Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Dinner at the Kramers

My mother is hip for a long-time AARP member.  She still works a full-time job, commuting into Manhattan by subway.  She likes sex in the City, American Idol, and reading my blog.  Granted, she couldn’t tell you the name of a song by Justin Timberlake, but she has seeen him on “The View.” 

The one aspect about her that is completely old school is her view of “dinner.”  She is stubbornly holding onto the idea that dinner is some sort of special family time, like in TV shows from an earlier era.

When I was a child, dinners in the Kramer family were as close to Ozzie and Harriet as we ever became.  I tossed this lifestyle away after I left home.  Post college, dinner was a sandwich or a frozen burrito.  When I got married, Sophia classed things up, but since we didn’t have kids, dinner never really became the traditional family time.  We ate dinner while watching that day’s “All My Children.”   Dinner was frequently take-out Chinese food, and we usually rushed through the meal.  On the nights when Sophia cooked her delicious, but elaborate meals, I frequently spent more time dreading doing the dishes than eating my meal.

My mother is not a good cook.  She is efficient, seemingly making a ten course meal in ten minutes.  Her food is unfussy, served on mismatched dishes, but in form and function, her dinners are as regimented as a Julia Child recipe.

My mother’s meals always start with a fruit appetizer.  If you ever went to a Catskills resort or a bar mitzvah in your childhood, you would know that every dinner starts with a grapefruit or some fruit.  My mother’s favorite is a piece of melon.

“Why do we need this for?” I asked tonight.

“You always start dinner with a piece of fruit.  It readies the palate.”

“No one eats fruit before dinner anymore.  This is dessert.”

“No, cake is dessert.  This is an appetizer.”

After the fruit appetizer, comes the salad — always served out of this old wooden bowl with wooden spoon and fork.  Why?  I hate NO IDEA.  The only other time I ever saw this wooden bowl was in some old-fashioned “steak place” in Los Angeles, which hasn’t changed its menu (other than the prices) since 1938.  In this restaurant, they even serve you that ancient “wedge of lettuce,” which is basically a slab of iceberg lettuce thrown on your plate. 

I never liked iceberg lettuce.  My mother would still be buying iceberg lettuce if I didn’t finally teach her the ways of other lettuce, like green leaf.  Now, she has joined the 21st Century and buys her lettuce in those Dole lettuce bags. Her salads are always the same:  lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and some sugary bottled dressing that was on sale, usually honey mustard or French dressing.

In the winter, there might be soup after the salad, but we skip that during the summer months.

The main entree always consists of meat, chicken, or fish and TWO vegetables.  Always TWO.  One vegetable is the “fun” carby one — potato, yam, or instant rice, and the second is  the green “good for you” type — peas and carrots, broccoli, string beans.  Other than potatoes and corn on the cob, I do not recall my mother ever serving a fresh vegetable. They are either of the canned or “frozen” variety, and they always come out as soggy and overcooked as the ones you get at Denny’s.  Still, it’s not worth trying to change her ways.  Who am I to talk?  I’ve been so lazy in the past, that my dinner was eating vegetables straight from the can.

I AM trying to change my mother’s portion control.  For some reason, she has never been a leftover keeper, other than saving over food during big events, like holiday dinners.  Maybe her mother was told by her mother to always finish her plate — whatever was on it.   So, whatever is cooked is served, and is eaten.  If she has a big can of peas that she bought on sale, a bucket-full-of-peas is plopped on the plate.  We each receive a piece of chicken that could be turned into 20 chicken McNuggets.”

“This is ridiculous.  We don’t need so much food.”

“So, don’t eat it.”

“You end up eating what is your plate.  It is human psychology.  I read a book that says when you go to a restaurant you should immediately bag half of the food to take home.  You’ll be just as satisfied eating half the food.”

“I don’t like taking home food.”

“Why not?

“It never tastes the same.”

“You always say the leftovers taste better the next day, like during Passover.”

“That’s different.  I know how to reheat the Jewish food.  I’m never going to cook the Chinese food as well as someone Chinese.”

There is no arguing with logic like that.

Sophia told me to buy my mother a microwave to reheat leftovers.  My mother was always afraid of microwaves because of the “radiation.”  I’m going to be honest — I never had a microwave for the same reason.  Fears are inherited.

