Confessions of a Foodie

I’m an eager eater. Growing up with Dad as a role model and six pace-setting siblings, I was neither fussy about taste nor shy about consumption. Mom once described her hungry children at the dinner table as piglets at a trough: squeals of excitement, jostling for position and dedication to the task.

My love of all things edible has never faltered. I remember restaurants where I ate outstanding food like others remember the names of their children. Though I’m a bit more refined than a brother who claims he’s never eaten a bad meal in a restaurant, I can find something I can enjoy on any menu. When traveling, I order the most unusual item offered: sautéed squid, braised armadillo, chitlins, a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at Graceland.

I never find a dessert too sweet or gooey. When others complain, “My, I can’t eat this; it’s too rich,” I wonder how they’d react if I snatched the offending item from their plate and ate it.

Those who don’t share my passion for food puzzle me: An acquaintance once stopped the happy buzz of party guests around the appetizer table by announcing she didn’t live to eat. She ate to live. Overwhelmed by pity for her dire situation, I choked on a chocolate-covered strawberry.

I also have no patience with fussy eaters who spend more time picking their food apart than eating it. I keep my opinion to myself, though, after an experience I had as a rooky teacher.

Female staff members went out to dinner once a month to celebrate birthdays. The first time I attended, I sat next to Trudy, a stern-looking lady rumored to be uppity. When I ordered peanut-butter pie for desert, she sniffed, “Obviously, Janet has yet to outgrow her juvenile taste in food.”

Though embarrassed by her put-down, I stifled my response: “It’s also obvious, Snooty Trudy, that we could hang Christmas decorations on your enormous nose and stand you in the school’s lobby as our tree.”

So when a friend picked the pepperoni from a pizza and another ordered a hamburger without mustard, onion, lettuce or pickle and with the tomato chopped rather than sliced, I didn’t comment. And when a relative spent five minutes removing the raisins from a piece of raisin cake, I said not a word.

I love comfort food and believe in its power. Whenever misfortune struck a member of my family — not making the basketball team, a baby-sitting job from hell, acne — Mom assured us we’d feel better after we ate. And she was right.

Funeral food is comfort food at its best. After my paternal grandmother’s services, I sat with Dad on the steps to the upstairs bedroom in her pioneer-era home. We juggled plates of food and observed the crowd in silence.

I didn’t know how to console my Dad: I wasn’t sure how he felt about his mother, who left the raising of him to his grandmother and didn’t seem interested in his life when we visited. But he seemed melancholy and withdrawn. Not knowing what to say, I kept quiet, but slid close.

As we munched on potato-and-cheese casserole, pot roast, Jell-O salad, green beans with bits of bacon, homemade rolls, and apple pie, we began to talk. Dad told me he’d never met a piece of pie he didn’t like, and I made him laugh with a story about my college roommate who wouldn’t go to bed without eating a bowl of Raisin Bran and five jelly beans.

We felt better after we ate.

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The Roles We Play

Growing up in a rural area in the years following World War II, my friends and I quickly absorbed the behaviors deemed appropriate for boys and girls; behaviors we learned from picture books, movies, parents, peers and siblings.

Boys misbehaved, threw rocks and amused themselves by making odd noises. They roughhoused, excelled at math and hated to bathe. They worked outside: cutting the lawn, milking cows, delivering papers and shoveling snow. They weren’t supposed to cry, show fear or play dress-up. And all of them would become athletes or presidents.

Girls, on the other hand, quietly complied, won spelling bees, chatted and shared. They wore pink, wept over dead sparrows and hummed happily as they dressed and undressed dolls. They did housework: washing dishes, ironing, vacuuming, tending babies. They weren’t supposed to rebel, spit or wrestle in the dirt. And all of them would become wives.

For the most part, my siblings and I played our assigned roles. I remember putting my dolls to bed on a pillow in a cardboard box. As I carefully tucked a towel around the disreputable lot, Bob came along, kidnapped Shirley Temple, and attempted to strangle her with a slinky. I was indignantly appalled, but not surprised.

