In what seems to be a pattern, I was working late tonight. Again.
My oldest daughter was home with the other three kids, and they seemed to be doing okay. But when I informed her how late I was going to be and that I couldn’t make dinner. I wasn’t able to transfer funds into her account and she’d have to either do PB&J . . . which apparently wasn’t what she wanted to do . . .
I told her there was hamburger in the freezer, buns in the cupboard, and chips in the pantry. Now . . . hamburgers are not the most difficult thing in the world to make. Shape a patty, little salt, little pepper, throw them in the pan, fry the hell out of them.
She didn’t want to do that.
On more than one occasion Abbi’s made the comment like her mother used to make: “I feel sorry for a guy who ends up with me. I can’t cook anything!”
But she’s wrong. She can sing, just like I can. She’s smart, like all her siblings and relatives. She can do this . . . the difference is she doesn’t want to do it. That’s a big thing.
There are some things that she needs to prepare for before leaving out into this big, bad, world, and she’s about to get the lessons my mother gave me. You don’t have to be Julia Child to eat. But you should know how to do two things:
One comfort food: maybe a roast, or chicken noodle soup or just hamburgers.
One fancy meal: that’s dealer’s choice. But at some point – and I’ve told her I don’t want to know when it happens – she’s going to invite a guy over for dinner and she won’t be able to fake cooking it. Not really.
So I’m working on getting her to learn some basic culinary skills. She can make cookies. She made freaking cake pops one day.
It’s not lack of knowledge or ability, it’s simply that she doesn’t want to do it.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t cook a lot when I was her age. My Mom forced me to learn in my senior year of high school and I’m glad I did. In college, living in an apartment, I lived on Clearly Canadian drinks and Old El Paso chimichangas. But every once in awhile I got hungry for cookies . . . and I made them. I made my grandma’s cinnamon rolls – and they were a hit with the members of my band, my work, and eventually my girlfriend and her roommates. They were insanely unhealthy, but I was cooking to impress, not to be healthy.
So this weekend, I’m forcing Abbi to cook. Whether she likes it or not.
You need to learn to cook a meal, folks. At least one!
No, I’m not from New Orleans. If you wondered why the absence yesterday . . . I was editing! Video editing!
My second cooking segment, this one – Ragin’ Cajun Pasta. My own concoction, beginning to end, the mistakes, the refinement, all of it to the final recipe – which still has some “do it to taste” elements, but I think it’s a pretty worthwhile dish. A colorful dish mixed with chicken breast, bell pepper, onion and garlic, it’s a spicy dish but filled with taste.
I’ve said before that people don’t grasp that cooking real food . . . food you make at home with the kids watching you and all . . . is easier than you really think. I’m no Bobbie Flay, but I can follow a recipe. It’s not hard. I know how to read and then as time progressed I began to experiment and vary the recipes. I get that in the right hands, food is art.
Still, In caring for my kids alone I came to the realization that my kids were always more hyper, more angry, harder to control when they ate bought treats or foods. It’s still that way, I just don’t have another person to help me care for them. When I decided that my kids deserved what I had . . . an upbringing with the smell of homemade foods and treats wafting through the house, I started making food myself…everything right down to cookies and breads and cakes and all.
SO. . . here’s my first attempt at converting you.
A cooking segment. Cooking with Dave. Or as Abbi, my daughter called it, Davey Ray (rather than Rachel Ray).
Pizza is a staple in our home. It takes longer to watch this than it really does to make it. So please, avoid the grease, the cost, the preservatives . . . and know you can make your own pizza – right down to the crust!
The title doesn’t really apply to anything in particular. It does relate to the fact that I used to look like the guy up there . . . and that’s a rare photo of me that I actually think I look pretty decent. It’s not an ego kind of thing, I don’t think I looked particularly great most of the time, but much of my appearance changes – where I looked like a decent human being – was due to a makeover by my wife. Now, I try to put much of that into practice. The main thing being that I posted this photo so I have a goal to work toward:
Getting almost that skinny again.
I admit it . . . I was a couch potato for quite awhile. I’d like to say I wasn’t but that’s not the truth. My wife had her knees go out and that led to her not moving much which led to none of us moving much. Where she gained a significant amount of weight I hadn’t looked to myself to realize that I had done it, too. To get back to that guy you see up there I need to lose at least 38 pounds. I’d be happy to lose 28. That would get me close.