After the main course in the Kramer household, it is time for dessert.  Dessert is one area which has changed over the times.  I’m frankly embarrassed to tell you what “dessert” used to be when I was a child.  It was literally served in three courses.  I’m not joking —

First there was some sort of fruit cup or applesauce.  I know this sounds almost unbelievable — especially since we BEGAN the meal with fruit, but this fruit was to “temper” the palate — to ready ourselves for the real dessert.  This was the only part of the meal where I was a bratty child who wouldn’t eat his food.  Unlike many children, I loved my soggy vegetables.  What utterly disgusted me were these sugary canned fruit cocktails that my father loved.  Holy Crap, did I hate that crap!  Canned peaches.  Canned plums.  Ugh. Luckily these were eventually phased out as my parents learned the word “cholesterol” and changed their menu to the equally unhealthy low-fat, but full of trans-fats and sugar products which were the rage fifteen years ago.

After the fruit cup, was the real dessert — maybe ice cream or chocolate Jello pudding.

So, the meal is over, right?  Nope. 

No dinner is complete without coffee or tea.  Yes, we had to have coffee after dinner, getting me hooked on caffeine at an early age.  I blame my mother for my need to go to Starbucks. 

Of course, we couldn’t just have coffee without something to “nosh” on — so we would have a few cookies with the coffee or tea.

Three course dessert! 

Gradually, my mother realized that this was insane, and our dessert was truncated.   Today, we usually grab a  non-sugar ice cream bar an hour after dinner.  No fruit cocktail, cookies, or even coffee.

The times they are a changing.

55 Comments

  1. Dinners, in spite of your phobias/anxieties now wrapped up in them, sound like leisurely affairs. They would have had to be in order to consume all that food! How long was the average Kramer family dinner? I’m betting at least an hour or so. I can just hear all the little kids banging on the door: “C’mon Neil, hurry UP awreddy! It’s gettin’ dark out!”

  2. My grandmother and your mother went to the same school of entertaining. Frightening, but she lived into her nineties, so she had to be doing something right. I force fed my brother the canned fruit just so I didn’t have to eat it.

  3. Oddly, this makes me want to come have dinner at your house.

  4. “Quit yer bellyachin and eat your fruit! There are people starving in China!!!”

    Heard frequently at Cold War era family dinners.

    (P.S. At my house we always had fresh fruit and thought canned, processed sugary fruit was A BIG TREAT.)

  5. Are you sure she isn’t my mother-in-law? She sounds a bit like Josepine, only I like to call her Marie Barrone. (It’s all done out of love…)

  6. i never understood the grapefruit at the beginning thing, but i must admit i’m guilty of serving two vegetables with my protein.

  7. It was very similar with my parents, apart from the healthy vegetables.

    And my parents had a four-course dessert–the forth one was a cigarette.

  8. funny – while on vacation this last week at my brother’s house, we talked about the importance of “family dinners”.

    When we were kids, every night we had to be home at 5:30pm for dinner. If not, we had better called by 4:30pm with a good excuse (usually having dinner with a friend’s family instead). The continued thru high school (even my hardcore punk rocker days), and still happens when I am at my parents’ house visiting.

    It is the one thing I really miss about living alone. I love Friday Shabbat dinners with friends just for that reason.

  9. Wow, we grew up so similarly. My mother, a dietitian!, always served either cantaloupe or Del Monte Fruit Cocktail to start the meal. Remember the hot-pink ‘cherries’ in that concoction?

  10. I grew up with family dinners and insist on them now, but it’s just a basic square meal: meat, starch, vegetable, and -if he kids eat enough dinner- a cookie or popsicle. But my mom is a TERRIBLE cook, although we phrase this as “Mom doesn’t like to cook.” Dinner might be rice mixed with tuna and cream of mushroom soup, or it might be boiled hot dogs, or burritos with nothing but refried beans and cheese. Somehow my dad still managed to get fat. I figured out later on that he always eats lunch and dinner out, then comes home and pretends to eat my mom’s “food.”

  11. Did you guys start eating at 3pm so you’d be done in time for bedtime? It’s a wonder you are so thin! 😉

  12. Ah, Neil. I cooked all day on Saturday and you never showed up. Now I see why! 🙂 Hope to catch you again before you head back out west, whenever that may be.

  13. Rhea — I’m wondering how many of us now have medicial issues related to that red dye #5 that was in those cherries.

  14. Caitlinator — Oh, shit. I am so sorry. Here I was sitting at home all depressed, when I was supposed to go to your party. I am so disappointed. I have no excuse other than being unorganized. Do you have any leftovers?

  15. They do not make women like that anymore…AMAZING!!!

    I bow in respect to such effort.

    Now…YOU DON’T OWN A MICROWAVE???? It scares you? Like monsters under the bed? No way.

  16. Ah the good old days…

  17. You have just described dinner at my great Aunt Lillian’s (ZiiL) house. Always the melon slice, the appetizer (tuna mousse was a big favorite), the salad with iceberg, unripe tomato, cuke slices without the peels, red onion slices, and occasionally sprigs of raw broccoli. Entree was fish or chicken as she didn’t like to cook beef. Always a couple of veggies, always bread in a bread basket with butter/margerine on the side. Then tea or coffee, a bit of a nosh like cookies, and ice cream.