Years later, when my algebra teacher told me he was glad I wasn’t like my older brother, I thought, “What’s he talking about? Bob’s way better at math.” Then I realized he was comparing our behavior, which made all kinds of sense.

However, as I observed others, I sometimes questioned my assumptions about the roles men and women played. Dad made all the money, but Mom made most of the decisions. My brothers lived to play sports, but Carolyn was the best athlete. We girls helped Mom with the cooking, but JL was the one who learned to cook from her.

One of my grade school friends, a boy, showed more interest in reading, insects and bird watching than in scuffling and ball games. Another, a girl, chased boys then tackled them and kissed them — not because she liked them but because she knew they hated it. A friend’s dad knitted scarves, hats and mittens for his family; and a neighbor lady handled a tractor better than most men. Rumor had it she out-cursed them as well.

Today, the gender expectations of the 1940s and 50’s seem antiquated to me and unbelievable to my grandchildren: teenagers and young adults who debunk and challenge the gender roles I learned and imitated in my childhood.

The youngest two grandchildren — ninth-grade cousins, a boy and a girl — are best friends who move easily together from shooting hoops to video games to making music. Three granddaughters play sports aggressively, passionately and successfully. Another was recently deployed in Dubai. One grandson possesses exceptional verbal and networking skills once thought impossible for boys. Another is in the Air Force ROTC but also capable of giving  fashion advice: “Baggy, below-the-knee shorts aren’t the thing anymore, Grandpa.”

All are wonderful. All see possibilities I didn’t.

I pondered these thoughts yesterday morning and at the same time played my feminine role: watching Joel assemble a piece of furniture, admiring his efforts and shining the flashlight in all the wrong places.

In Search of Storybook Endings

As I looked at myself in the salon mirror, I expected to see a halo of soft brown curls imparting a youthful glow to my aging face; instead, I saw an orange-tinged strawstack perched on an old face filled with dismay. Once again, reality shattered my rose-colored glasses.

Many years before, when I quit my school-district position as the director of curriculum and staff development to become an independent consultant, I thought I had achieved the glamorous job of my dreams. Then reality intervened.

I remember huddling in the glacial entryway of an unlit city hall, waiting to facilitate the goal-setting session of a civic group in a small Colorado town. Two strangers crowded into the semi-protected corner with me. We couldn’t go inside because “Barb isn’t here, and only Barb knows the code.”

After twenty minutes of forced conversation about my white-knuckled drive over an icy mountain pass blurred by whirling snow, a breathless Barb arrived: “Oh, I don’t know the code. It’s only two digits, so I just punch numbers until it clicks. Sometimes I have to call the mayor.”

Eventually, we entered a small room filled with folding chairs, stained Styrofoam coffee cups and peculiar odors. Barb found the thermostat and soon the heater clanked in complaint and coughed out a cloud of dust-laden air. I found the easel I’d requested in an over-stuffed closet; one leg was jammed and incapable of fully extending; so I propped it up with my purse. When muffled thumps and angry voices reached us through a cinderblock wall, I was told to pay no mind; the jail was next door. “They’ve probably just arrested some drunk.”

In addition to Barb, four people and a large dog attended the meeting. No one claimed the dog, so it introduced itself by sniffing us with more enthusiasm than appropriateness. The leader of the group had a cold, which he shared during red-faced fits of coughing. An older gentleman with wiry hair springing from his ears methodically munched cookies and spoke not a word. Coffee arrived with a pony-tailed fellow who beamed with a benevolent attitude, and grandmotherly woman called me “Hon” and crocheted nonstop.

No one introduced me, so I pushed the dog’s head aside and began.

During the months of planning my move into the world of consulting, I thought I would lead a life of air travel, inspired audiences and standing ovations. Then I discovered, once again, that happily-ever-after is a myth.

When young, my mindset was different: I deliberately predicted worst-case scenarios because I believed thinking of bad things that might happen would prevent their occurrence. Because of this poorly-thought-out philosophy, I imagined my parents had run away when they were late getting home, decided I would faint during my piano recital and assumed I would end up in an iron lung every time I had a cold.

