Growing up, my mother installed a strange power relationship with food into our heads. I’ve never quite figured out where her ideas came from but essentially her idea was that less food in the house the better. Let me explain further: She would sometimes “forget” to go grocery shopping and or she would buy a few packages of hamburger, American cheese slices, saltines, and popcorn. For a family of four with eating habits for a family of six.
We’re large people and a bit on the tall side (I hover near 6′, Mumsy at 5’10” and brother at 7′. My now-ex step-father is about 6’1″.) While my mother is now borderline morbidly obese, my brother and I are just plain chubbeh. We could stand to lose a few pounds, but, we’re both fairly active (then and now) and are not sit at home stuffing our faces type people. We do, however, have large appetites.
It wasn’t that we were poor, Mumsy made a really good living as a home health care nurse (let’s just say, she neared six figures by the late ’90s in Michigan) and she certainly could afford to feed us, but, without fail, every week she would go grocery shopping and bring home the exact same items:
- American cheese slicers
- Microwave popcorn
- Boxed rice
- Hamburger Helper (at least half a dozen boxes)
- Canned tuna
- Nacho chips
- Head of iceburg lettuce
- Orange pekoe tea
(I’m vaguely frightened that I can still remember this list 15 years later.)
As teenagers and young adults, my brother and I had to fend for ourselves quite a bit. My mother’s mental illness was beginning to start the slow spiral into the hell she is in now, something we of course didn’t recognize at the time and it became normal for her to leave us unattended for days at a time while she was staying at a boyfriend’s house, and then later on with her second husband. Later on, when she got married, they would split up their time between our house or his place.
(They fough quite a bit which would then stem to him often leaving “for good” only to check into a sleazy motel for weeks or months at a time. She would then live between our house and his apartment, coming home and changing or grabbing fresh clothes on her way out the door. Sometimes weeks would go by before we would see her again. I was 16, nearly 17 when this started. My brother was 9, nearing 10.)
Friends would tease us that coming over to our place would almost guarantee starvation, with but some stale saltines and perhaps a few slices of cheese for topping. Condiments, fillers and pantry necessities (flour, sugar, salt, etc) would make guest appearances occasionally but usually a day or two after grocery shopping day, the cupboards would be nearing bare again and we’d have to fend for ourselves.
We ate a lot of McDonalds, Taco Bell, and pizza to fill in the days between shops. And we didn’t “do” dinners as a family, ever. There would be weeks where we would eat nothing but spaghetti because my brother needed the carbs for basketball. No variation on the pasta, just trusty old Mueller’s spaghetti with Newman’s Own Sock-A-Toni sauce. No meatballs, no variations of the sauce, or even garlic bread. “It’s quick and easy,” she would reply when we would whine about the having the same dinner, AGAIN. Even though I often was delegated the chore of making dinner more often or not on game nights, I was often relegated to using what was in the cupboard over buying something new. And more often than not, only half of us would be available for dinner while the other half would later re-heat the leftovers, if there were any left over.
Several times I would put up a fight, “I could do better!” I would proclaim in regards to the shopping, clearly there had to be more to this than what she was doing. She would hand me exactly three twenties, a few coupons, and a list. “Here,” she said, “If you can make this last for a week or two, the job is yours.”
I remember driving to Meijer’s excited by the challenge. Taking along a calculator and her trusty list, I would attempt not only duplicate the must haves (see above list) while also getting other stuff that we may need or required. Toliet paper: Do I buy the Meijer brand because it is cheaper or do I buy the Northern so they are not wiping their asses with sandpaper? I would spend minutes debating each purchase, tallying everything up on my calculator. Every penny was calculated and accounted for and I would come home triumphant with my purchases and typically, some change left over. I somehow made $60 USD stretch a lot farther than she could do it and it got to the point where she stopped giving me the list and the money and just stopped doing grocery shopping altogether.
Later, when I would move out on my own, I became obsessed with grocery shopping. Desperate to not duplicate the “not having anything in the cupboard” past, I would spend as much money as humanly possible to keep those cupboards and fridges full. I would buy duplicate and sometimes triplicate of items because I was sure I was out or needed it only to find that not only did I have what I thought was missing or needed but I would tend to have more than one item. It was not uncommon for me to come home with foodstuffs that would eventually go to waste because I could not finish it all or had to consume the older stuff first. I’m more notorious with spices and seasonings, but fresh produce and cheeses are also a culprit. A woman can only eat so much cheese!
