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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1156989181/gallery_29805_1195_17805.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Dave Scantland

The first time Mom and I went grocery shopping together -- well, the first time in many years that we went shopping together -- we did a series of little dances as we proceeded through the store. My habit is to cleave to the perimeter of the market: that’s where the freshest stuff is. If it’s not fresh, like cheese or sausage, it’s there because that’s where the refrigerators are. So I circumnavigate the room like Magellan waltzing about the recognizable edges of his notorious globe, dipping inland only when my mission requires it -- for detergent, sugar, flour, canned tomatoes. I’m not certain that I even breathe when a shortcut requires a promenade through canned meats. Mom, however, senses no danger in this forbidden country. She plunges between shelves laden with canned corned beef hash, Maxwell House filter packs and Campbell’s Beef and Barley soup.

Okay, she doesn’t really plunge. She’s a 75-year-old woman, short, round, gray and often tired, who probably hasn’t plunged since the early days of Clinton’s first term. But the land of dry goods is terra cognita to her. After ten years of nursing her husband -- my father -- through cancer, alcoholism, half a dozen forms of debilitating neuropathy, diabetes, cancer again, and finally liver failure, these cans are her friends.

The first time I remember that Mom and I went grocery shopping together was in late-summer suburban Cincinnati. I must have been six years old, but I already knew – from searing days and sweaty nights -- what August meant: unrelenting high-80 temperatures and 98% humidity. It eased off a few scant degrees overnight, and as Labor Day drew close, people wearied and tempers thinned. As we traversed the parking lot from the car to the store, we were hailed from a thin aperture in the window of a dust-dappled navy-blue Buick station wagon. In the back of the car was a black teenager, his lanky fingers straining from the back window. He was asking Mom, in a dialect I barely understood, if she had a cigarette she could part with. I shaded my eyes and peered into a car full of deep, hot shadows. A dizzying wave, borne on irresistible convection, emanated from plastic seats and dark rubber floor mats carved as deep as Harley radiators. It streamed from the window like weightless magma.

I had never been this close to people of color before. There were precious few, if any, at school. Mostly I saw them at the fringes of things: sequestered in the stands at the high-school football games, sweeping the floors and emptying the trash cans at Whitaker Elementary and Grace Episcopal, taking tickets at the College Hill theatre on Saturday afternoons. There were three people in the car, splayed over the seats, trying to shed heat like hounds on a wooden porch. Given my own youth, I was not able to estimate ages, but though the oldest of them seemed pretty old, he was still a kid.

Without hesitation, Mom reached into her purse and withdrew not one, but two cigarettes, and slipped them between the door frame and the glass. Then she gave the kid a pack of matches. He was grateful in the way, I would realize many years later, only a committed smoker knows how to be. As we entered the store, I asked Mom if he wasn't too young to be smoking. I was in awe, not just of her nonchalance in the presence of The Other (and her translation skills), but of her lackadaisical generosity, her flaunting of what was, even in 1961, conventional wisdom about kids, cigarettes and black people.

“He's old enough to know better,” she said. “But I had what he needed, and it cost me nothing. Why shouldn't I help him?”

Starting with that very trip, I suppose, Mom taught me how to work a grocery store. Do the perimeter, then the inside aisles. Finish with frozen foods, so the ice cream has less time to melt. Frozen confections aside, I decided -- and the lesson stuck for quite some time -- that all the good stuff was hidden in those inside aisles: Frosted Flakes. Fritos. Coca-Cola. Libby’s Fruit Cocktail. My-T-Fine chocolate pudding. Betty Crocker. The bitter crunch of whole coffee beans, split and splintered between pre-adolescent molars, morsels rescued from another shopper’s spillage below the spout of the Eight O’Clock Coffee grinder. And if, 45 years later, my typical grocery forage avoids the inside aisles in exchange for extra time at the farmers’ market or a stop at the carneceria around the corner, those central corridors -- the nave of the store, if you will -- still hold nostalgic allure. On those rare occasions when I’m not in a hurry, I’ll detour through them on my way back to the bakery to pick up a baguette. I linger among the cereals (someone at home must need Cinnamon Toast Crunch, right?) I touch the spines of the cake mix boxes and peer through the fairy-tale die-cut windows of the tiny blue cottages where dried pastas live. I drop to a crouch and leer at the canned-fruit pie fillings. I take a deep yearning breath among the low-rent, mega-mart whole-bean coffees, and I run my finger down the grinder grate, like a thirsty wino checking a pay-phone slot for spare change. But anymore, I leave precious few dollars behind as tribute. In the three-plus decades since I’ve left home, I’ve developed my own cooking style. I’ve cooked in high-end restaurants; I’ve been to France and Italy and Switzerland; I’ve raised three kids remarkably free of food phobias and dependencies. I watched everything the Food Network saw fit to broadcast in the early years of its existence.

As we exit produce, an aisle-end pas-de-deux takes me by surprise. This is a new store to me -- her store -- and maybe I was focused too hard, as we rounded the corner, on the cooler full of ground turkey I spied across the expanse of linoleum. I’m not in the least partial to it, but I know that where there’s ground turkey there’s spare ribs and seven-bone chuck roasts, fresh whole yellowtail snapper and 40-millimeter lamb chops.

