Wednesday, February 4, 2015

When Dee Cheeken Looks So GOOOOD

My mother was a fancy lady, that means she didn't cook, clean, keep up a home, or sew our costumes for school plays. She liked it that way and never felt guilty about her lack of domestic interest. Her childhood had been spent in South America, and she came from a time where there were only people who had “servants” and people who did the serving. Servants is the word my mother used, I would hear her speak of her formative years, about the help that her family employed, and it made me cringe a little.

Beyond the fact that her mother, my grandmother, had help with her eight children, was the boggling number of people they had in their employ. There was a specificity to each worker and their duties, one woman for laundering the sheets and making the beds, one woman who saw to it that each of the rooms in the house was swept daily, one woman who worked strictly in the kitchen, and one woman in charge of the daily shopping in the town's market. Obviously, there were nannies. Yes, I understand there were no modern day appliances, but even then, there sure were a lot of reasons to explain the end result: my mother the fancy lady.

Oh, I almost forgot about the person charged with the care of tending to my older sister’s pet howler monkey.

Without a doubt, this is the reason for the clear cut dichotomy with the family life my older sisters knew when they grew up in South America, and the abrupt shift with life in America as immigrants, the only one I know of. My life story is the tale of Cinderella, starring me, in charge of three siblings, and all the rooms in the house.

When my mother moved to the United States, the privileged lifestyle that she and my older two sisters had taken to be status quo, stopped. There were no "servants" here. But at least there were appliances. Still, the shock of do-it-yourself life along with the unwilling attitude on her part to have to learn how to do for herself, birthed a lot of meal time horror stories. My mother could not cook worth a lick.

They were six of us, hungry as children get, and we all weighed in the 20th percentile. Sure, there was food a plenty in the house, but every week, it played out the same way. My mother would buy bags of produce, put their fresh contents in the refrigerator, then at the end of the week, she would take out those same bags of produce, and throw their slimy contents in the garbage. We really needed our refrigerator door to be more of a revolving door for the food that went in, then came back out.

On our annual well-child physical exams, my mother always asked our family physician. Dr. Ottenstein, the same question. “Why my cheeldren so skeeny?” Hmmmm, let’s see, mother, let's see if we can figure this out. You don’t cook, so.... kids don’t eat. Any light bulbs?

Since there had been a “servant” to shop the market in Colombia for my mother’s family, she had no idea what needed to be kept in a house for groceries. She knew to buy fruits and vegetables and some steaks, but if you couple that handy bit of information in with the fact that she knew only bare essential English and therefore GUESSED at what the ingredients were in the containers at the grocery store, and it was pot luck for dinner every night.

On a particularly memorable trip back from the supermarket, my mother came home with a large royal blue white lidded container that had a label wrapped around its tin body depicting a succulent golden roasted chicken. She removed the white lid of the large can, and using a can opener, began to work her way around the top of the big barrel. As the metal lid popped off, I remember her screams from the kitchen. “Que??” What? Inside the can, was what looked to us like solid white wax. “Dey rob you here! Dees ees supposed tooo beee a CHEEEKEN!”

My mother had expected a civilized fully cooked chicken inside the can, just as the label had promised. The crime that had been committed against her was that Crisco had filled their tub with not a chicken, but shortening instead. How was she supposed to know that? You'd have to a.) take an interest in cooking to look further and b.) read the label to find out. Too much bother for a fancy lady.

That’s how my mother navigated the United States: grab and go based on what the picture showed.

Aside from the hassle that reading and cooking was, and the distraction of that which interfered with a balanced grocery shopping trip, my mother was also easily influenced by her legendary sweet tooth. We thought nothing -- as did she -- of sitting down with a Smucker's jar of raspberry jam and a teaspoon. What? No one else counted that as Saturday morning breakfast? She loved candy, she loved sugar, she loved cookies. Cookies were her favorite.

One evening, after we had finished a concoction of open canned meals featuring Dinty Moore beef stew atop bowls of Minute Rice dumped together with a can of boiled potatoes (a yummy combination of which resulted in at least a pound or two in weight loss), my mother stood up, grinning. Her eyes popped wide, and she said, sounding as if she was surprising herself, “OH! I have cookies!" And she ran off to the kitchen.

There was hope! At least, the cookies would be good! Maybe our stomachs would stop rumbling yet. My mother returned, with a platter filled with tiny golden flowers.

Oooooohhhhh. We were so excited! The cookies were so miniature, so cute, so for a baby! Baby cookies! The six of us pounced on the platter and jammed the tiny cut-outs into our mouths by the fistfuls. We had to hurry, because six kids, six sets of hungry paws, get them while you can there is no sense of fairness when it comes to hunger.

All is fair in love and cookies, so our mouths were crammed full without even tasting what we were shoveling in. Five seconds later, we were spitting out partially chewed cookies.

What were we eating?
What is this?
We dared to peer at the discards in our napkins (of course, cloth not paper). Oily stains were quickly spreading against the grain of the napkin's fabric. "Cooookeeees!,” my mother said through gritted teeth. "Dese are NOT cookies!" With her mouth set firm, she waved the box at us, jamming the cardboard with her finger, "Again! De box shows one thing it is not! Coookeees!"
True to her functional dysfunctional style, my mother had grabbed a box off the shelf at the store that was not what its wrapping promised: small plated golden flower shaped buds. She had come home once again with something else all together. Had she read the words across the top of the "Dairy State's Best!" box, my mother would have known that she was serving us 50 tiny golden butter medallions, in the shape of delicate rosettes.
I will save you the story of how it came to pass that same week, that our school lunches were packed in the prettiest, slimmest, blue bags. Anyone remember the big pink box of Confidets in your mother's private closet? Think hard, the box also came with its own disposable bags.
 * * *



  1. The Crisco-reveal moment in this piece will stick with me for, um, EVER.

    Interestingly, I just set four sticks of butter out on the counter for some cookies I'd planned to make later. Now I'm thinking the cookies are MADE already, right there on the counter. Maybe I'll just slice the sticks along the tablespoon measuring lines.

    Terrific piece.

    1. Thank you, Jocelyn. Thank you for always making me smile.

  2. ew....ha..errr....might want to check what you are putting in your mouth! no wonder you wer so skeeny.

    1. I can still taste the oil and feel the chunked up bits of the "coooookeeees", B. xo

  3. When our housekeeper left, my mother cried, because she realized that she had to cook for her family of four children. She had to take cooking classes. We survived, all of us.

  4. This story is the best. My mom never cooked either, but we did at least get some decent frozen meals out of it. Probably also why she was NOT asking our doctor why *I* was so skinny.

  5. oh dear....oh dear, dear, dear



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