Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cooking In My Daughter's Kitchen

For fourteen years I was a single parent of Elizabeth. I look back upon those years as the Trifecta of my life. At the same time I was parenting, I was building my career in research administration and going to graduate school. When all was said and done after those fourteen years my daughter had a high school diploma and was successfully launched into her freshman year of college, I had a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in political science, and was the director of sponsored programs at Frostburg State University. In Elizabeth years – that was age 4 to age 18.

Clearly during those years, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Although I enjoyed cooking, a ‘from scratch,’ home-cooked meal for the two of us happened only sporadically. On rare occasions I’d host a group of friends and pull out all the stops for a sit-down dinner party – soup to nuts to elegant dessert with wines matched to each course.

I learned during those years that it was possible to instill concepts of good nutrition even when dining out regularly, but I was always concerned that Elizabeth wasn’t learning proper cooking techniques and meal preparation. The one exception was our ‘Monday Night Menu’: fish sticks and Kraft macaroni & cheese with green peas. Elizabeth excelled at macaroni and cheese from the box. This meal was our Monday night special that followed my weekly aerobics class and was accompanied by the latest episode of Anne of Avonlea on PBS. I consoled myself with the thought that across town my friend Audrey, also a working single parent and graduate student, was serving her daughter beans and wieners while watching Jeopardy. I thought my dinner was nutritionally superior. As I look back now - it’s hard to see the distinction.

Earlier this summer, I spent vacation time with Elizabeth and my son-in-law Nate at their home in Charlotte, NC. We were eating dinner one night and I reminded her of the time she had her best friend at our house for a sleep over. I made from scratch lasagna for their dinner. As I was dishing it out of the pan, Elizabeth informed me that she didn’t like home cooking. I paused for a moment and considered that instead of three hours making lasagna in our postage-stamp sized kitchen, I could have been spending quality time with the American Political Science Review and working on a paper that was due in two days. Nor did I mention the grant that was due the following week that had yet to have the budget complete and the evaluation section finalized. My reply to her: “This is dinner tonight. Bon app├ętit.” As I left the dining room to go attend to my computer, I turned and said, “Oh and by the way we’ll be having lasagna leftovers three nights this week.” Elizabeth did not remember this incident.

These days, both Nate and Elizabeth are immersed in building their respective careers. So one day, during my vacation in Charlotte, I decided to fix dinner for them. It was a week night and they both had left early that morning and were coming home late. I had a happy maternal feeling knowing that they would come home to a nice dinner on a weeknight. And I remembered how much I would have loved if someone had done that for me during those Trifecta years.

About the time that Elizabeth was moving out of our house and prepping for dorm life, I was remarried and getting ready to join Gary (my farmer-architect) and his fully equipped kitchen in Ohio. Much of my Elysian Avenue kitchen was packed away for the day Elizabeth was ready to set-up housekeeping. Now eleven years later and newly married, Elizabeth’s kitchen reflects Martha Stewart, Crate & Barrel, Calphalon cookware, Mikasa flatware and Riedel stemless wine glasses. The latest and greatest and most up-to-date gourmet-equipped kitchen.As I poked around Elizabeth’s kitchen looking for pots and pans, measuring spoons, and mixing bowls, I kept happening onto remnants of our Elysian Avenue kitchen. The all-purpose stainless steel bowl (passed from my mother to me) that was magically always the perfect size for whatever needed to be mixed from cole slaw to cake batter to homemade play dough. The two piece plastic bowl with nested strainer I purchased for $3.95 on a trip to Pittsburgh’s Strip District (a shopping area catering to restaurantuers and kitchen supply houses). I used that constantly, as Nate and Elizabeth said they do now too. A single glass left from the set of six orange embellished juice glasses stands assertively by the oversize stoneware mugs, and the West Virginia University commemorative cups, which no doubt began their life filled with beer at Mountaineer Field.

During the Trifecta years I despaired of Elizabeth ever having the desire, let alone the ability, to eat right and cook healthy. Yet, here she is now a menu planner, a thrifty shopper, and training to run her first marathon. Son-in-law Nate, as an elementary school physical education teacher, models good eating habits and proper nutrition, and regular exercise. On their bookshelves you’ll find the red and white Better Homes & Gardens cookbook standard next to Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray, and the Barefoot Contessa. Interspersed with these contemporary classics are her grandmother’s well-worn and frequently consulted reference cookbooks including the American Carpatho-Russian Cookbook compiled by the Russian-Orthodox Church in Johnstown, PA., reflecting the Russian and Polish heritage on her paternal side. I still have the cookbooks and recipe collections that reflect the English heritage of her maternal side.

I am always moved by the simplest and homeliest kitchen utensils, dishes, pots and pans. Those are usually the first items I hone in on at auctions and estate sales. They speak to me of daily triumphs and challenges that make up our lives. Seeing the odds and ends from our home in West Virginia, now living side-by-side with things fresh from the bridal registry, I felt a bit made me homesick for those good ole’ days crammed with multiple pressures, competing demands for my time and attention, ongoing financial worries, and struggles to excel in the office and the classroom. At the time it seemed a difficult life, but as is usually the case when you look back, I see a life punctuated by the satisfactions of accomplishment, the miracles of growing up, and the reflections on a life well-fed.

To you, Elizabeth, on the threshold of your life, Bon Appetit!

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