Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Meet my grandmother, the conductor of my dinner train to GuiltTown

There are certain foods that I feel so guilty using in my regular dinner rotation, yet I can't stop using them. This may sound crazy, but when I do use these items I can hear my Depression-era grandmother scolding me from the grave. She came from a very poor childhood and was raised in the Depression, that woman could make a meal out of stones if need be. Towards the end of her life, she lived with my mother and I and we spent a lot of time in the kitchen together as well as grocery shopping since she was legally blind (a slightly horrifying task for a gawky 14 year old to do with her grandmother, but I gutted through it).

  But now that I am a working parent, I have limited time to make a weeknight dinner without these shortcuts -  they are how I deal with being in the weeds with a full time job and small children at home to feed. Her influence runs far and wide with me in the kitchen, and she creeps in so often that I feel like she is the one who drives my dinner train sometimes. She had rules like we could never have chicken more than once a week (too expensive), always ask the grocery man what the best deal is on meat that day and to always look at the price per pound of the meat, not the total cost of a package of meat. I do this day in and day out without even thinking about where these "rules" come from (though sometimes asking the butcher at my local Safeway what is good that day is an effort in futility). I love the way she has influenced me, yet I resent the way she has scarred me from enjoying many of the conveniences that are out there for working moms like me who want to serve a healthy meal, yet lack the 10 hours a day to make that meal.

Organic Frozen Brown Rice from Trader Joe's

I must have walked past this item in the freezer section of Trader Joe's fifty times before finally buying a package. If my grandmother were there with me, she'd say, "Frozen rice? Who on earth ever heard of such a thing! You can make that for pennies!!" Yeah, but brown rice takes over 40 minutes in my circa-1987 rice cooker or on the stove top. So I buy the frozen stuff and it completes the meal in just three minutes in the microwave. I laugh wickedly as my children inhale it without even noticing that it's brown or... (gasp!) healthy! Sorry Nonie.

Morello Cherries (in the jar) from Trader Joe's

When I first bought a couple of jars to make a cherry pie, I could practically hear my grandmother scolding me (if she were alive), "You are buying jarred cherries? You can't find a moment in your day to pit your own cherries? Lazy Elsie Marley!" She canned her own cherries for pies and when she died, we hoarded that last jar of cherries until we felt that the pie we were making was worthy enough. But Trader Joe's has cornered the jarred cherry, in my opinion. They are so fresh tasting and it seems like a crime to use the gloppy, sickly sweetened canned cherries at the grocery store.

Salad Dressing

First of all, I love a nice homemade vinaigrette. I love the fresh taste, the tang of dijon and lemon juice and I distinctly remember my grandmother always had a glass jar in the fridge with her homemade salad dressing - served on iceberg lettuce, of course. But I have since gone the route of convenience and often default to buying Newman's Own Italian Vinaigrette and I feel so darn guilty every time I open the bottle. But I felt truly awful when I was planning on bringing a salad to a friend's house for dinner and I asked her, "What kind of dressing should I bring?" She paused and said, "Oh I never buy salad dressing, so I wouldn't even know what brands are out there." I wanted to call her bluff so badly... like she never notices salad dressing? Just like the way I never notice that Dove Bars go on sale two times a month. Yeah right!

Roast Chicken

On the days where we ate roasted chicken as a family, she always saved the carcass to make chicken stock. But what impressed me more than the rich stock that she coaxed out of a pile of bones, some parsley and vegetable scraps was how she could clean the meat from the chicken, the carcass would be bare and clean of any meat when she was done with it. I never feel like I have done a good enough job with my rotisserie chicken and my husband laughs as I mutter the same thing (out loud to no one in particular) "I know, I know.. I am wasting chicken again, aren't I?" She'd be proud of my chicken bone stash in the freezer though.

Frozen fruit

I was raised to eat what was in season and have fond memories of watching persimmons get riper and riper next to the sink during the fall. Having frozen fruit was never really an option, though I do recall canned pineapple coming out around Easter. Anyways, I always have frozen fruit in my freezer now. Have you tried those frozen mango chunks from Trader Joe's? Divine. Petite frozen blueberries? Delicious! My kids toss frozen blueberries like popcorn into their mouths.

But the one thing I still cannot buy is applesauce. That woman made and canned her own applesauce every single year and it was to die for. Subtly sweet, grainy yet not overly so, perfectly seasoned with cinnamon and was the color of a perfect sandy beach with a lemony after taste. I swore when I ate her last jar of applesauce after she passed away that I would never eat a jar of store bought applesauce and I still haven't. Nothing can hold a candle to that woman... and her applesauce. I miss you Nonie!


  1. I have also had an urge to call a bluff like that every now and then ("Packaged cookies? Sorry, I only ever have homemade...") I also have to cut myself some slack sometimes, particularly when I pick up things without the most stellar nutritional profiles. But hey - whatever gets the job done and food into the kids mouths is golden! (though I never knew about frozen brown rice - I usually make up a big batch of grain and freeze it in single servings to pull out when I need...)

  2. Loved reading this about Nonie, and how she influenced you!