When the Little Man moved in with us at just barely six years old, he’d eaten only at Denny’s and McDonald’s for the previous month. I assumed Denny’s for breakfast and McDonald’s for dinner, but it turns out it was the other way around: orange juice and a large cookie at McD’s for breakfast, fries and a burger at Denny’s for dinner. He had full access to soda, candy, and cable TV throughout the night.
The month before he moved in, I ate my daily favorite: brown rice, cooked greens, and tofu.
Now that’s a recipe for disaster.
I couldn’t expect this kid to suddenly eat like Mahatma Gandhi or an athlete. He had too many other changes to get used to. But neither could I let him continue with his junk-food diet when he had skin, weight, and behavior issues—the organic yoga mommies of North Seattle would burn me at the renewable bamboo stake if they caught wind of my abuse through saturated fats, refined sugar, and preservatives.
So here’s what happened: In an effort to compromise and find a middle ground, I turned into a terrible cook, and for years we ate dinners nobody liked, except for the Man I Married, who is content and grateful for anything I set in front of him.
Seven years later, the Little Man still has not reconciled himself to anything but doughnuts, pizza, candy, and fries. LM will beg, borrow, and steal to get his fix.
It’s a battle that rages on as I try to balance health with sanity. I got so tired of his sneaking and lying to dump my baking sugar on his food while I wasn’t looking, that I loaded the sugar container with salt. That took care of that.
I always loved my mother’s cooking, but I’d eaten what she ate since conception. When I was weaned, which was as soon as she could manage it, the family leftovers went into the blender for me, as they had for my two older brothers. My mother worked full-time as she birthed and raised three kids and proceeded through her college degrees: B.A, then M.A., then doctorate. And she did all the cooking. She rotated through a set of staples: pork chops with rosemary, various tuna casseroles (one creamed and one dry with potato chips on top), meat loaf, beef teriyaki and stir-fried noodles, frankfurters paprika, and pork kau yuk. The only meal I didn’t like was fish in white sauce, because I couldn’t see the bones. Every meal was accompanied by white rice. We did not go out to eat.
My mother was not always a good cook. One evening early in their marriage, after an argument, my father—who is like my husband in his appreciation of whatever is set in front of him—ate the burned dinner and asked, “Did you do this on purpose because you’re mad at me?” She had not.
For her first wedding anniversary, she was given The Can Opener Cookbook and the I Hate to Cook Cookbook by her husband and mother. I might add that she was 20 years old, had a newborn, was attending college, and working. I don’t remember my mother ever using a cookbook when I was growing up. When would she have had the time? By the time I came along, the third kid in three years, and I’d graduated to using my own utensils, my mother had her rotation of memorized recipes down to a system. I don’t ever remember anyone complaining, “Pork chops? Again?”
I mourned the lost part of motherhood, where my comfort food could be one sure way to express love, where the smell of rosemary never fails to bring me a feeling of contentment. Instead, with whatever I set in front of LM, I wonder what he’ll find to complain about. Even if it’s something I think he’ll like and I’ve made with his tastes in mind, he finds ways to criticize, usually by asking for something to go with it that’s not on the table, like ketchup. “Is there any…?” he’ll start. Or, “Where’s the…?”
To make matters worse, the Little Man was recently fitted with braces, and he now has restrictions of convenience: he can gnaw his way through the stolen, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts I was using for Christmas gifts, but he laments that the orthodontist forbids him to eat cooked carrots. Right.
Yet one favorite we’ve all agreed on over the years is the fresh homestyle bread so easily available in Seattle. But it’s expensive, and the crust is often hard—too hard for his braces, LM claims. I dislike seeing him waste so much perfectly good food, which is a privilege many in the world don’t have, and I try to instill in him my own politically correct version of “the people are starving in China” lecture my generation often received (my best friend would tell her mother to send her dinner to China, then). Unfortunately, all I need do is point out to LM the many homeless encampments close to home as an example of how fortunate we are.
Since my work schedule has finally eased up a bit, I returned to baking bread, which is easier on our budget and on our silver-toothed one—I use the light crust setting in the bread-maker. Reaction to my bread has been lukewarm, but all of it gets quickly eaten: even the loaf that didn’t rise, and even the failed pickle bread. My cooking motto is “always double it” for the spice or flavor or chocolate, but twice the pickle in this case meant a briny loaf that needed to be paired with a martini.
