I Better Start Writing This Down, Ep. 17: The Food My Mother Made, Pt. 2
On February 2nd, 2015, I started a podcast. It’s called I Better Start Writing This Down. The show’s subtitle/catchphrase is “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth,” which is a line from an Amy Hempel story. IBSWTD emphasizes stories and sound design. The second aspect, the sound design, well, you’ve got to listen to the show to experience it. But the stories — I put a lot of work into them. It bummed me out to think that these fairly intricate scripts that I put days of work into would just sort of sit there unread. So I decided to put the scripts up on Medium in hopes that maybe, after seeing them, a few people might come and check out the show. We’re into our second season now. If you’ve been coming, welcome back. If you’re new, welcome.
Either way, please enjoy.
I’m Joe Stracci, and I better start writing this down.
Episode 17: The Food My Mother Made, Part 2
If you’re listening to this without first having heard episode 16, part 1 of this 2-part series, stop now. You’ll need the introduction.
Okay. Here goes.
Chapter 2: Lipton Alfredo Pasta
When I was researching the food in this episode, I found out that Lipton pasta-in-a-pouch doesn’t even exist anymore. Well, it does. Except now, its sold by a company called Knorr (with two r’s). I’m assuming they bought Lipton’s pasta-in-a-pouch business at some point since the early 90’s.
This chapter, this dish, introduces a concept, a theme, that will repeat throughout this episode — food in a bag. Or a box. Or a pouch. A meal that was already prepared and just needed reconstituting. A slight rejiggering. In this case, noodles and a magic powder that, when sprinkled over average, cheap, easy-to-cook food, turned into — something else.
To this day, I’m a bad Italian. I dislike almost all cream-based sauces on pasta. And I can’t help but think that this disinterest has its roots in the Lipton pouch. When cooked, it smelled wrongly of cheese, of feet, really (and not in that good, aged cheese way.) It was gloopy (from whatever thickener was used, likely corn starch) and oily once it sat. And, oh, because of how long it took me to eat it, did it sit. I remember this being a meal on it’s own sometimes, but also as a side dish, most painfully so with the pork chops that I’ll get to in a minute.
Chapter 3: Shake-and-Bake Pork Chops
Shake ‘n Bake, manufactured by Kraft Foods, is a flavored bread crumb-style coating for chicken and pork. The product is applied by placing raw meat pieces in a bag containing the coating, closing the bag, and shaking so the particles adhere. The coated meat is then baked in the oven or microwave.
First introduced in 1965 by General Foods, it is currently marketed under the Kraft brand.
Shake ‘n Bake. More food in a bag. Another timesaver. Shake ’n Bake was breadcrumbs, dried spices; even the plastic bag was included. The thing I remember most about pork chops prepared this way was the bottom, not the top. And the top was pretty bad. It wound up crunchy — too crunchy, actually — and the included spices burned. But the bottom? Because of the moisture let off by the cooking chops, the breadcrumbs had turned into a soggy, color-less paste. What paste wasn’t left behind on the aluminum foil lubricated the plate underneath the chop, which made sawing through an unsettling chore (this was way, way before the USDA had ruled that pork could be cooked safely to medium, not that my mother would have anyway). To this day, I can call-up the texture in my mind.
Chapter 4: Hamburger Helper
I didn’t have a dog growing up, but that didn’t stop me from insisting that Hamburger Helper smelled of and tasted like dog food. This time, my mother’s assistant was food in a box, rather than a bag. And the name. Straight out of a retro 70’s you’ve-come-a-long-way-baby kitchen. You can almost hear the disembodied, gin-soaked voice of the announcer — Hamburger Helper, because what woman-on-the-go doesn’t need some help in the kitchen?
