Dec 8, 2005

Girl Seeks Food

Here's another essay I'm submitting to my writers group.

Girl Seeks Food

“You don’t feed that baby enough,” laughed the refrigerator repairman, commenting on my double-chinned pillowy body. Eight months old, bald and toothless, I was happy on formula and Gerber’s, not quite crawling the fat off yet. The common wisdom of the day, according to my mother and grandmother, was “Fat babies grow up to be fat adults.” For that reason I was denied second helpings for years and given skim milk, while my brothers got whole. Sweets were strictly limited.

I took this reasoning at face value for many years, but the prohibitions goaded me into committing what my mother called “sneaky” acts. When I was about six I developed a ritual of stealing four cookies at a time from the cookie jar. Even if I had just eaten a legitimate cookie, I would accomplish this mission when my mother left the room, almost always successfully. Here was my M.O.:
1. Take lid off cookie jar without clanking.
2. Swiftly and confidently remove four cookies. It always had to be four, I don’t know why.
3. Return lid to jar without clanking.
4. Take cookies to bedroom. Eat immediately.

Step 3 was by far the most challenging, because a cookie jar lid, in the days before anyone lined lids with sealing rings, was loudly condemning, unless I focused completely on the task at hand, and without haste. If it clanked anyway, even the least little bit, my mother could always hear it no matter where she was. “What are you doing?” she would holler. And I would always holler back, “Nothing.” Sometimes if I was just alone in the kitchen she’d ask me what I was doing, because she knew those cookies had a way of decreasing when I was around.

Cakes presented a different kind of challenge. I learned early on to not cut myself a piece, because my mother learned to remember the dessert’s roughly L-shaped configuration. The only thing to do was to cut all around the previously cut edges, hence leaving the same basic shape. I’d pursue this gradually, using a knife and eating slivers off it. That way, if I heard my mother’s footsteps I could nonchalantly shift to a default activity, like looking out the window or reading the comics.

Going out to eat with my grandmother was always a special treat, but not without its chastening moments. More than once she would embarrass me by proclaiming in a stage whisper at Stouffer’s, “This is a good restaurant. You know how I know? Because Jews eat here.” Of course I always wanted dessert, and she would let me get it but then shame me with a huge gasp when it was presented. “Are you going to eat all that?” Only in my teens did I gather the nerve to say “yes” and look her in the eye. On the other hand, whenever my grandmother was offered dessert she would say, “Just a teeny tiny sliver,” gasp when it was delivered, and say “I can’t possibly eat all that.”

Back at home, I carried the sneaky game too far one midsummer morning when I was seven. It was the day when we were to move out of state, and spend the night at my grandparents’s house. I was on the open-air side porch and I was just about to take a bite out of a Hershey bar I had unwrapped in the kitchen, whose wrappings I had no doubt hidden under less recent trash. Suddenly I heard my mother’s heels clicking along the walk. (Women of her age and class wore loud dressy shoes even on moving day.) My sundress had no pockets, so I stuffed the candy bar, improbably, in the side of my underpants.

Even more improbably, I promptly forgot about the candy bar, what with all the excitement of the day. Hours later I discovered it at my grandparents’ house, a gooey sludge in my underwear. I scrunched the underpants and their load in my suitcase, hoping they would go away. My mother found them almost immediately and asked me “Lauren, are you all right? What is this in your underpants?” Mortified, I said, “I’m fine . . . . but I really don’t want to say what it is. Is that okay?” Miraculously, my mother said “okay” and never brought it up again.

I like to remember that moment of grace, because in my memory there weren’t many of them. Even as a grown woman visiting my parents, I knew my mother was listening to the cupboard and refrigerator doors, to ascertain what I was getting. She would proclaim she was going to bed, only to pop up unexpectedly in the kitchen a half hour later because she “forgot something.” But I wasn’t the only person left hungry. My mother’s cooking was delicious, and I owe a large part of my cooking know-how from her, but she cooked scanty amounts. Every time I brought a boyfriend for dinner he had to eat another meal afterwards. My father would fix himself a sandwich right after he got home from work. My husband John and I would go out for a beer and appetizers two hours after a dinner at my parents’ house.

Now my mother and grandmother are dead, but I have six file boxes, three looseleaf notebooks, and one composition book full of their hand-copied recipes. One recipe card at a time, I decipher my grandmother’s loopy handwriting on the yellow-stained papers, and transcribe it. I sift through my mother’s recipes for Indian Pudding, Country Captain, Rhubarb Crisp, and, of course, cookies of one kind and another. Sometimes I encounter my own childish handwriting, in whatever color of ink I liked at the time. The project to record these recipes is daunting, but I will finish. Because I am still hungry.


Sugarmama said...

I like this story, especially your strategy for stealing cookies. My mom says I used to steal sticks of butter when she wasn't watching. Trying to keep my coat glossy, I guess.

susan said...

That's a powerful last line, Lauren. The juxtaposition between that moment of grace with your mother and the other interactions is stunning.

What are you noticing about the recipes and portion sizes as you go through them?