Having lived with various roommates and boyfriends over the years, the power struggle over food has always been a catalyst in relationships. I didn’t start learning how to bake or cook until much later on and would result to recipes I knew by heart for a very long time. With Justin (whom I lived with for a year), we’d spend a gazillion dollars only to have most of it go to waste or end up spending the gazillion dollars in increments because our fridge had broken and our roommate would refuse to help get it fixed, so thus, all perishables were stored in the freezer side of the double door unit as THAT side was barely cool enough to keep milk from going sour. Justin remembers that our meals tended to be fast-food or processed box crap that we kept purchasing and when he learned I had begun to actually, you know, cook, he was agast that I had taken up such a domestic art.
Later, when Pauly and I were living together, processed food went out the window and in came homecooked Cuban and Irish inspired meals and fine dining. During the three years we were together, I gained nearly 50 lbs and an unfortunate fondness for filet mignon, medium rare, with Bearnaise sauce drizzled on the top, sushi, and expensive chocolates.
Several years after that, by the time 006 and I had met and lived together, I had begun cooking at home and had started gravitating towards a organic, less gluten, low-sodium, high fiber diet. My “iron” stomach finally gave up on me and I ended up giving up a lot of the things I loved, including fast food, for the taste of a homecooked meal. And with 006, my punk-rock Martha Stewart persona came out in full force.
Within weeks of our first date, having learned his favorite dessert is dark chocolate flourless tort, I set out to make it myself. This coming from the girl whose idea of baking consisted of reading the back of a cake mix box. And it wasn’t enough to make the tort, I also had to make the coulis sauce and while that was all cooling, I whipped up a batch of my (now) famous cupcakes. And I must say, for someone who has never baked before, the results came out beyond fantastic. So much so, I considered going to culinary school here in town to get a certificate in baking, I fell in love with it that much.
Part of my schitck with 006 was to try out new restaurants in the area but so thus began the era of cooking, real cooking, where I would start collecting chef inspired pots, pans and utensils. I had baking dishes and measuring cups in variety of sizes, spices were alphabetized and organized. I taught myself everything from scratch and I found I had this knack for experimentation and breaking the rules. Clean-up was always a bitch, with not having a dishwasher and incredibly limited amount of counter space. I would try out new recipes and beg for 006’s approval, which always ranged fairly high of everything I made. Soups, roasts, stews, full meals, baked goods and desserts, I was unstoppable.
Moving back in with my family temporarily several months ago has put a damper on the cooking joy. Mumsy and brother have this weird power struggle going on about food, which apparently has not changed in all those years since our childhood. She relegates herself to her standard items while he yells at her for eating too much, ordering out too much and for consuming way too much processed food. His palette, like mine, has grown over the years and we both tend to favor towards organic, whole, fresh foods over frozen or processed. While we don’t discuss recipes or innovative tips, we share a fondness for passion for a good, finished product. We want our food to sing, not to be filled with filler and additives we cannot pronounce.
I’m reminded of all of this tonight as I push my cart through Meijer’s. I had spent several hours this evening hanging out with a friend for tea and decided to go grocery shopping after we were done. With Mumsy in the nursing home for a number of weeks, the power struggle for food has dissipated as my brother and I hashed out the grocery list. Before I moved home, he would sometimes stare longingly into the fridge in my old apartment because whatever warped perception my mother has about food has kept him tied to the ways we grew up with. They argue and bicker like an old married couple on everything, especially when it comes to food and money. And I also knew that moving back here would relegate a lot of old habits that I had worked hard to shake.
But there is this feeling of freedom when shopping, as I fondled the produce and read sodium content on boxed items. With Mumsy gone, it is amazingly easier to think about what to make for dinners and lunches for the upcoming weeks over when she’s here. I pushed my cart up and down the kitchen ware aisles, looking at new pans and gadgets, salivating for the day (soon!) when I can move out into my own place and start really cooking again.
I’m building my dream kitchen in my head and it’s sometime off in the future, but I am patient and I can wait.