I know I said this already, but it’s not vanity that pressures me, either. It’s reality. I don’t know that the kids or I really realized just how much we missed being outdoors or engaging in some sort of activity until we started doing it again. I lost a lot of weight simply by attrition. That 28 I need to lose was probably more like 48 or more a year ago. Just by having to clean, take care of the kids, do laundry, go up and down the stairs, chase after the boys, all of that led to the loss.
But I’ve hit a plateau now. I cannot continue to eat the portion sizes I do now and not have exercised and lose weight. As much as Kim Kardashian may want you to think you can take a pill and simply lose weight the reality is nobody really knows what she does for a living, she’s got a trainer and if you believe the gossip columns tends to hang out with lots of athletes. I don’t think it’s particularly hard to lose your weight when you do that. It’s all about image for people like that. It’s not image or vanity for me. It’s life.
My kids have spent the summer doing what kids do . . . what they should do. Without ten tons of technology keeping them in the house they are riding their bikes. They’re going to the library. They’re playing games. They find things to do and they’re probably in vastly better shape than they’ve been in the last year. They’re going to get home to get ready for school and I’ll barely be able to keep up with them. I can’t let them down to that degree and end up making them become what I’m trying to leave behind.
So I get up at 6am…even if it’s like today and I didn’t sleep well. I get up, walk for as long as I can, get back by 6:45, cool off, get in the shower, then get ready for work. The next big step is stopping the giant portions and most importantly not eating from the moment I get home. It’s my biggest poor habit. I don’t eat much during the day but from the moment I get in the door at night it’s like I can’t stop myself. I understand the complaint from those trying to lose weight that it’s not as simple as “just don’t eat.” That’s a line from skinny people who don’t really eat much anyway.
Now . . . don’t worry, I won’t be posting my weight each morning or subjecting you to what I eat. I will post recipes, maybe even a few cooking segments here and there.
The reason? I think the idea of homemade has crept out of our households. I’m raising four kids alone and can still manage to cook, even breakfast, the best I can. Maybe it’s not amazing food, but it’s mine. You should too.
So look for that . . . because as our story begins so does how we live that story.
I was talking to my son last night and he mentioned how the roast he’d just had for dinner was “so tasty and moist.” Before I get to the point, I was more than a little impressed that these are the words he’d use to describe his meal, not “yummy” or “great,” the typical adjectives of a 9-year-old. But he went on a tangent to describe just how the roast was prepared, cooked, seasoned, all of it. He knew more details about this meal’s preparations than I could have discerned myself.
“Do you do this, Dad?” was his next question.
The answer? Well…yes, somewhat.
His curiosity was about the preparations, the utensils and the cooker used, all of that. He was curious if this was something that I’d advocated and adopted as well. It was.
My son, Noah, one of the 9-year-old twins of the family, is always very curious about how the meals are cooked and constantly asks if he can help to do the cooking. Now, sure, it would be much easier to say I am in a hurry and tell him to go play Wii or other item but that would really not help things much. He wants to help, even if it might take him twice as long as normal to do it, he’ll get it right. I remember being that way as a kid and I don’t seem to remember being told “no” very often either. If that’s my recollection than it’s best if I carry on that activity.
The other reason I do this is to have them all learn. Even if they’re sitting there at the table or at the couch I make sure they hear what I’m doing. When they ask what is in our dinner I tell them and recount how it’s made during dinner so that they get an idea of what’s contained and how we made it. If I can’t get them all interested in learning how to cook at the very least I can get them to learn by Osmosis.
And Osmosis seems to be working. I use that Crock Pot a lot…stew that cooks all day, using wine and fresh herbs and whatever else I have around to make it…and they lap it up. I make a roast in there that’s “moist and delicious.” I have made Minestrone and other soups and foods. Chicken and biscuits. You name it, I’ve tried to do it. I’m not an amazing chef, I don’t suppose, but I can cook a meal.
So when my son asks “Dad, do you do this?” I can answer with a small amount of certainty: yes…yes I do.
I’m a nightmare for a lot of those parents who push for preservative-free, gluten-free, allergen-free, nut-free, whole foods types. I don’t do it on purpose, I really don’t. I had a lot of allergies as a kid, though I don’t pretend that it’s the same crucial and life-threatening allergies you had. My asthma was far more threatening than it is now, and I’m doing far better now than I was as a kid. Sure, I had allergies and breathing problems but I was fortunate enough that I was neither pushed to do too much by my parents and I wasn’t babied too much so I never felt that I couldn’t do something if I wanted to try.
