Chapter 1 Foodums Sue MillerWhen my son was in high school, around fourteen or fifteen years old, he wouldn’t arrive home from school until early in the evening—after sports practice, after showering and catching the commuter train from Concord to Cambridge, after walking the ten or so blocks from the train station to our house. His last full meal would have been lunch, a meal he probably would have expended, calorically speaking, by mid-afternoon. He’d step in the front door, drop his backpack on the floor, and half-moan, half-yell, “Foodums!” Sometimes, if the wait for supper was going to be more than ten minutes or so, tears would actually rise in his eyes, tears of pain, of sheer ravenous hunger. In those days I thought of myself not so much as a person who cooked, but as a person who presented edible fuel, so many calories— thousands at each meal— to a raging fire. In fact, watching the fork or spoon lift to my son’s mouth over and over, occasionally I would remember the repetitive motion of my father, shoveling coal into the furnace in the basement of the house I grew up in: the door swung open, the heat pulsing out, the fire yellow-white and alive inside. My son—Ben is his name—had always been this way around food: in need. In earlier years, the younger children on our child-friendly block would sometimes gather in our kitchen on Saturday mornings when I made pancakes for Ben’s breakfast, to watch him eat them, to see if he could top his record this time. Ben, I should add, was never fat. He burned. He never stopped burning, never stopped moving, until he collapsed at the end of the day. What did I cook? Carbs. Carbs were the dish du jour, every day. The specialité de la maison. Who could afford enough meat, even enough vegetables, to satisfy such an appetite, such need? Not me in those days, a single parent working in day care. And if, on some special occasion, we were having meat, I’d have to give Ben bread first, lots of bread while he waited for dinner to be cooked. Bread to dull the sharp edge of his hunger, so that he wouldn’t consume the whole roast, the whole chicken, all of the stew. Mostly, though, I served carbs in one form or another. Macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, stir-fried rice with vegetables, grilled cheese sandwiches. I wasn’t into culinary subtlety. It was all gone in about ten minutes anyway. It wasn’t that I couldn’t cook in an interesting way. I entertained often, and on those occasions I enjoyed setting out an elegant meal. Sometimes I made an elegant meal for Ben, too, and he liked that. Chinese dishes, French dishes, Italian dishes, he liked them all just fine. But what he needed was foodums. Fast, high-carb, in bulk. Foodums. It’s what, when you’re the cook and it’s demanded, you have to supply. And boring as such food can be to prepare, especially when you’ve prepared it over and over and over again, it is what most children like to eat. I wish I’d been fed that way as a child. Instead I remember, for example, the dreaded kidney stew, so overcooked that the vegetables were mush—all vegetables were mush until about 1975, I think—and the kidneys had turned gray and hard as rubber. If you’d thrown them across the room, and how I yearned to! they’d have bounced back. It’s not called offal for nothing. Or tongue. Boiled beef tongue. A very large tongue, also overcooked, sitting like an embodied obscenity on a very large platter. Tongue, intricately curled, particularly at what would have been the back of the throat, and thrust out at you aggressively. Like the meanest kid in third grade: “Nyah! Nyah!” Like the Rolling Stones logo, without the red lips. But curlier, and gray, not pink. When my father picked up the knife and started to slice it, I think all of us winced. Why did my mother cook this way? Frugality, of course. Offal was cheap, and we were poor. But there was some sense of real effort involved on my mother’s part at this stage of her cooking life. This wasn’t just foodums for her. No, I think she felt that this was the way a resourceful housewife with no money ought to cook. I think she wanted to make interesting meals out of unlikely and inexpensive ingredients. This was a mistake. We were happier when my father was away and she gave up. He was away often. He was a scholar, and he could make money, money we badly needed, by lecturing at colleges and universities around the Midwest. When he was gone, we often had supper in the kitchen, and were allowed to read at the table. My mother would more or less dump sandwich fixings into our midst—a loaf of sliced bread, packaged bologna and liverwurst, Miracle Whip, lettuce, sliced tomatoes—and we’d happily help ourselves and then sit silently, chewing and working