MomThe other day I stood in the meat section staring at the packages of cellophane-wrapped meats and could not figure out what I wanted to cook for dinner. Steak? Too expensive. Pork? Nobody really likes it but me. Chicken? We had that last night. Pasta? I can’t eat that right now, and again, nobody really likes it but me.

Why oh why do I have to be saddled with this chore of cooking dinner? I thought of my husband, the lucky bastard who just gets to come home and eat. He doesn’t have to worry about what to make or the work involved in making it, and the crushing blow when it doesn’t come out as planned. Yeah, I’m not the best cook on the planet.

My mom was a great cook, though. Every night there was a complete, hot meal on the table, and it was always something different. Sure, we had our family favorites that were repeated over and over again. My mom made a killer pot roast. I’d bust a gut eating piles of mashed potatoes smothered in the gravy that came with the roast. And her spaghetti sauce was out of this world and something I’ve never been able to replicate.

This “what to make” conundrum at the market made me think back to my own dinner table growing up, and how vastly it differs from the one I’ve provided my children with. I have to admit, this is one of the times I had it better.

For one, my family ate together. We had assigned seating, same spot for each child every night. I sat on a bench next to my dad which had its good and bad points. I’d occasionally  get a sip of his beer (good point!), but if you didn’t like what we had for dinner, there was no hiding the fact that you didn’t really eat much. He watched my plate like a hawk.

We also had a small TV in the kitchen, but the only thing that was allowed to be played was the news. Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel joined our family each night during dinner – and Warner Wolf with sports, at which point my brother would hush everyone at the table. God forbid he missed “Let’s go to the videotape!”

Another thing my folks did right? My mother made a dinner. Period. If you didn’t like it? Tough titties. There were meals served in my house that I absolutely despised. One of them was tenderloin. My mom made it in a pressure cooker, so when I’d come home and see that steamy pot with the little thing-a-ma-jig bobbing on top, I knew I was in for a gruesome dinner. The meat was pink, fatty, salty and stringy. I’d trim away the fat, and try to force down the meat, but eagle-eye dad would see the pile of fat and yell at me. He would say, “A little fat is good for you! Eat it!”

This fight would also ensue when we had stew. I love stew now, but as a kid I hated it. Maybe it was because my plate invariably got the chunks of meat that were sinewy and fatty. In any case on most stew nights I’d have a few large chunks of fatty meat and potatoes (which I also didn’t care for in stew for some reason) left on my plate. When I flat out refused to eat them, you got the pleasure of sitting at the table until they were eaten.

Yes, I could relate to that scene in Mommie Dearest with the steak. There were many nights I’d watch the dinner dishes being washed, while I sat in my place staring at dried chunks of cold, fatty meat. I’d just sit there…in a dark kitchen lit only by the dim bulb on the stove, until my mother would finally pardon me from my formica topped prison and send me to bed.

I think not trying to please everyone made cooking easier for my mom, and our dinner table had a wide variety of food placed upon it. We ate very little fish, because at the time, only my dad liked it. Sometimes mom would make him some fish, and the rest of us ate something else – those were nights I slid a little further down the bench to escape the smell of dad’s dinner. At least once a month we ate sausages from a Czech butcher my dad would visit in Astoria, NY.

There were hot summer nights when we would eat a cold supper of deli meat, wrapped in white butcher’s paper, sliced paper thin, on crusty rye bread with a side potato or macaroni salad. When we were older, Wednesday nights were for Chinese food that dad would bring home from some joint in the city. Man, was that stuff good.

My point is, there was always a meal out on that table every single night. Like it or lump it, dinner is served. I think I need to adopt this attitude. If chicken is on sale, we eat chicken. I don’t care if we had it yesterday, here it is again. Life is short, and I’m wasting too much time pulling my hair out in the meat aisle.

I don’t think I’m ever going to get my family to sit together during dinner – we’ve tried to rectify this wrinkle in our family fabric, but everyone is too used to taking their food and eating it where they are most comfortable. I wonder if this would have happened if we’d had an eat in kitchen?

Mom? If you’re up there watching, I just want to let you know, you did dinner right.

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