But my point is that I use peanut butter nearly every day in my kids’ lunches. It’s not some “fight the power” issue to somehow send a message to people or anything. I totally understand the sensitivity to nuts, the reaction that could seriously harm someone, all of it . . . my issue is that I have a very tight budget. My kids’ lunches have a peanut butter sandwich every day. The reasoning is pretty simple: even at its priciest, peanut butter is cheap, filled with protein, vitamins, and they like it. My kids know who may or may not have a sensitivity and they’re sure to stay away, wash their hands after lunch, all of it.
But the one thing that’s really caught my eye lately is all the commercials, ads, billboards, everything for foods and items that aren’t simply an allergen-reaction fueled campaign. There’s been a myriad of Chex commercials for “gluten free” cereals. Gluten free pizza crust. Gluten free this, that, the other. Preservative-free foods. Plastics-free bottles. Filtered water from your tap. Reverse-osmosis fueled spring water with all the minerals and vitamins removed. There’s a freaking bar/restaurant in New York that’s selling distilled water for ungodly amounts of money. I watch and wonder . . .
How the hell are our kids going to survive?
I get it . . . some people don’t want or can’t have gluten…though I don’t know how that’s happening. There’s a fear of carbohydrates. There’s a backlash against meats.
When I realized I was making all the decisions for my kids’ lives it became clear that I had to start doing that: making decisions. One of those wasn’t the avoidance of glutens or preservatives… it was reverting to life as I remembered it. I cannot do what my parents did, not just because I’m no longer married but because I work 8 hours most days and then get home. I wanted, though, for my kids to have what I had. Sure, every kid thinks they’re under the thumb of their parents but when you have your own children you realize what it is you wish you could do for your own children. Mine was trying to bring them some of what I had.
It started with breakfast. I fix it for the kids every morning. Working around my schedule, I might make a triple batch of waffles and cook them – freezing them – and then serving them via toaster each morning. I might do pancakes or the simple scrambled eggs. I generally make the breakfast myself.
Same goes for the desserts. I realized early on that Sam was affected heavily either by the processed sugars or corn syrup or preservatives or whatever in the bought treats. Make chocolate chip cookies at home he’s fine. Buy a bag of Oreos and give him more than one – he bounces off the ceiling. As a result I make all the desserts myself. I bought a Sunbeam mixer with better power so I could make more. I use the Betty Crocker “Cookie Book” my Mom got me. I learned a lot from my Mom – whether I knew it or not – and as a result I can cook, bake, all of it. Give me a recipe and the odds are pretty decent I can figure it out.
The thing here is that I have a theory: I don’t necessarily think it’s the gluten, allergens, chemicals, or preservatives that are causing the havoc in our lives. It’s the convenience we think we’re attaining but not really seeing. We buy cookies rather than make them. We nuke foods rather than cook them. We buy McDonald’s rather than frying up a burger. The problem with that? We are feeding the machine ourselves.
I could say it’s sooooo much easier and I’d be lying. If you absolutely despise cooking or baking you won’t do this. I don’t mind it and my kids have a far wider pallette than McNuggets and hot dogs. We drink water out of the tap or the fridge – I buy bottled water for lunches but use a reusable bottle much of the time. We try new desserts and treats.
We could be afraid of every little thing, but where gluten occurs when you’re using dough or cooking with flour, why avoid it so much? I worry more about the chemicals and preservatives and when you buy cold cereal because it’s got no gluten rather than making homemade waffles or pancakes or eggs . . . something that takes just a few more minutes or steps . . . what’s the problem there? Not the gluten in my mind. It’s the short attention span and need to “want it now”.
I don’t criticize the gluten-free-ers or those who suffer from sensitivity to these things. I do believe our reliance on pre-packaged foods and not making our own created the sensitivities we face today.
I say this knowing full well I ate Twinkies and Reese’s Pieces as a kid – and yes, I know Twinkies supposedly have rocket fuel in them – but I didn’t have a Twinkie a day . . . nor did I have Reese’s. I did have a home…filled with what I needed and some of what I wanted…because that’s what you do for your family.
Necessity, well, necessitated how my evening went tonight. I got home and, even though I’d budgeted as absolutely tightly as I possibly could, I hadn’t taken into account that I have 4 children who are voraciously inhaling any and all food in the home to fuel the insane growth spurts that run through their bodies. My son, Sam, has grown beyond anything I could possibly describe. I remember going through these growth spurts myself. Your knees hurt, the muscles stretch and cramp up, it’s really not a lot of fun. As for Sam? He’s already just a few inches, at 9 years old, from being his oldest sister’s height. Hannah, my middle girl, is just a few inches from being her Mom’s 5′ 10″ towering frame.