    Plus, she used her sterling silver (which I’ve inherited and the stuff weighs a ton) and good china EVERY NIGHT. Not just for company. Every night.

    God I miss her. WHen she left Brooklyn for Lun guy lund, she got fancier. She was a wonderful woman, funny and saucy and just a total delight.

  18. She reminds me of my grandmother who always served the most god awful vegetables known to man. Loved the woman to bits, but damn, her idea of cooking was to stick in a pot for 34 hours.

    Funny my parents always do dessert. I think except for special occasions, we don’t get it.

  19. Canned fruit.
    I could DIE.

  20. wow. WE don’t do dinner at our house either. its a what do you want to eat while we watch a movie before bed!

    i think my times need a changing.

    i hate canned fruit. especially canned fruit medley/salad. yikes.

  21. What? No sliced pineapple with shredded cheese?

  22. That story is like a Seinfeld episode. I come from the Salinas Valley where over half the fresh veggies in the US are grown. The only canned veggies we ever ate were the things my mom canned herself, like green beans and bacon. YUM.

  23. Oh, Neil, this is too, too funny. It’s a promo for a pilot, and if I were a Suit, I’d buy it right now.

  24. how about pineapple with cottage cheese…mmmmmmm.

  25. My parents still believe in the family dinner. Even though every one of their kids is grown, gone, married and middle-aged with a family of their own. Food is their “love language” and Oh…may god help you if you refuse dessert at their house. It is a declaration of war to decline food. Too bad for you, if you’re on Weight Watchers! Tough toenails if you have the dreaded “dia-bee-tus” and are being extra careful with your diet. Refusal is tantamount to refusing love. Or it tells them that you’re able to discipline yourself food-wise and they? Are not. The other night I said “no, thank you” to an Oreo after dinner. My father went so far as to suggest that I had an eating disorder. Someone help me.

  26. LOL….I’d weigh 300 pounds in no time!

  27. So familiar — my parents kept this up the whole of the 80s. Now there are entire women’s studies classes devoted to deconstructing these meals. Sometimes I miss the after supper applesauce.

  28. My dad loved that canned fruit cocktail too, with those mushy, grayish grapes… ick! But we always ate a bunch of fresh fruits and vegetables on the sides, without any sauces or toppings. My husband found this to be odd at first, “A green salad full or raw vegetables, a bowl of cut-up fresh fruit, a bowl of raw sugar-snap peas and fresh tomatoes from the garden?” His mom coated everything in cheese sauce! Or left out all vegetables completely.

  29. You know, a lot of European cultures really enjoy long dinners like that, and I think that they live longer on average than Americans, despite the drinking and the smoking… so maybe your mom is on to something!

  30. My God Neil, if I ate all that I would weigh 300 pounds. Next to your mom I eat nothing for dinner :-). My mom still eats canned fruit and I keep trying to tell her to go fresh, but as unhealthy as our meals were, we only ever had salad, meat and veggies(canned of course :-).

  31. The tropical fruit salad in passion juice is the only canned fruit I will eat, and it’s a favorite.

    I think your mom should adopt me. If someone — anyone — cooked for me I would never criticize it, especially if they made three deserts followed by coffee.

    Such a spoiled boy you were!

  32. Jane — and then she washed all the dishes herself as my father and I watched TV.

  33. I love it when you hint at your upcoming posts with me on IM. I feel like I have an insider’s track on what’s coming next on Citizen of the Month.

  34. Dana — I consider that the try-out in Philly before the show opens on Broadway.

  35. wait…what? you are afraid of microwaves? seriously?

  36. I am also afraid of microwaves. When I was young, I stuck a cup of noodles in the hot box without water. I almost burned down the house.

  37. Lucky lucky you. Your mother is a GENIUS! Trying to get “5 a day”(fruits and vegetables)every day is not always so easy. Your mom can do it flawlessly all in one meal. And you shall live to be one gazillion years old. Brava to her.
    Personally, I consider Mountain Dew to be two fruits–lemon, lime–and Fritos is corn, a veggie. There’s three down at breakfast. That, and a couple of Advils, and you’ve got the breakfast of champions. If you have coffee with vanilla bean ground with it I believe that makes four. Yes!

  38. I grew up somewhat similarly. Usually a half grapefruit to start… Canned peaches, canned fruit cocktail or homemade compote to end. Tea always followed.
    As for the big wooden salad bowl and salad servers — they showed up at our table too. (don’t belittle them; those things are pretty expensive these days)

    You’re home for a while to share the meals, Neil, but does your mom normally cook for herself and eat like this every day?

