Friday, April 24, 2009
When I was growing up, my mother did all the cooking and the grocery shopping. My father cooked only when my mother was giving birth to my siblings. When he cooked, he crowed like a rooster at his creations. His proudest achievement in the kitchen was what he called ‘Rack-and-Condoodle.’ Overcooked elbow macaroni was mixed with a can of tomato soup and hot dogs cut up into chunks. Even to my child’s pallet, it was disgusting, but he loved it. He made it every night in my mother’s absence. The hot dogs were the only saving grace for me. Mercifully, there were plenty of hot dogs on the first night. But, each night further from the last day my mother had shopped, the hot dog count dwindled. The culinary raft drifted further and further from the island. For breakfast, it was fried eggs the way he liked them: crunchy rings with a dollop of snot in the middle. Like most families in the fifties and sixties, we belonged to the Clean Plate Club. So, we had to eat all of what was served to us. I couldn’t wait for my mother to come home so I wouldn’t have to choke down those eggs. My mother was an inventive cook and could make a lot of nothing go a long way and tough, cheap cuts of meat quite appetizing. Most of what she cooked, I loved and couldn’t wait for it to hit the table. My father loved her cooking, too. And he could really eat. “Peter! Don’t be such a glutton!” she’d carp. Always struggling with his weight, she was perpetually putting him on diets. He’d whine and mewl around that she was starving him to death. He said he’d faint one of these times. “I’ll drop in a dead faint and hit my head on the pavement! I’ll live! You know I will and I’ll be rendered a simpleton by the blow, but I’ll STILL be fat! You wouldn’t want that, would you!” he’d wail theatrically. “Oh quit bitching; you’re a simpleton already! Go for a walk or something, will you?” she’d shoot back. One day, returning from a grocery shopping expedition, my mother was barely out of the car when calling to my father, “Peter! Peter! I’ve finally got it! I’ve found the thing you can eat until your head blows off! You can eat this by the ton and not gain any weight!” She was genuinely thrilled to have found the magic food item that would keep him quite.
Grocery days were big events for us. Excitedly, we’d all unload the bags and boxes from the car swarming around like wolves. We could smell the meats, cheeses and bread and begin to salivate at the thought of biting into it. Usually, there were a few pieces of juicy, expensive fruit for us to share. My mother would describe fervently what she planned to bake, making us drool. Food may have been the religion in our otherwise irreligious household. While we unpacked the groceries, my father eagerly poked amongst the packages for his promised prize. From the heap, my mother culled two, waxed cardboard quart containers. “Here you go, Peter. Dig in. You can have all you want. I promise you, you won’t gain a pound.” The cold, white cylinders had the distinct look of delicatessen fodder. Potato salad? Macaroni and cheese? What could it be? We gathered around closely to see. The second the lids popped off, the tang of pickling brine hit the air. Usually, my mother had to command that we keep out of food stuffs so she would have what she planned to cook with. Not this. My father peered into the containers, “Sauerkraut?” Yes, sauerkraut, but not just any sauerkraut, she explained. It was fresh sauerkraut from Morse’s. Famous state wide for their product , she had gone all the way to Waldoboro to get it. He could eat all he wanted but not worry about weight or competition from his children. He was suspicious. His mother, who he hadn’t spoken to in years, was a German immigrant. And my own mother was not only good at baking, she excelled at cooking up cruelty. Was this a trap of some kind? But, like a ravenous coyote to a poisoned carcass, my father attacked that sauerkraut consuming both quarts that very day. By nightfall, his moaning and groaning could be heard for blocks. He paced the house, flushed the toilet, fouled the air and complained all night long. Muttering to himself like a crazy man, he could be heard in the yard in the cool, blue air of night. The next morning, he looked haggard, as if he’d been on a drunken bender. He had a yellow cast and smelled bad, but he did look as if he had miraculously lost a lot of weight! For many years, he would tell that story and jokingly say that his dear wife had tried to kill him. My mother maintained that she had served him right. I will always believe that she really did try to kill him with Morse’s sauerkraut.