I can’t say dwelling on possible misfortunes made me a happier child any more than imagining bliss made me a bleaker adult. But I’m glad neither approach stopped me from learning, experimenting, changing — and reaping the benefits of doing so. My friends thought my short, slightly orange hairdo an improvement over my long, 80’s perm; and consulting changed my routines, introduced me to interesting people and spurred my creativity.

Stepping into the unfamiliar, not knowing how the story will end, has its rewards.

Home Nursing

Not my mother

Not my mother

When sick, Mom maintained a stoic silence and went to bed, telling my siblings and me to move our squabbles beyond her hearing; so we dutifully went outside when thumping one another became unavoidable.

She expected the same bed rest and silence from us when we complained of swollen glands, stomachaches, or ingrown toenails, “Go to bed. You’ll feel better after a nap.” Her job description didn’t leave time for entertaining us or clucking over our earaches and bee stings.

One day Mom heard howls coming from the yard where Barbara had taught Blaine and JL an exciting new game in which she threw rocks and they dodged them. When Mom went outside to investigate and discovered the crooked, bloody mess that used to be Blaine’s nose, she pinched it into shape, staunched the bleeding, applied tape and told him to go take a nap. She then advised Barbara to run away from home and returned to her ironing.

When a chronic problem, unusual symptom, or something she couldn’t fix prompted a visit to the doctor, she enforced any recommendations with rigor. After we bared our behinds for penicillin shots, we stayed in bed until well, swallowed pills so big we didn’t need breakfast and huddled beneath blankets breathing the pungent fumes of a vaporizer. As directed.

I’ve had sinus problems my entire life. I sometimes imagine the thought process that accompanied my creation: “We’ve given this girl sturdy feet. Let’s even things out by equipping her with flawed sinuses.” One winter, our family doctor told my mom to irrigate my sinuses daily and showed her how to do so. That night, she filled our all-purpose hot water bottle with a saline solution and attached a tube to it with a special nozzle I had to stick up my nose.

She held the contraption level with her head, pinching off the tube, while I bent over the bathroom basin, then let ‘er rip. Oh, the caterwauling and grief. Water and mucus spouting from my nostrils and mouth, I gagged and pleaded; but the water continued to flow. So I pulled the nozzle from my erupting nose and threw it in the basin.

“Janet, you have to do this.” She leaned over, reinserted the tube, and held it firmly in place as I wept. We did this dance for two weeks, as prescribed. I eventually accepted my fate with stony-faced dignity, and my siblings quit clustering around the bathroom door for the evening entertainment.

We couldn’t look to Dad for sympathy or coddling either. He had robust health and didn’t fall prey to common illnesses, so he reacted to the sicknesses of his loved ones with indignation and expressed his worry as anger: “Oh, get up, there’s nothing wrong with you that a little fresh air or work won’t fix.”

Naturally, I inherited Mom’s no-nonsense bedside manner punctuated with Dad’s irrational irritation: “Why doesn’t he just go to bed?” I wonder as Joel wheezes and snuffles around the house, giving me hourly updates on his symptoms.

But the mother who tenderly cared for my sister, Carolyn, during her childhood struggles with polio and rheumatic fever; and the father who visibly worried about Carolyn and checked on her as soon as he got home from work are part of me as well. I learned from my parents to respond to serious illnesses with attention and sympathetic care.

Perhaps the secret of good home nursing is knowing when to nurture kindly and when to stick the nozzle back up your screaming daughter’s nose.

Moments of Clarity

 

janet-and-grandchildren

Throughout my life, I experienced moments of clarity that occurred without fanfare or expectation and illuminated my future: moments of insight that arrived unbidden and surprised me with their power.

At fourteen, rather than going home after the church youth meeting as instructed by our parents, five friends and I took a joyride through the countryside in an old Ford. I climbed into the back seat with the Anderson sisters as we defied parental authority and took a joyride through a lake-tinged night.

