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.”
“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.