my studies, in retrospect, I found the work I did in my kitchen, after my schoolwork was done for the day, far more engaging. Art history taught me about the sweep of history, while cooking taught me how life is lived.

It is many years later, and I have three children now. I prepare at least two hot meals a day, 6 or 7 days a week. (There are packed lunches for school, which my husband takes care of, to my great appreciation.) My children usually get a hot breakfast; pancakes, or french toast, a quick bread, oatmeal, cocoa. There are toaster waffles and english muffins, and cold cereal in rotation as well. But the truth for me is, it is that while cooking from scratch may be messier, it is not much harder to prepare most of these items from scratch than from mixes, and since I do not have to run to catch a bus or train after taking my kids to school, I have the luxury of being able to clean up the mess, at my leisure. As long as its done by lunchtime, I'm happy.

When other mothers hear what I make for breakfast, I am frequently confronted with reactions of intimidated disbelief, which is not at all my intention. I do not think I am a better mother for cooking this way; it simply brings me great satisfaction. I do find it curious that as someone who cooks for their family, I am the exception to the norm, that cooking from scratch, one of the most ordinary of things, has taken on overtones of a radical choice.

Our family sits down to dinner, in the dining room (the kitchen only seats four, and I find it much more relaxing not to look at the prep mess), while eating. We do not answer the phone during dinner, much as it makes my children squirm. We light candles and use cloth napkins.

It sounds very serene, and perhaps insufferable? In reality, we have as many moments of tranquility as bursts of savagery. We frequently have to remind our younger patrons that this is not a clothing optional establishment; we will serve you without a shirt or shoes, but we do draw the line between your bare ass at the table. I often have to scramble to clear the folded laundry off the table so as to set it for dinner. The savage, AKA the three-year old, spends a good portion of the meal under the table, which we've taken to calling his lair, eating off the floor. We sometimes yell at the children, but more often, we talk; about school or politics or current events. We play parlor games, and try to teach our children about the give and take that is the art of conversation. All this in about 20 minutes; we've learned through trial and error that it is unrealistic to expect children to sit for much longer.

Dinnertime is both delightful and exasperating, but I believe the family meal is central to family cohesion. Food is one of the best, most primal ways I know to express love. Were I to try, I could probably track the dissolution of my parent's union to the timbre of the family meals. By the time I was in high school, everyone prepared their own meal, usually involving something boiled in a bag or heated in the microwave, and we ate in staggered fashion You sat when your meal was ready, rarely ate the same thing that the person sitting next to you was eating, and when you were through, you cleaned up after yourself and went on with your business. Even as an adolescent, this struck me as sad.

The exception was Sundays, when my did cook, and when she served the meal, she often did so with the caveat that she had now completed her weekly obligation, and we could eat the leftovers until the next Sunday. Needless to say, this did not make me feel very loved, but more like an albatross, as if cooking for us was a terrible burden. In hindsight, I have come to look on this with more empathy; such is the lot for those depressed, and unhappily married.

I don't cook complicated things--my customers are ages 10, 6 and 3--and while I believe we are doing children a huge disservice to assume all they will eat is pizza, hot dogs and chicken nuggets, I have found that there are limits to what their palates will tolerate. Rare is the occasion when all three of my children are uniformly happy about what's being served. If two out of three like it, I call it success. And no matter how you slice it, clean-up is a bitch--my husband and think long and hard before serving rice; have you ever spent the later part of the evening plucking dried grains from the rug? By the time dinner is over, we are desparate to move you children along to bed.

I have a few guidelines as to what makes a reasonable meal with children. The key is to manage expectations; with dinner as a paradigm for so much of life, my golden rule is not perfect, but good enough. Where dinner is concerned, this translates to my two out of three rule. At this point I find it too challenging to cook a protein, starch and vegetable for one meal, so usually, there's two out of three, preferable protein + vegetable. One-dish meals are a great option, and I try to do these often. If it's not a one-dish meal, there is generally one item I spend a good amount of time on, never two or three. I try to limit our meat consumption to 2-3 times a week. Vegetables are usually prepared very simply, and are often frozen. I have come to rely greatly on frozen vegetables, cooked in the microwave and seasoned with a bit of salt and butter. The truth is, Trader Joe's frozen Haricot Verts are pretty good, and when last week, for the first time since last spring I served fresh green beans, my 6-year old rejected them. If my kids eat two out of three items on their plate, I am satisfied (although I am frustrated internally). Similarly, if two of my children enjoy a meal and one rejects it outright, I consider it a success. When everyone likes the entire meal the heavens open up, and there is much rejoicing (quietly, on my part; if I were to let on how pleased I was, it would surely ruin things the next time.)

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