Friday, December 08, 2006


I have learned a lot about children since I became a grandmother. For instance, one should never cook a seven course meal for anyone under the age of ten. Children will scorn that meal, with its combination of sauces and ingredients, healthy stuff, fit for kings, and demand a hot dog or a peanut butter and jam sandwich. With children, it is always simplicity. They can grow to be six feet tall on a diet of macaroni and cheese. They can thrive on a steady diet of Ramen Noodle Soup.

Because I try to convince my grandchildren they should eat healthy foods, I have always made sure I have a supply of vegetables. The only way I can get them to eat vegetables is to provide all kinds of dip. Children love to dip. You could give them willow twigs, provide them with a dip, and they'd happily devour the twigs, while splashing Creamy Ranch all over the kitchen.

One of my grandchildren, when she was very small, fell in love with Honey Dijon Dip. I still have chairs that you stick to when you sit in them.

Children also have a great affinity for catsup. They will spread their beloved "ketchup" on anything and everything, including their hair and your hair. Heaven help the grandparent who has run out of catsup! Might as well take the kids home!

As a child, I scorned the food that was eagerly consumed by my parents. I never ate cottage cheese, cabbage, or various vegetables. In the first place, that cottage cheese was just one step removed from that clobbery mess on our front porch. My mother made her own cottage cheese from the milk given by our cows. She would hang the clods of soured milk in cheesecloth bags from the porch railing, allowing it to drip its greenish, bilious, nauseous, odorous liquid onto the ground. Then she would take this concoction in, rinse it, add a little cream and seasonings, and serve it. A diabolical brew, in my mind.

As for cabbage, my mother took cabbage and cooked the hell out of it. No green hue remained in that cabbage when it reached our table. It took on the same color as the potatoes it was cooked with, a yellowish white. It was easy for me to turn that down.

But I never turned down those biscuits. Mom made biscuits for every meal, mixing them up on the top of her flour tin, not even bothering to dirty a dish. She would shape them with her hands, then put them in hot oil in an iron skillet, which gave them a golden crust. Only then would she put them in the oven to cook completely. The oven had two temperatures, too hot and too cold. How she ever cooked anything on that woodstove is beyond me. It snorted and bellowed like an angry dragon, spitting sparks and smoke, and sending out billows of soot.

Mom was fearless when it came to that stove. She took her poker and valiantly fought that dragon, putting wood in its mouth, ignoring its roars of anger. But she knew it could eat little girls, so she never allowed us near it, never taught us to cook, simply shooed us away from the stove and did the work herself.

As a result, my first dinner party for my in-laws that I planned after my marriage was a total disaster. I was faced with a huge slab of meat, a roast, and I just couldn't figure out how to tell when it was done. So, I served this dried-up piece of charcoal, and watched as my new in-laws courageously chewed and chewed, making complimentary remarks and smiling through this fiasco.

My own kids have been known to spread nasty rumors about my cooking ability. One of them claims I haven't cooked since my kids learned to pour. Then, too, they claim they can't enjoy a bowl of chili unless it has little black, burnt specks in it.

I have to admit that, to me, cooking is drudgery. At one time, my boss at the paper, who considered himself to be a gourmet chef, shook his head and wondered why I didn't like to cook. "You're supposed to be creative, Herma. Cooking is creative. You should enjoy it!"

I couldn't explain to him that my reluctance to cook stems from memories of that old cookstove, that black dragon, snorting fire at me. I recall Mom, her cheeks a brilliant red from the redhot blasts emitted by that monster, going into battle three times a day, a brave Mother Warrior, determined to feed her brood.

This explains the fallen, concave cakes, the burnt chili, the lumpy puddings, the dry casseroles that I have served at my table. But, hey, cornflakes are already cooked and tasty as hell. Eat up, kids!

Every morning, Pop indulged in two foods that he considered breakfast fare. He called them "apple sass" and "grease gravy." The apple sauce was made from the wormy deadfall from the old orchard. We would gather up those apples and Mom would peel every one of those squiggly little bullets, cutting away the wormy parts until she had a pan filled with tiny apple slices. The grease gravy was made from the fat of butchered hogs.

In his later years, just before his death...and contributing to father had gall bladder surgery. The doctor later said that his inner organs were like old leather, shrivelled and corroded. I always blamed that on the grease gravy. Then again, not many men approaching eighty could carry a treetrunk home from the orchard, chop it into firewood, and pile it beside the house for use during the winter.

Maybe hard work and exercise wipe away the excesses of too much grease gravy. The truth is, as I approach my father's age just before his death, I compare my activity to his and realize that I do not equal the amount of work in a month that he did in a single day.

Perhaps that's the trouble. Rather than falling into rank obesity and early death, we Americans should try being dirt poor and forced to chop wood to keep the house warm, and feed the stock on cold winter nights in order to keep food on our tables. We sit around watching television, drive everywhere in our comfortable cars, and fall over at early ages, plump as pumpkins.

Rather than striving for riches, perhaps we should strive for poverty. It's not so hard to become poor as it is to get rich. In fact, it's easy. And, with poverty, comes much better health. One has to get off one's behind and do a little work. Maybe that is why Jesus didn't want that camel going through the eye of the needle, who knows?