Tuesday, January 23, 2007

In A Nutshell

In a Nutshell

A place set aside to answer 201 autobiographical questions from a mother for her daughter. This may take awhile...join us if you like.

6. This is how we usually ate dinner as a family:

We always ate all meals when we were home together, at the table. Neither television nor radio were on, everyone washed their face and hands before coming to the table, and good table manners were expected. The table was set with either a table cloth or place mats, the dishes and flatware that would be needed (since Daddy put sugar in his coffee, he always got a teaspoon, even if the rest of us wouldn't need one, for instance), and napkins. At some point Daddy decided that five people asking each other to pass the salt and pepper and not being able to start eating until they had arrived, or having to stop to pass it back and forth to others, didn't make sense and bought small shakers for each person.

Mama did most of our meals from scratch, except that she used Campbell's instead of making soup and biscuits from a can instead of from scratch. We had seven reliable standbys, and unless it was an unusual event, if it was Tuesday it was Swiss steak and noodles and salad and a vegetable. Salad was always iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and scallions with vinegar and oil. Salad was every night. Also on the menu were fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, tuna and noodle cassarole, pot roast, and one other thing that I can't remember. Vegetables were always fresh, until frozen ones came out and then sometimes we would have something out of season. Mama was always calorie conscious, so if we had desert it was usually fresh fruit, which I loved.

Once in a while Daddy would go on a cooking spree and fix a type of desert every night until he had run out of variations. Once he did fritters, once it was cobblers, once it was upside down cake. It was amazing the things he would decide to do -- not just the obvious, but things no one had heard of being cobbled or frittered. Bananas and apples, of course, but also pears and peaches and canned pineapple and gooseberries. On vacations, he always took over the cooking so Mama would have a holiday. He was a much more inventive cook, as well as a better cook than Mama. And if he hadn't left the kitchen looking like a dozen pigs had been rooting for truffles, we would have encouraged him to do it more often.

Dinner could be very unpleasant, since Daddy used this opportunity of having us all together to hand out reprimands for whatever ill considered behavior we had indulged in recently. There was a lot of "discussion" of my chores. I don't remember what the other kids got scolded for, since I always came first as the oldest and so was burning with humiliation and anger before they were attacked. I do remember that when he turned on Forrest I would see that Forrest was next to tears and that would upset me so much that I would not be able to stop giggling. Which did work to get the negative attention off of Forry and back on to me. It occurs to me to wonder if Forrest thinks I thought it was funny when he was in trouble? The other thing about this that bothered all of us was that when he scolded me, he would start out by calling me by the other kids' names first. I felt like he was saying I had acted like a child and they felt like they were being accused of whatever I had done. When I left home, Forrest was called Colleen, so it was a conscious thing. (This was unlike when he would be truly flummoxed by something we had done and call us by all 13 of his siblings names before he started on ours. That didn't happen often and we thought it was hilarious.)*

However, once that was over (and it was always the first thing, unless we did something which reminded him of it later) or when no one was in trouble dinner was very pleasant. Conversation included everyone and no one was made to feel stupid because they needed to have something explained to them. Current events, family stories, jokes, plans, general principles for leading the good life might be discussed. All of us shared information about our days and our parents were always interested in whatever it was. They even acted interested as Colleen told the same jokes that first I and then Forrest had told. It takes real love to laugh the fourth time that the third kid tells the same knock, knock joke that was never funny to begin with.

Scolding might happen at lunch on the weekend, but never that I can remember at breakfast. Daddy was very good about not starting us off on an unhappy foot.

I can't remember a single meal that Daddy didn't praise Mama's cooking, and we followed his example without ever being told. Actually, my entire family did this. The men my mother and her sisters married had obviously been raised well; as had my grandfather and great-grandfather. At meals with my great-grandfather, he always said grace and always blessed at least the farmer and the cook. Sometimes he would list one or two others, like the merchant who sold it or the trucker who transported it. We certainly knew most of the trail from farm to table in our house.

* These public scoldings were only for minor matters, I realize now. If we did anything really important, that was discussed in private. And with much more kindness and understanding than the little stuff at the table. For instance, when I was caught shoplifting, Daddy decided I wasn't getting enough money and increased my allowance. Without any punishment at all. And, although I suspect that Forrest and Colleen did things of graver import than slacking their chores, I never witnessed what was done about that.


J said...

It's too bad that he started the meals of in such an unpleasant manner, though. That would give me a stomach ache.

Funny that you had the same meals on the same night of the week...I don't know if I would find that boring or comforting, or perhaps both! Did you ever see "Shirley Valentine"? That reminds me of when she feeds the neighbors dog the steak, and cooks eggs for her husband. He complains. She replies, "But you LIKE eggs and chips!" Says he, "I like my eggs and chips on TUESDAY. Friday, I like my steak!"

kenju said...

"kitchen looking like a dozen pigs had been rooting for truffles"

I love that line. My dad used to cook a lot too, mainly pies and cobblers, but he always cleaned up after himself. I tend to serve the same 7-10 meals time after time. Mr. kenju has finally gotten used to it, I think.

Ally Bean said...

I enjoy how you're able to remember so much from your girlhood. I think that lots of the details of mine are lost forever.

And, now, suddenly, I have a hankering for tuna casserole. Wonder how that happened?!

Joy Des Jardins said...

Apart from the scoldings...and I think we all had those from time to time....your dinners sounded delightful J. Your memories are very vivid and your storytelling is truly heartwarming. I love it.

Betty said...

I make my tuna casserole with ham instead of tuna. It's pretty good, too. But, I still call it tuna casserole. Wonder why I do that.

gawilli said...

My mom had some definite stand-by dishes and most were really good. I do remember a certain orange jello salad she made with shredded carrots and some other kind of vegetables not coming to mind right now. This was not one of my favorites.