our way through whatever books we’d chosen for this treat. The problem was that my mother hated cooking, and cooking hated her. A few years ago, I wrote a memoir about my father’s death from Alzheimer’s disease, which sparked a number of his old friends and colleagues—wonderfully for me—to write to me about their memories of him. One of them, who’d stayed with my parents for a week or so when I was small, recalled my mother as always reading, as lively, and then added, “though she might not have been the best cook in the world.” Folks, fifty years had passed! What could she have served him? Her tuna casserole? “Spanish” rice? Kidney stew? She couldn’t cook. Everything at our house was overdone, if it wasn’t underdone. Meat was gray. Chicken bled freely when it was cut into. Cakes were made from packages, pancakes from Bisquick. Vegetables came from cans, or later from blocks of green ice. Salads were iceberg lettuce with bottled dressing. Soup was Campbell’s. Really, the only good meal of the week was Sunday dinner, which was invariable, roast beef and roast potatoes, both—yes—overdone, but in this case because both would have gone into the oven just before my parents left the house to walk to church—where we four children were awaiting them, having walked over earlier for Sunday school. When we all came home, full of virtue and ready to return to bodily life, the house always smelled wonderful. Smelled better, in fact, than dinner tasted. But we didn’t notice that. We didn’t know better. Monday we were back to the regulars. Stuffed green peppers. Stuffed with what? Who knew? Just some stuff. Or tongue. Or sawdusty meatloaf with frozen French fries. Then things changed. We lived on a street on the south side of Chicago which was being claimed, in those postwar years, by young families with children, some of the fathers faculty at the University of Chicago, where my father also taught, in the Theological School. At a certain point in the late forties or early fifties we became a critical mass, all these children—three or four to a family—all these young, interesting parents. There was a father who ran a social work agency, another who was a psychologist at the university, one who worked at the Field Museum of Natural History, another one who worked at the Art Institute. The wives—the mothers—were all overqualified for the job. It was a lively group, and it was the fifties, the time of gin and bourbon and rye. Of martinis and cigarettes. For us kids, the block was a continuous long game, particularly when the weather warmed and we could be out on the street as soon as school was over, and could stay out until we were ready for supper. For our parents, it was a movable cocktail party, now at this house, now at that. Of course, they seemed ancient to me then, but I think of them now with something like envy. Imagine it, a group of young people in their early to mid-thirties, vitally interested in the work they were doing, at a wonderful, radical university, all simply having to step outside, head down the street a few doors, and find each other to talk, to argue, to laugh. To drink. No one had a television yet, the computer didn’t exist. When the work day was over—the work day of books and ideas, of history and art—you sought company, other life, and on our street, you found it, easily. They never had dinner parties. There were too many kids around, and maybe—who knows?—the other mothers disliked cooking as much as mine did. Instead they drank. They gathered informally, drifting across the street or down the block several times a week, and gossiped and joked and smoked and laughed. Sometimes there was a party, an arranged gathering, and then they often played games—elaborate charades, word games, games in which they drew each other. There was one I remember called Personalysis, which involved the group’s guessing each other’s identity based on their written responses to Rohrschach inkblots. But mostly they talked, with a premium put on wit. They talked and laughed. Whenever I tell people that my father was an ordained minister, that he taught at a theological seminary, that many of the other fathers in my parents’ group of friends were theologians, too, they assume that my childhood was puritanical, dour, un-fun. Not so. There are, it turns out, many God jokes, most of which I heard growing up. And beyond that, our parents just loved to party. Which was fine, until you wanted supper—foodums!