There is a pot on the stove, steam rising. A dry smell emits itself and the children ask, “What’s for dinner?” Potatoes and Chicken. Potatoes and beef. Potatoes and a pork chop. My favorite: potatoes and cottage cheese.
My mother is a terrible cook. My father has a sensitive stomach which is always called an “ulcer” but he doesn’t have an ulcer. His stomach churns from being a child in Germany during World War II. His body, mind and spirit are stressed with the instinct to survive, so he works and works, even at jobs that he doesn’t like. He says he is saving all of the money for the next time God forsakes him. He loves boiled potatoes and a plain meat accompaniment. He eats plain steamed vegetables with butter and salt. He loves hard, thick bread which my mother buys at the German butcher which is from a Lithuanian bakery. He likes his coffee weak. The rest of us meet the cottage cheese with resistance but he doesn’t complain. Why are you complaining? There are children in Africa who are starving! In all fairness, my mom made a pretty good spaghetti sauce and a roast chicken. There is a legendary story of when she was going to cook pork chops which had gone bad and her guests had to insist she didn’t.
The kitchen which came with our old farmhouse in New Jersey was so old, it was kind of falling off of the house. There are old pine cabinets and appliances including a washer/dryer and on the stove, there is always a cast iron pan with bacon fat in it. Often there are mouse tracks in the fat. We never eat much bacon because my mother says you only need one piece each, and she uses the bacon fat to fry eggs. We are allowed two eggs each. I like the Farmer’s Almanac hanging by a rubber band in the kitchen, which I can read while I am on the phone, twisting the chord in my fingers over and over. Eventually mom and dad make a new kitchen (The Addition) and it is brighter and happier. The Addition has no impact on the family. We are still angry and quiet.
Really there is nothing wrong with a boiled potato. Mashed up with some butter and salt, the potato is a good food. I can remember thousands of meals with these potatoes, in their skins. We choke them down at the dinner table where no one speaks, where no one tells anyone about their day, where Lucy and Ricky sometimes argue on the black and white TV in the kitchen, where my parents wage the cold war.
If asked today, mom would say that my father didn’t give her enough money to make ends meet and that is why she makes bad dinners. I would agree with her about the money, but she also really doesn’t apply herself. I know people with huge families and very little means, and they eat tasty food. She also buys and serves us powdered milk because regular milk is not in the budget. This is a couple with a house, two cars, and a sailboat who regularly take pretty nice vacations to Greece and Mexico, leaving the kids with the psycho neighbor across the street, Taffy. Eventually the backlash against the powdered milk outweighs the cost and there are now gallons of fresh milk in the fridge.
Left to our own devices, we kids begin to learn how to cook. I learn how to make soups, dumplings, weird recipes with pineapple slices from those terrible 70s recipes on little plastic cards, all sorts of things. My sister’s friends are Italian and she learns how to make lasagna and Eggplant parmesan. My brother learns how to make crepes. We start to cook a lot more often. My father doesn’t love the other foods, preferring the potatoes with some form of gray meat.
My mother has lost her joy by now and raising three kids in the suburbs is not what she signed up for. In her search for more useful things to do with herself, my mother begins to take esoteric and spiritual courses in New York City and finds various groups with which to study. One of these groups leads her to a long course of therapy with a psychiatrist and her sessions with a medium called R.W. who speaks to her from the “other side” and gives advice. Around when I am a sophomore in high school, this advice leads her to separate from my father, move into an apartment in the next town, but still come home for dinner each evening so we can have the cold war, where nobody speaks at the table same as always.