  39. 1. Fruit cocktail makes me gag
    2. Minnesotans and Turks have the whole e”at our food or you will offend me” thing big time.
    3. Since when is rice a vegetable?
    4. Why is “NO IDEA” stuck in your post? I certainly have no idea why.
    5. Midwesterners have all these gross fruit salads, my least favorite was a bed of iceberg lettuce, a glob of cottage cheese, topped with canned pears (at least ours were home-canned). Don’t even get me started on “jello salads” like shredded cabbage in lime Jello! (Yes, really.)

  40. child of the 70-'s

    July 28, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Nothing wrong with family dinners – in fact I think it’s quite important that we keep that tradition going, as difficult as it is. But more importantly, dinner together should be without the TV on or sitting in front ot the TV. I grew up on the can veggies and though I can’t stand eating can veggies, if I had to eat one type it would peas. Just don’t like frozen or fresh peas.

  41. child of the 70-'s

    July 28, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    Btw, lettuce wedges are still the rage, especially in upscale, high priced steakhouses such as Ruth Chris’s Steakhouse -http://www.ruthschris.com/Menu/Salads-and-Sides

  42. Please clarify: Your mom likes “sex in the City” or “Sex in the City”? BIG difference.
    I love Dole’s tropical fruit salad, but only in the winter when fresh fruit is not as plentiful.

  43. i love this post, and agree that fears are inherited. it dawned on me recently that this is what they mean by the phrase “the sins of the father/mother”. and, most of the time the parents don’t even know they do it.

  44. Oy, we always had that canned fruit cocktail and it was a big deal if you got the carcinogenic pink cherry! I have great nostalgia for all those items including canned vegetables but I would never eat that crap today (unless I was served a meal by your lovely mother and then I’d be very gracious!). I do like, on occasion, a nice hunk of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese dressing. Mmmm. We often had Jello for dessert (zero nutritional value) topped with non-dairy Cool Whip (arrrrgh!) or perhaps instant butterscotch pudding. Among the Chicago Jews, only the rich people had fruit for an appetizer. Show off! (Your mom sounds like the Debbie Reynolds character in the Albert Brooks movie, “Mother.”)

  45. Oh my god Neil I just about fell off my couch reading this. My grandparents always had us start every meal with a half of pink grapefruit, while we watched Lawrence Welk, eating on t.v. tables

  46. Cog — I never heard of the sliced pineapple with shredded cheese? What type of cheese?

    Toronto Pearl — She says she cooks like this for herself, too. She really prepares it fast, despite it sounding like a lot.

    Danny — I think she was imitating the hotels in the Catskills.

    Cruisin-Mom — We had TV tables too. That was for a special treat — like eating a TV dinner during some important TV show.

    Child of the 70’s — I think you are right. Family dinners are still important.

  47. My mom’s version of a salad: iceberg lettuce.

    “Eat you salad, Jenny.”

    “You mean eat my lettuce. Mom, that is clearly a bowl of lettuce. Would it kill you to slice up a tomato? Neil’s mom even adds tomatoes.”

  48. There’s something endearing about sticking to an impractical tradition because “that’s how we do it.” I love your mother.

  49. I loved this post. Totally vivid.

    My parents have recently, and surprisingly, converted to non-canned vegetables. While they are still cooked enough to form a pulpy mash the minute they touch your tongue, they still beat the canned peas/beans/etcetc we used to have.

    My fav. thing in the latest visit home was my mom’s insistence that she needed at least one hour to cook supper since meat is “dangerous” with any less cooking time. (I do understand she grew up in a different/less sanitary time.)

    btw: my mom also does the “nosh” cookies>> they seem to be a requirement with tea or coffee.

  50. I have to ask…if I opened your mother’s refrigerator when you were a kid, would I see a jar of schmaltz and pickled herring? Why oh why were they always taking up valuable room where there could be squeeze bottles of Hershey syrup and whipped cream…

    Can you imagine even eating schmaltz now? To my parents, it was a food group.

  51. Robin — No, that was my grandmother.

  52. I loved this post, it brought back so many memories. I’m surprised you didn’t mention bread. My parents had bread with every damn meal, even when we ordered pizza. And my mom was scared of the microwave for many years but then she started making EVERYTHING in it. Steak, potatoes and corn on the cob don’t really taste the same after they’ve been nuked!

  53. You are a ‘howl’!

  54. Though this post is hilarious…why don’t you make your own damn dinner?

  55. forgot I left a comment here about the pineapple and cheese.

    My mother used to serve the sliced Dole pineapple from the can, only to fancy it up she’d shred some cheddar cheese on it.

    yum.

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