As a cook now, I’m fetishistic about breaking up ground beef when I use it in a recipe. I think it stems from my mother’s Hamburger Helper. Some of the pieces of meat were tiny, almost absorbed into the reconstituted sauce. Others were hunks so large you’d assume them to be underdone, but were still gray all the way through. One of the varieties (flavors is probably the right word here, but it’s nauseating to think of it that way) of Hamburger Helper (I want to say it was the “lasagna” box, but I’m not totally sure), included a milk powder-based sauce that was reconstituted (it’s scary how often I’m using this word — reconstituted — but I know no other that captures the same idea) and was spooned over the top. It was, and remains for me, like Hamburger Helper in general, horrifying.
Chapter 5: Wishbone Italian Dressing Chicken with Mustard
This was a meal that my mother often cooked on Sunday nights, before another school week began. We would actually wind up eating it later in the week, reheated. The Italian dressing was always Wishbone brand. A marinade in a bottle. Simple. A plastic tube of instant liquid flavor (I’m old enough that I even remember when it was still a glass bottle). There were no spices to keep on hand, no oil and vinegar to emulsify. I imagine it might have worked better if it had been left to marinate overnight, but even then, I don’t know.
Back then, my mother rarely cooked with the basic seasoning duo of salt and pepper (she did later on, at my insistence. Sometimes.) and so this chicken wound up overcooked, under-flavored, and that was before it was reheated again.
During meal time, my mom would convince me to dip the chicken into mustard, saying she had done the same when she was a child. Looking back, I think it was because the mustard (Gulden’s spicy, of course) coated the tongue with the flavor of mustard, masking the chicken. The one good thing that came out of this meal was that it was usually paired with a knish (if you aren’t familiar, it’s essentially an Eastern European potato-filled dough pocket. The knish was also dipped in mustard, which is how I still eat them to this day.
Chapter 6: Chicken Cutlets, Breaded with 4C Breadcrumbs, and Idaho Mashed Potatoes
As my wife tells it, as a kid, she used to get a plain chicken cutlet, wrap it in a paper towel, and go back to watching TV, eating it the same way we give our daughter a yogurt pouch now. But for a long time, I thought I didn’t like plain chicken cutlets. I thought that I preferred them as the protein in some kind of sauced dish — Parmigiana, Florentine, Marsala. But then I started making them myself and I realized — I just didn’t like my mother’s chicken cutlets. It wasn’t even that they were particularly bad; just average, I suppose. I remember more the 4C breadcrumbs — the black and white cardboard cylinder (this was way, way before Panko) — and exactly where they were kept in the supermarket she always shopped in.
The side dish with these 4C cutlets was always mashed potatoes — Idaho, a light blue box of mashed potato granules, as it said. They were plopped artfully in a red bowl with a pat of obviously melted, but not runny, butter. On the box, that is. Ours were usually too grainy or too thick, and usually had I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter in them, rather than real butter. Add on some frozen Birds Eye peas (Oh, I’ll get to them in a second), and you have one of the classic plates of food that I sat many times ruminating over long after dinner had ended.
Chapter 7: Brussels Sprouts
Growing up, the vegetables in our house were almost always bought frozen. They were those flat white bricks — Birds Eye brand, or Green Giant — that, once home, were stored in the shelves on the freezer door. Before eating, the frozen mass was put into a small sauce pan with water and left to — I don’t know what the word is. Defrost? Cook? Boil? The end result was always soft and smelly, especially broccoli and lima beans. But, worst of all, were the brussels sprouts, which tasted literally the way that garbage smells.
These days, I’m mature enough to consider myself lucky to be able to make nutrition a determining factor in the meals my family eats. My mother didn’t always have the time or the money to do the same. But her vegetables left emotional scars. At the same time, one of the few memories I have left of my father is when he would walk past me sitting at the table, staring angrily at the plate of food in front of me. My mother would already be tackling the dishes at the sink, her back to me. And he would walk by, bringing her more dirty stuff to clean. As he did, he would reach down and pop one of my brussels sprouts into his mouth and whisper “now just finish the rest,” and keep walking.
I still don’t know how he did it.