The newly-licensed driver, the oldest among us, chattered nonstop, her ponytail swishing as she turned her head to look around, waved her hands for emphasis and ignored warning signs about an upcoming curve.

The sisters — made anxious by the speed, the darkness and the disapproval we’d face should our parents discover this crazed ride — held hands and worried in silence. But a sudden understanding liberated me and filled me with anticipation: I had lived my life based on the expectations and conventions of others; but as I traveled into my future, I would have the power of choice. My decisions, wise or foolish, would decide my future. Sensing my coming independence, I laughed aloud in the window-wind of the back seat.

At twenty, I walked across the grounds of the Wyoming State Training School with my special-needs charges: a group of happy, chattering female residents. We were returning to the ward where I worked and they lived after attending a 4th of July party where everybody danced every dance with total joy and abandon. We strolled beneath the fluttering leaves of large ash trees that filtered the light of a mellow moon and softened the lines of the institutional buildings we passed.

My mind preoccupied with thoughts of a recent break-up with a boyfriend I’d once thought perfect, full of self doubt and bleakness, I hardly noticed when Yvonne, a large woman with garbled speech, multiple disabilities and the mental age of a child, moved to my side, put an arm around me, smiled broadly and pointed at the gentleness of the glowing moon. Then, in half-swallowed words I had learned to interpret, she said, “I love you, Mom.”

In that instant, I knew as surely as I’d ever known anything, that throughout my life love would come to me from many different sources, that I would love and be loved in return. I slid my arm around Yvonne as we walked together through the shimmering night.

At sixty, sweltering in the heat and humidity of a Midwest summer, I sat on a chair shaded by an over-arching pecan tree, glad my husband Joel and our daughter Jenny were fitting and cementing stones to form a patio, while I had the easier task of entertaining grandchildren.

One child sat on my lap holding a picture book he wanted to hear “one more time, please, please, please,” while a toddler, fiercely determined, scrabbled and squeezed onto my lap as well, demanding “Me, too!”

I opened Grahame Green’s Jabberwocky and began to read.

When I married Joel, I immediately liked and became friends with his mostly grown children. Then, as they had children, I became a grandparent, responding, as grandparents do, with patience, pleasure, and love.

But always, unconsciously, I held something back, kept a part of myself in reserve, felt I was an interloper. Then, on this heat-slick day, holding two sticky boys on my lap, smelling their sun-warmed hair, I realized I had never been happier, that I loved and would protect these children and their siblings, that I was as totally committed to them as I would be if my blood ran through their veins.

Such moments of enlightenment don’t come to me often, but when they do, they enrich my life.

Stresses of the Season

janet-stressedYears ago, my friend Judy invited me to drop by for a visit the day after Christmas. When I arrived, I found her draping wet laundry around her kitchen and wiping away tears. She wasn’t crying about her dead dryer.

On Christmas Eve, she and her husband were helping her recently married son and his wife prepare dinner in their new home when her son said, “Why don’t you let Mom fix the gravy, Bev. She knows how I like it.”

In response, Bev burst into tears and said to Judy, “I’m sick of hearing about your perfect Christmases, your perfect cooking, your perfect dinners. Why don’t you go home? Here, take my car. I’m sure you’ll drive it perfectly.” Then she grabbed her keys, threw them at Judy and ran from the house, leaving an open-mouthed family, a half-cooked turkey and a doomed merry little Christmas behind.

“I felt like I was in a country-western song,” Judy told me, “It was terrible.”

More recently, friends and I discussed the anxieties of gift giving: “I need guidelines,” said one, “What do you buy for the grandchildren you loved when they already get too much for Christmas? What do you give babies who have no concept of Santa and would rather chew on a cardboard box? Or teenagers who have demanding taste in clothing or want specific, expensive technology?”

Another friend added, “My husband and I buy things for our children and grandchildren throughout the year, when they need it; we also help finance school trips and events, and we’re happy to do so. We spent a lot last year, so we gave less expensive gifts for Christmas. And I felt guilty the entire season.”