But the problem with that when you’re completely broke is the fact that you cannot factor their habit of coming home from school and snacking when you’re not home. I’d bought a giant bag of pretzels – simple, normal, salted pretzels – and figured it would be the salty snack that would last the week. I bought them yesterday. I got home tonight in anticipation of making pizza – homemade – and realized that Hannah and Sam had inhaled the entire 3/4 of the pretzel bag in one afternoon. I was unreasonably frustrated with them because they didn’t even think about it. They walked in, ate a few . . .then a few more . . . then a few more still. I looked at them and just had to ask them how they thought I was going to get their lunches going for them if they eat all the food in the house. I’m at the end of my financial rope for the week.
I looked at the two of them and informed them that I had nothing for their lunches. Not a thing.
“I can make you sandwiches, and maybe something I can pull together for a dessert, but you ate all the pretzels!”
Now, you’re reading this wondering why I’ve made such a big deal about pretzels because . . . well . . . they’re pretzels. It’s not a big deal, certainly not worth writing a whole blog post about. You’d be right.
I looked through my pantry and realized that necessity is the mother of invention. I stared at the shelves trying to figure out what I’m going to do. Fortunately I have my pantry somewhat organized. I had all the dry ingredients on one shelf; the spices and ingredients another. I looked down and next to the sugar and flour was a box of corn meal. Right on the spine was a recipe for cornbread muffins. Pretzels replaced!
The dessert was something else altogether. I have a standby that I’ve used for years to solve that problem. You see, I’m out of brown sugar as well and it’s 9pm, well past when I can get to a close by grocery store to cobble together money to buy it.
Years ago, one Christmas, my mother gave me a cookbook. You’d probably wonder why a Mom would give her son, particularly when he’s still married and working, a cookbook for Christmas. But I’d been looking for this for awhile (and in print again). My Mom, when I was a kid, had a book just filled with cookies. It literally was called “The Cooky Book”. It’s very ’70s, bright Kodachrome colors, but I loved the fact that it was filled with recipes from old world eras and amazing flavors. Even better, instead of pictures of play-dough and elmer’s glue for frosting they actually made the cookies and took pictures of them, putting them on the pages. On top of that, it’s just a great, amazing, thorough cookbook. There are cookies you’ve never thought of. There are old-world recipes from times gone by that you probably never tried but SHOULD because they’re amazing, homemade, and nowhere near as bad for you as the stuff you buy in the stores. Why eat an Oreo when you could have a homemade butterscotch brownie?
But this day was just so crazy. I still had an inordinate amount of chores to deal with. Hannah had 3 days of back-homework to do and I wasn’t going to pull her from that simply to do her chores. God forbid I get more zeros on her report card. So I did her chores – which she’d avoided for 3 days – and did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. Then, while the muffins cooked I ran upstairs and did another load of laundry. After the muffins came out of the oven I found a recipe for Snickerdoodles in the cookbook and found it used little or no butter, no brown sugar, all fitting the ingredients in my pantry.
Now, before you reach the conclusion I’m bemoaning my situation, like I’m angry I don’t have time; that I’m shouting to the heavens for having no money, all of it, I want you to know it’s not the case. The budgeting is my fault. I have made mistakes and assumptions about a tax refund that put me where I am. I can get to work. I have eggs, butter, flour, sugar, meats in the freezer, I’m OK. Sure, I wish I had my gas tank at full and a pantry full of treats for the kids, but we’re not surviving on beans and rice, either. On top of that, I have shown my kids you can survive when things are perfect. My kids went for so long, with their Mom’s money, living with tantrums, angry complaints, and getting everything they wanted.
That was the trend in my house, too. I loved Andrea too much, it’s true. She wanted something, she got it. When her friend got a brand new Coach purse – something costing waaaayyy too much money – I pulled together everything I had and got her one. It wasn’t until the latter 1/4 or more of her life that we both came to realize we needed to keep each other in check. Andrea realized that when she was being unreasonable, she knew it, but would ask anyway. I realized as well she just wanted someone who would tell her “no” once in awhile as well.
On top of all that, my kids now see that we can be happy, comfortable, and OK without buying stuff. Sure, I’m stressed out, my face is breaking out, and I’m feeling the remaining black hairs on my head going grey, but I am proud of my kids. When I gave them their lunches today they looked and weren’t disappointed, they were thrilled to get cornbread and Snickerdoodles. They see that we’re making food, that the house is filled with the smells of cornbread and cinnamon sugar and vanilla.