Chapter 8: Bagels
If you grow up in New York City, you grow up with a sense of superiority when it comes to bagels. My mother was from Brooklyn, and her Jewish background imbued her with an even greater sense of superiority — bagels were a Jewish food and the best bagels came from Brooklyn, like her and like her.
I saved bagels for last because, while the genesis of this was the food my mother made — that I disliked — I liked — and still like — bagels very much. The bagel store around the corner from the apartment we lived in was the first place I was allowed to go by myself. I would put on my rollerblades and skate there on Sunday mornings, stopping first at the deli next door to get the newspapers and a container of cream cheese. This was back before blueberry bagels and sunflower seed bagels and gluten-free bagels. The entire menu at Just Bagels (no, really, that’s what it was called) was written with a sharpie on a piece of paper and taped onto the little sliding window where you ordered. I got Sesame, my dad got Cinnamon Raisin, and my mom got Onion; sometimes an Everything. Once my brother was born, he got Plain. And we would sit around the kitchen table (I’d start reading the comics section, my dad the sports) and eat our bagels and read the newspaper and drink Tropicana orange juice, the brand that I insisted on, and whined incessantly about, when Florida’s Best was on sale and my mother tried to sneak it past us.
I don’t know that I have a more recent, happier memory than that of my family intact.
I’m pretty confident that I won’t do this forever. By this, I mean this podcast. I’m not even sure the technology will remain in place long enough to say that the episodes I do make will live forever.
So why do this? Specifically, why dive so deep on something so negative? I think it was the title of the New York Times Magazine piece — “Memories of Meals Past” — that finally slotted it all into place for me. The narrative frame of these meals, my meals, the construct of them, are just as alive. The kitchens, the dining rooms, the tables. Our apartment. Our house. The smells. The yelling and the laughing. I laugh now and I appreciate them now, because I understand all of the different parts of the universe that were orbiting around my plate of food. The stress and the work and the sports team practices and the children.
And — I know what comes after.
The little family that I’ve helped to build now, we’re fortunate to have the time that we have. The free time that my mother did not have. If I do nothing with the memories that I have, eventually, they’ll fade. But I want them to stay pure. If they were negative, I want them to remain so. Focusing in for so long on the soggy pork chops and the hamburger that had been helped allowed me to finally pull back and experience everything else in the frame.
I will need this one day.
Food is one of the strongest carriers of memory, of tradition. I don’t have many unspoiled memories of my family as a whole. For a variety of reasons, I won’t be creating any more. The ones that I do have, almost all of them involve food. Going forward, with my own family to create memories with now, I will use this episode, and everything I learned creating it, both as a guide and as a warning.
One of my favorite things to do, something my wife and I are known for, is host parties and gatherings at our house. We like to plan the menu. We like to execute it. Most of all, though, we like to see our friends and family enjoy it. Writing this episode, I came to see where the seed of that instinct was sewn. And it’s not the praise I’m after, we’re after. The praise, just for trying so damn hard, that my mother deserved. It’s the feeling I get when I look up and down our table mid-meal and see the enjoyment, the contentment. It’s the satisfaction of seeing a plan come together. I had to improve upon her cooking, yes, but it was my mother who taught me that mindset.
I started out warning her not to read this. I told you — I wasn’t going to write this.
Now, I only wish that she could see what I eventually cooked up.
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Audible has over 150,000 titles to choose from. One title that I think IBSWTD listeners would enjoy is:
“Food: A Love Story” by Jim Gaffigan
As I said two weeks ago, when I was searching in Audible to find a book to recommend here, I almost went with Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” But I decided that, by the halfway mark, this season’s skull and crossbones theme might have started to weigh on everyone, so I went with the laughs that Jim Gaffigan provides. To download “Food: A Love Story” for free, go to audibletrial.com/ibetterstart. Again, that’s audibletrial.com/ibetterstart to help support the show and in return, receive a free audiobook and a 30 day free trial.
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Hopefully, you wrote it down.