I’m a good cook. Anyone will tell you that. I subscribe to Cook’s Illustrated. I took a French cooking class at L’Academie de Cuisine. I can bake my own bread, and I even got lessons from Mark Furstenberg of Bread Line fame. However, my kids do not like my cooking. They do like my baking, that is not in dispute. Maybe the real problem is, my kids do not like the same things. One likes chicken, the other likes tofu. One likes burgers, the other likes sushi. The one who likes sushi will not eat meat at all. He calls himself a “pescatarian.” Meaning, he will eat fish. But of course, only certain kinds of fish. As in, not the kind I made tonight. Ordering in? They don’t like the same kind of pizza: One wants Vace, the other wants Ledo’s. Meal in a box? One likes pasta shells with white cheese, the other likes mac with orange cheese. Like there’s a big difference, right? Add to this my own dietary restrictions—I can’t eat dairy anymore, in addition to a number of other foods—and I’m thankful that my husband, at least, will eat whatever I put in front of him. We all have dinner together far less often than the studies say we should, and I feel bad about that at the same time I am currently doing nothing about it—because isn’t that the point of those studies? To give us more to feel bad about? I think the researchers sit around and go, “Gee, we haven’t made working mothers feel crappy in a while. What have you got?” When we do have dinner together, I end up making three or four different meals. Yes I have tried the tough love approach, making the same meal for everyone. I know this works in some households. It does not work in mine.
For obvious reasons, I find myself daydreaming about the olden days, when I only had to feed myself. In the late 1980s, I lived in one of the low-rise red brick apartment buildings on Battery Lane. This was the kind of building where you could smell what everyone was cooking in the hallway, and the ladies who lived downstairs complained about the sounds from above, like walking and breathing. Here’s a tip: If you are a person in your twenties living in an apartment building, people will tell you to invite your neighbors to your parties so that they will not complain. This does not work! This only gives them time to notify the police in advance.
For the spare bedroom in a 2-bedroom apartment, I paid less than $400 a month. Which in today’s dollars is at least 250 cents. When I moved in, the casement window in my bathroom had been left open so long that mourning doves were nesting on the window sill. It was two months before I could close the window, but I enjoyed watching the baby birds while I brushed my teeth.
Back then, I did not know how to cook beyond the most rudimentary dishes. Therefore my diet consisted primarily of breakfast cereal and frozen microwave burritos. If you have adult children who cook this way, do not be concerned about them. I am a living example that there is hope.
My roommate at that time was a scientist, and he apparently performed some of his experiments in our kitchen, including growing a variety of bacteria there. His girlfriend would come over, and they would cook something in a wok. The wok, when I saw it on the stove the next morning, was always in an appalling condition, coated with a thick black layer of crud. This was before I knew that you’re not supposed to clean a wok with actual soap and water, because that would not only damage its stir fry capabilities, but would disrupt the space-time continuum. The wok is supposed to turn black and fill up with crud: This is called “patina.”
Being in the same apartment as a wok was a huge step up for me, even if I wasn’t eating anything that was cooked in it. After all, my humble microwave burrito included something from the four basic food groups: beans, cheese, flour, onions. What else did I need? This was long before the invention of the food pyramid and the accompanying discovery of at least four MORE basic food groups heretofore unknown to the Bethesda area, and by that I mean: Lattes, cupcakes, Clayboy’s shave ice, and Grey Goose vodka.
At the same time I learned about patina, my roommate and his girlfriend learned about dust tumbleweeds, as this was my main contribution to the household. Eventually, they moved out to get married and took their wok with them. It was around then that I got a pay raise of approximately two percent. With that heretofore unknown level of discretionary income, I decided to give the microwave burritos a pass.
Do you think I’m going to say that I went out and bought a wok, started making tofu, and lived happily ever after? Hahaha. No, I started going out to eat. Or, more accurately, I started bringing home carry-out. Because eating out still smacked of high luxury that I didn’t deserve. I was working in magazine publishing, and later, as an editor at a nonprofit, which I had previously understood to mean “an organization that was not designed to earn a profit,” when it actually meant “an organization whose employees don’t earn a profit.” (Thanks for clearing that up!)
Although it was possible to spend a lot of money eating out if you really tried, back then Bethesda was not yet the Land of So Many Restaurants That We Suspect There Are Elves Who Build New Ones Overnight (hey, who put a restaurant in my garage?? …wait—is that dim sum?). Rather, Bethesda was the Land of a Small Handful of Restaurants That Have Been Here Forever. Most of these restaurants were not very good; we just had no basis for comparison. We probably thought they were very good at the time, because in those days, our palates were less sophisticated. Twenty years ago, if someone had offered me “tapas,” I probably would have slapped him.
I subsisted on Philadelphia Mike’s cheesesteaks, for instance. And there were the Buffalo wings at Durty Nelly’s, free at happy hour. (I was not a good cook, but I was an expert at finding free meals.) Every time I pass a Little Tavern hut, now housing anything from a Chinese carry-out to a credit union, I get an urge for late-night sliders. But Matuba, which I’m pleased is still open, was my favorite stop for the most luxurious meal I allowed myself—carry-out sushi.
The good news is we do have more to choose from around here these days, although now that I can cook, I have no business eating out every night. The bad news is that it’s far more difficult to please a family of four than a single person who requires only a microwave and a 7-Eleven to be satisfied. But that gives me an excellent idea. Tonight at dinner, I will announce a breakthrough in family meals, a revolutionary single dish that will please them all…or else. The frozen microwave burrito is about to make a comeback.
For more from Paula Whyman, see www.paulawhyman.com and her online parody newspaper www.bethesdaworldnews.com.