—and they were nowhere around. We children would slowly have meandered home from wherever we’d spent the afternoon, impelled by hunger. We would gather, waiting. We were not allowed snacks—there was no such thing as snack food in our house—so there was nothing to stave off the growing bite of hunger. Finally we’d cross some line and decide it was time to go and fetch our parents home. I was often the emissary, sent to whine about us, about the children they seemed to have forgotten down the block, about our starving state. Or maybe I offered to go. Because I liked being there among them, the grown-ups. I liked the looseness, the wild laughter, the bawdy jokes, even when I didn’t understand them. And you could actually get some food if you weren’t too piggy, too conspicuous about it. Cocktail food. What passed then for cocktail food. Those round, orange Ritz crackers with an equally orangey cheese that was served in a plastic container. Triscuits with cream cheese. Tasteless green olives stuffed with pimiento, or woody black ones, pitted. But my mother was hard to budge, and usually at some point, maybe on my second or third trip to the Grants’ house, or the Winters’ or the Cliffs’, she would send me home with cooking instructions. Cooking instructions which inevitably began with the same two or three steps. One: put a pot of water on to boil. Two: preheat the oven. Three: take—variably—peas, corn, hot dogs, hot dog rolls, soup, tuna, French fries, chicken pot pies, out of the freezer or the cupboard and put them/it either in the water or in the oven. My parents were usually home, trailing clouds of nicotine, boisterous and boozy, in time for my mother to do the final assembling of the meal. And so I learned to cook, to cook in a certain fifties way. And inevitably, because I liked cooking more than my mother did, I began to elaborate the meals I was sent home to make. Nothing very inventive. If I was to assemble, let’s say, a tuna casserole out of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, noodles, and the essential can of tuna, I might add some chopped celery to supply a different texture, a crunchiness and freshness. In the summers we went to Maine for a full two months, and there my grandmother presided over meals for the entire assembled family, often twenty people or more. She liked to cook, and once I showed an interest in it, she was glad to have me as her student, her assistant, in the kitchen. Over those summers I learned how to make the dishes she was known for in the family. For the most part nothing fancy: potato salad, deviled eggs, soups. Pancakes from scratch. Gingerbread ditto. A kind of muffin her mother made for her father and named after him: Will’s cakes. Yes, there was her signature jellied shrimp salad, and that was fancy in a certain preposterous, molded way; but mostly I learned the basics. How to boil eggs and drop them in cold water so they’d be easy to peel. How to peel them, rolling them in the black soapstone sink until their shells crackled. I learned the difference between the hard ball stage and the soft ball stage when making fudge or boiled frosting. I learned that you could cook fresh vegetables, that they didn’t have to be prepared for you in a can or a frozen box to be edible. I learned that a salad could be made from grapefruit and red onion slices and avocado. I learned what an avocado was. And back in Chicago I began to notice food at other people’s houses, in other situations. Once I went to the bat mitzvah celebration of a friend at a fancy restaurant and watched the tuxedoed waiter assemble a Caesar salad on a rolling cart pulled up to our table. Some very dark green lettuce, the likes of which I’d never seen, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, anchovies, garlic chopped up into tiny pieces, grated Parmesan cheese, oil, and a raw egg. I’d never tasted anything so wonderful. After various experiments, I was able to duplicate it at home. That was the good news. The bad news was that ever after that, I was in charge of salads. “And would you make us a salad, Susan,” my mother would say. “As only you can?” Gradually that phrase got attached, too, to the other simple dishes I’d taught myself to produce. Lasagna. Mashed potatoes. Meatloaf. Beef stroganoff. Cookies. I don’t mean to suggest that anything like the full burden of cooking in our house fell on me, because that wasn’t the case. Like Ben years later, I dragged home from high school late in the day, and I had hours of homework each night. My mother was the cook. It’s just that two or three times a week, and almost always on special occasions, I would be asked to prepare something, clearly something she’d been thinking about, she’d been anticipating eating. Foodums, my mother was saying to me. I want. I want.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Death by Pad Thai by Edited and with an Introduction by Douglas Bauer. Copyright © 2006 by Douglas Bauer. Excerpted by permission of Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.