Hello and welcome to Bad Dinner Diaries.
If you go by the number of articles and blog posts in magazines, newspapers and online publications, there is virtually no topic more pressing than what to make for dinner. A Google search for “weeknight dinner” yields millions of results. How to get out from under the daily crushing weight of deciding what to make, procuring the ingredients, making the meal and at last consuming it (with the last step being by far the fastest and, usually, least noticed of them all) – this is what people (mostly time-pressed mothers) need help with.
There are never enough strategies and tactics for making dinner faster, cheaper, healthier, more elegant, more kid-edible. On that last point, it’s generally people trying to feed families that have the most interest in and need for recipe ideas and help. Retired people, even of limited means, tend to bypass nightly cooking altogether and eat out every night. Or, they have moved on from the institution of “dinner” and eat some cereal or an egg when the spirit moves them. It just doesn’t seem as important when there are no children in the house.
Even people who thrive on cooking find it burdensome to face the task of making dinner every night. To be released from the bondage of daily dinners is priceless. This is something I dream about.
I believe all mothers go a little insane at some point (or many points) when their children are young. For my mother, hereafter affectionately known as SueG, this came out in the form of hostile weeknight dinners.
She was the doyenne of the very efficient, economical and often truly inedible weeknight dinner, served sans dessert. The entire meal would be dispensed, eaten, cleared and done with in well under an hour, usually by 5:30pm. I can’t eat pork chops to this day (see image above), haunted by flashbacks of chops blackened in a scorching, dry Revereware frying pan. The cruel flash-frying these chops received at my mother’s hands did nothing to cook the meat inside (those juices did not run clear).
She had a way of using certain meals as weapons, expressing anger or dissatisfaction or boredom with her life – something I understand too well now that I am a mother and I too am churning out nightly dinners for a mostly ungrateful family. (My father, sister and I came to protect each other from the worst of these, with my sister once silently shaking her head “no” at us when my mother was ladling out pea soup that she had tinted with paint because its color came out too pale. Of course, SueG was in no danger of eating that soup herself! “Let’s see if anyone would like pizza,” my father would say gamely when confronting a particularly unappetizing meal.) In that era, SueG would less serve dinner than fling it on our round white Formica-topped table and dare us to eat.
On the receiving end of these meals as a child I thought she was just a bad cook and too busy (even if a stay-at-home mom) to care much about the taste of the food. Also, she had a Calvinistic desire to discourage anyone from overeating, especially my father and me, who carried a few extra pounds. To be fair: During the years her children were small, her husband was out of town most of the week, prepared foods were not available (and she wouldn’t have paid for them anyway), restaurants were not abundant, and money and time were perpetually tight. Still, I believe she used bad weeknight meals as a form of expressing what was wrong in her life. In that, she had a creative flair unmatched by all conventional moms.
This is not to say that every nightly meal was terrible. It would be a shame to imply that, especially given her latent talent for cooking that revealed itself in more festive settings. There were quite workman-like meals that were dispensed quickly and provided needed sustenance as well as a platform for conversation. Virtually seven nights a week we ate together as a family, always very early. (She had her generation’s belief that the world would stop on its axis if families did not eat dinner together – a belief she abruptly rescinded when I was a freshman in high school. We will get to that later.)
This seems incredible to me now, from the vantage point of pizza night, date night, girls’ night out and an endless exotic takeout opportunities (Thai, sushi, Italian, Mexican, Indian, wings, ribs, the veritable feast of the prepared food bar at Whole Foods) and also lots and lots and lots of restaurants, available to almost everyone at every price point. To today’s eyes, eating the same repertoire of dinners night in, night out, for YEARS, seems inhuman. I can only imagine how sick she must have been of the daily dinnertime experience.