Homemade bread got me to thinking about the bird-feeders and store-bought suet cakes, packaged in plastic. Suet is disgusting. Suet is made from lard. What bird eats lard? And how is adding more plastic to the landfill going to help the birds and the planet? The cakes likely used chemical preservatives, and another birder noted that they might be rancid, from improper storage or sitting too long on a shelf.
And thus, in a moment of insanity, most likely following a spate of remembering to take my iron and Vitamin D supplements, I went homemade for the birds, too.
I tried two suet recipes: and one with lard (which I’m going to use to replace the center of the Oreos if LM keeps stealing them), and one that’s vegetarian, with Crisco, just like my grandmothers used—just looking at the label I hadn’t seen in years gave me a feeling of comfort.
My suet feeder holds four cakes. I hung my three homemade cakes with trepidation alongside the one remaining store-bought cake. If the birds preferred store-bought, I was going to give them nothing but the finger from now on. I felt intensely emotional about my offering to the chickadees and juncos and finches. I couldn’t take more rejection.
My relationship with my own cooking had become so fraught that when a friend got breast cancer a couple of years ago, I chose to transport her and sit with her through her chemo treatments, rather than joining the Meal Brigade. Chemotherapy was less stressful to me than competing with the North Seattle mommies who were making her homemade salad dressing as part of the meals they delivered to her front porch.
The birds seemed unsure at first, like someone from Akron at an Ethiopian buffet. (I speak from experience on this one.)
Then they came in droves. At first I thought that what I was seeing was wishful thinking. But, no.
I meant to conduct an experiment to see whether the birds preferred animal or vegetable fat, but I forgot which was which as soon as I hung them, and the birds didn’t seem to care. The only clear preference was that they loved my home cooking. They gobbled down all three homemade cakes almost instantly, while the store-bought cake remained untouched. Vindication and relief! Somebody appreciated my meals!
While I was baking bread and making suet cakes, another friend underwent a mastectomy and began chemo, which laid her flat for days on end. She has no weight to spare, and I wanted to do something to help.
With the confidence given me by the birds, I got over my cooking insecurity and baked her a loaf of Peanut Butter Bread and left it on her doorstep. I figured it didn’t matter if she liked it—it was the gesture that counted.
She thanked me for the bread and said she wolfed down a quarter of the loaf right then and there, but I figured she was just being polite.
I returned to cooking to please only myself. After a couple of months, LM announced at the dinner table that he was going to become a vegetarian. I chose not to point out that I hadn’t cooked meat for dinner for over two months—he hadn’t noticed. If I had declared my intent to return to vegetarian cooking, he would have rebelled and whined for hamburgers. All I said was, “You know that means giving up hotdogs?” He responded, “Oh, never mind, then.”
I also enrolled LM in Culinary Skills at his high school this summer. He can start making me dinner, and I won’t complain about whatever he prepares.
As my friend prepares to undergo her next round of chemo, which will make her ill for a week, I asked her what I could do to help. She is fiercely independent and I knew that she would wave me off, like always, and say that she didn’t need anything and she’d be fine.
But she said without pause, “Make me another loaf of Peanut Butter Bread.”
In the spirit of Nora Ephron, here’s a recipe:
|quick oats||1/2 cup|
|sunflower seeds||1/3 cup|
|peanut butter||1/3 cup|
|corn meal||1 cup|
Melt Crisco, peanut butter, and sugar in the microwave.
Combine remaining ingredients in a separate bowl. Substitute ingredients freely, using whatever you have on hand. I had no raisins and used dried blueberries, for instance. I used pumpkin seeds instead of sunflower seeds.
Stir everything together.
Press into plastic forms saved from store-bought suet cakes. Makes about a half dozen cakes.
Chill (you and the suet).
There’s debate in the birding community over the pros and cons to feeding birds suet cakes made from lard versus Crisco, with no definitive answer. There are arguments for both sides.
Rather similar to the ongoing debate on whether a vegetarian diet is ideal for humans.
I just hope my suet cakes aren’t causing a problem for a mother-bird trying to teach her kids to make a healthier choice than my fast-food suet.
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All photos by Jennifer D. Munro.