Fortunately, we have media experts who tell us how to glide gracefully through the holiday without exploding into hysteria, eating a pound of peanut brittle, or crawling under a bed. Their advice flows freely: Get enough sleep. Make a list of tasks to be accomplished and stick to it. Stay within your budget. Relax in a bubble bath before your guests arrive.

Right.

They also warn if we deny ourselves the foods of the season, we’ll binge later on stale marshmallows or stray chocolate chips. Instead, we should enjoy the goodies that come our way by sampling them: take half a brownie and a taste or two of ice cream.

Seriously? Might as well ask a flea not to bite.

Despite such expert advice, most of us experience some stress during the holidays. We over-schedule our lives and become cranky as we rush about. We grow too weary, or drink more than a sip or two of eggnog and then say things we regret. We wonder about gifts we receive — elf house slippers or salt-and-pepper shakers from Branson — and worry others won’t like the gifts we chose for them.

We also wonder why we don’t feel the joy of Christmas we did when young: everybody happy, everything beautiful, each moment perfect. Experts answer this one correctly: the wonder of childhood Christmases cannot be duplicated; nor were they perfect.

I remember seeing a photograph taken by my aunt when I was eight — the year I asked Santa for a red-headed princess doll — that shows me using a blonde baby doll to bludgeon Bob as we battle fiercely in front of a tree tilted awkwardly to one side as though trying to escape.But, in my memory, 1950 was a perfectly joyful Christmas; and I wish the same for you in 2016.

Thoughts on the Man I Married and Other Odd People

Joel Sheridan

I’m often surprised by the habits of others: My mom and dad ate pickled pigs feet and beef liver with gusto. That’s abnormal. My sister doesn’t collect anything: no quilts, snow globes, Madam Alexander dolls or baseball cards. That’s odd. In college, it boggled my mind when my roommates postponed studying for a test until the evening before and then pulled an all-nighter. I shook my well-rested head in disbelief as they stumbled into class, bleary-eyed and confused.

My uncle wrote a weekly column for his local paper. Each week he sat in front of his typewriter the day before the column was due and waited for inspiration. When I picture him—sitting, waiting, clock ticking, deadline looming—I fight hysteria. I don’t know how he found the time to debate using a instead of the in the third sentence of the fifth paragraph of his ninth revision.

The man I married twenty years ago has his peculiarities as well, one of them being the way he watches TV. When we’re watching a show together, he invariably surfs other channels during every commercial. By the time he finds his way back to the show we’re watching, we’ve missed a pivotal segment and so watch the remaining segments in a state of confusion.

Another bone of contention we chew on is the amount of lighting necessary for happy living. As darkness falls, I busy myself drawing blinds and switching on lights and lamps. Then Joel wanders in, starts a diverting conversation, dims the lights and turns off the lamps.

Even the kitchen where I chop, sauté, and simmer his dinner is too bright for him. If I drop my guard, he extinguishes the overhead lighting, leaving only the glow of the under-counter lights to illuminate my cooking. It’s difficult to chop vegetables when I can’t distinguish my thumb from a parsnip; sometimes, when bending low to check on the soup’s simmer, I blister my nose.

My husband believes the best defense is a good offense, so when he senses my irritation with his choice of lighting, he says, “Why do you have to have it so bright all the time? The house looks better in low light.” He could be commenting on my housekeeping, but I prefer to think not.

We also have our smaller issues: I put things away. He likes tools, clothes and potato chips left where he won’t forget them. I sigh when he questions my tendency to take things to the thrift store. He grits his teeth when he expresses a preference, “I like the chair better in front of the window,” and I respond dismissively, “I know you do, Joel.”

Despite these differences, we usually accept one another’s oddities as minor nuisances, insignificant when compared to the many important values we share and the many ways we like each other.

But the next time we go to a movie, and he interrupts an intense scene to ask what other roles the lead actor has played, I plan to insist on a fair share of the popcorn. That’ll show him.