This is the closest I’ve come to the days I met my Grandma for lunch. The house may not have an over-abundance of cookies and desserts, but we have them and they’re not bought and tasting like perservatives. I went to bed, late, exhausted, but I wasn’t angry or disappointed. It was a good night. I was the father of invention – not Edison, no, but inventing nonetheless – and used what I had in my house. The combination of a family cookbook, the Cooky book, and a pantry with staples in it, has made me be the parent(s) my kids need me to be.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but their Mom wouldn’t have done any of this. She couldn’t cook staples or comfort food. Since we lost her we’ve had a wider pallette, more homemade treats than just chocolate chip cookies from the back of a Nestle package, and we’re surviving.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ve shown my kids just what it is like to have a house that’s a home.
I got home last night with a nagging dread hanging over my head. I knew there was nothing for a snack for the kids’ lunches, not made anyway. I had planned on making brownies, I’d even taken out all the stuff to make them this morning when I was on the way out the door just so I’d remind myself that “yes, dumb a**, you need to get off your sick lazy butt and make these!” I hadn’t forgotten, though, I was dreading it.
I was so run down, tired and lazy that I actually told my daughter to look up food on Chilis.com and order me a burger and I’d pick up food on the way home. I was not happy, I was tired, I was being very lazy, insanely non-nutritious and I really didn’t give a crap. I just didn’t have the energy. I knew the kitchen was a mess. I knew the kids weren’t cooperating and knew I was sick, and I just didn’t have the energy to deal with all that and cook dinner.
So I picked up the dinner, waiting in the lobby of the restaurant with a free drink (since it took longer than they said. Very nice of them, I thought) and read emails and checked messages.
As a very simple little gesture, I ordered some strawberries from the company “Sherries Berries” here in Sacramento (yeah, I know, they’re corporate now, but I still imagine they’re local) and had them shipped to Andrea’s best friend from college for Valentine’s Day. For me, they weren’t a major deal. I didn’t want flowers, they die, cost an insane amount of money for a brief period of happiness, and I never understood the “code” of flower giving. Red is love, was it white was friendship, or was that yellow? Sterling silver, they can make flowers that color? My theory . . . you can never go wrong with chocolate, so that’s where I went.
While I picked up the food I saw that the berries had arrived and made my friend’s day. There really is nothing like knowing you’ve touched someone, even in the smallest way. I haven’t really had that in nearly 11 months. There’s just a little fuzzy feeling that grows in your belly. It’s not anything romantic, not a crush or an infatuation, it’s the feeling of knowing you’ve done something . . . a simple thing, a simple gesture that says “you did so much for us, we have to do at least a little something in return for you.”
Which gets me home. I showed up with the food, the kids all thrilled that they got individual meals rather than having to deal with that crappy homemade stuff that Dad forces us to eat every day. The quesadilla, fajitas, chicken strips, burger combination seemed to fit with their minds pretty well. We didn’t even eat at the dinner table, had our little styrofoam containers in front of us on our laps and ate while watching the TV. We were the equivalent of the pre-time machine McFly family in Back to the Future. All we needed was Ralph and Alice on the TV and it would have been perfect.
Dinner ended, we’d all appropriately gorged ourselves on portions too big and greased our gullets and I felt somehow worse than when I got home. I steeled my resolve, got up from the couch, threw out the crappy styrofoam container and headed into the kitchen to begin making the brownies I’d singled out as the treat for their lunches. I looked first for the little metal pan I use for them . . . only to find that it was filled with brownies! I mean, sure, half the pan was eaten, but there was still a half pan of brownies there, ready, and waiting for lunches tomorrow!
I must have looked puzzled because my middle, Hannah, asked “what’s wrong Dad?”
“I was going to make brownies, but . . . ”
“Oh, yeah, Abbi figured you weren’t up to it so she made them.”
“Really? I am going to kiss her!”
And I did. I went over to Abbi’s room, which is actually removed from the rest of us, she’s downstairs in her own world. I knocked on her door and she said “come in!”
I walked up to her and immediately kissed her on the forehead and gave her a great big hug!
“What was that for?”
“For making brownies!”
“Oh . . . I figured you needed some help.”
“Well, you get another kiss!”
So I did. My day was made by chocolate. Who would have known?
Abbi didn’t think twice about having made a simple pan filled with brownies, but she had no idea how much serenity they’d given me.
It’s the simple things. The littlest helps that pushed me to move on to the next day, and they have no idea it’s even coming.