SueG Weeknight Meals — The Good

Everyday Chili

This is quick, serviceable, cheap, relatively nutritious, and most children will eat it if you don’t overdo the spice.

Serves 4

Yellow onion, chopped (leave out if you don’t feel like dealing with it)

1 pound hamburger (hers would not have been very lean)

Copious amounts of chili powder (it’s really hard to overdo it with old-fashioned chili powder, it’s not very spicy. Can also use pre-fab chili seasonings, which will probably improve the flavor.)

1 28-oz can whole tomatoes (virtually any kind of tomatoes except ones with basil or some damn thing)

1 15-oz can kidney beans

1 or 2 cups water

Sautee the onion in a little butter or, more likely, margarine, until translucent. It would be better to remove the onion from the pan and add it back in at the end but I doubt that was SueG’s way. Add to it roughly one pound of hamburger, cook till all the pink is gone. Drain off the excess fat (using a handheld sieve that marries up to the side of the pan like ours, if you have one). Dump in a huge amount of chili powder and salt and pepper. (In those days one could not buy pre-fab seasoning packets for chili so one made do with chili powder, which is much more tasteless than you would think. SueG appreciated the taste of things so she used a lot.)

Add the tomatoes, not drained, and break up with the back of a spoon if necessary. Add the beans, drained. Add a cup or two of water. Heat through. Serve with oyster crackers. (We used to drag them in margarine before popping them in our mouths. Why was margarine so prevalent then?) Corn bread, made from two blue-and-white Jiffy boxes in a loaf pan, is also a good addition.

Sue’s Kitchen

Weeknight Dinners

My mother was eccentric, vociferous, disarming, funny, fearless, unyielding and judgmental to a fault. She was also prone to pronouncements, mostly about the doomed nature of human relationships. “Oh, that one won’t last,” she’d say darkly, hearing about a second marriage. “He won’t want to raise another man’s children.” Or, “Why in heaven’s name is she marrying a Frenchman? They make terrible husbands.” “How many collections were there this week,” she would ask pointedly when we returned from Mass every week. (Raised Episcopalian, she kept up her promise that her kids would be Catholic – the extra hour or so of sleep on Sunday morning didn’t hurt her commitment to that pledge.)

Often obnoxious, generally unwelcome, her predictions almost always came true, and her judgments were sound. [Case in point: When my sister and I were young, my father worked in New Hampshire during the week, returning home to Cape Cod on Thursday afternoon. No dummy, SueG booked him into an all-male boarding house during the week—she wasn’t one of the nearly 10 wives at my father’s school left for a young female student in those years].

SueG was of a dual nature when it came to cooking. No one was more efficient, economical or unconcerned about flavor than she when it came to the evening meal. OK, that is my take on it. She MAY have been concerned about flavor, but that did not come across on a nightly basis. Since she was actively trying to steer my father and me to eat less, it was fine with her if we did not go back for seconds.

On the other hand, she was a superb hostess and excellent cook when it came to holidays or dinner parties or long summer evenings on the Cape. In an era before the easy availability of recipes and guides to entertaining, she invented her own art form: Making food that looked beautiful, tasted good (for real) and arrived on a lovely table, with all of the meaningful work done before the guests arrived. SueG was a role model for festive cooking, and I will share some of her best recipes and tricks. But before we get there, I will stick to daily dinners, served in our 1970s yellow and orange wallpapered kitchen in Evanston, Illinois. Sue in kitchen

Reliving a childhood of bad dinners, with recipes.

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.