Instead, she takes a left turn into condiments. You might think we’d find common ground here -- prepared food convenience meets foodie’s obsession with flavor-accessories -- but I know what’s on her mind, and it frightens me. We’ve been sharing a household for three weeks, and that’s meant three chickens, each of them cut up and sautéed, then finished with a pan sauce. It’s bistro cooking -- my favorite style, as well as being tasty and fun for the cook -- and while she’s been accommodating of my preference (and happy to have someone else do the cooking), it’s not what she’s used to: Tyson pre-roasted lemon-pepper. Stouffer’s chicken pot pie. KFC original. The fact of the matter is, if I don’t find a new way to cook chicken, she’s going to pluck a bottle of Bull's Eye from the shelf ahead and recite her recipe for easy barbecued bird. It’s not awful, and dead simple: skinless parts doused in sauce, wrapped in Reynold’s and baked for an hour or two. It’s also improvable in ways that imaginative cooks could spin out as easily as Duncan makes yo-yos. But it’s not a challenge, and the distraction of challenges is what I need.

Distraction, in fact, is what we both need: her, following the loss of her husband of more than 50 years; me with a 25-year marriage just a month past the point of failure. So ours is not just a household of convenience, it’s a sudden, forced refuge, and I’m settling in the way I’ve often handled difficult situations: by retreating to the kitchen. In the past three weeks, I’ve baked dozens of muffins (leaving them at the kids’ house for snacks and breakfasts while they’re at school); simmered tankers of stock; and butchered an entire forequarter of beef single-handedly, then fought the Green Giant -- Mom’s frigid minion -- for freezer space.

But now she’s calling me out. Fry it, bake it, fricassee. Just no more poulet sauté, or face a future of fowl, be-foiled. I accept the challenge, and the bottle of sauce. I tuck the pre-emptive reprimand into a corner of the cart. And when we finally reach the meat counter, I purposely choose a chicken that, even when trimmed to its constituent parts, will be too big fit the one large pan we have for sautes.

The awkwardness of our conscription notwithstanding, I find that living -- at age 49 -- with my widowed mother has its upside. Things that are mysteries as a child (and sometimes as a parent) are solved through reminiscence often prompted by food: shucking of corn, dousing of corned beef, or the customary placement of applesauce next to the roast pork. The need for secrets, softened by years and sadness, dissolves in an afternoon cocktail, and the past -- my history, my roots -- slumbers beneath the dregs, awaiting a brush, a burnish, a carefully handled side towel. One of these mysteries is raveled the next evening as I trim lamb shoulder for braising. Mom is reminded of a dish we shared long ago -- the dinner served at my wedding rehearsal, in fact: large whole shrimp and medallions of lamb, tangled in spinach noodles with a sauce thickened by feta, parmesan and garlicky cream, garnished with orange and grapefruit sections. For reasons both emotional and gustatory, the meal lingers in my memory as a favorite, but now it strikes me as the most unlikely assemblage of Mediterranean ingredients I can imagine. If I hadn’t experienced it, I’d never have thought it up. (A few times over the years, I’ve tried to replicate it without success. Maybe my memory is faulty, and it was just plain odd from the start.)

But this is not what Mom wants to talk about. She wants to talk about her early married years in the Middle East, and as often happens, food is the McGuffin of our repartee. She reminisces about her first taste of baklava; her first real ripe olive (now represented by a small can of Lindsay jumbos in the pantry); then of being pregnant in Basra among doctors of unknowable skill, and people with a new color of skin who spoke with irreducible consonants; finally of their alcoholic friend from the consulate who’d gone native over an Iraqi servant girl. I ask what has prompted this reverie, and she talks about the lamb, spit-roasted, sprinkled with cumin and festooned with mint, that surpassed her (unhappy, but delicious) childhood Sunday dinners of medium-rare rack with baked potato. She laughs. It’s a wistful cackle that’s also a sign that she’s just this side of inebriated. She’s quiet for a minute. “I should know better at my age to dredge that up,” she admits. And now I know two things -- or rather, I’ve remembered one, and deduced another: why, as the last meal before our wedding, my soon-to-be wife and I had picked the restaurant and dish we had; and what I’m going to do with that damned chicken.

Of course, knowing what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it are often different things. In leaving the kitchen I’d assembled over the years, I’d also left most of my tools. No five-quart sauté pan -- hence the ease with which I could enforce a weight limit on the bird (Mom suffers from severe arthritis, and eschews with trepidation any utensil weighing more than a pound and a half); no Cambro containers for brining; no poultry shears with which to spatchcock, and no money with which to buy them.

I don’t give up right away. Dad wasn’t the handiest of men, but he could wire a lamp and construct a bookshelf. He could also fabricate flashing for a leaky crevice in the roof -- the last project he’d tackled before he got sick. Sure enough, among the tarnished drill bits and rust-freckled wrenches is a pair of tinsnips, gleaming in repose. When I enter the kitchen victorious, announcing that I’ve found just the thing (along with a bonus rubber mallet excavated from beneath the litter of screws at the bottom of the tool chest) with which to prep our chicken, Mom gives me the same mystified scowl that she offered when I suggested that six pounds of sale-priced butter wasn’t too much of a burden for the freezer. If we didn’t adore old British sports cars, the Gulf of Mexico and Tom Collinses with equal fervor, she’d wonder where I came from.

We also both have an affection for ziplock bags; she because they’re easier for arthritic hands to manipulate than Tupperware, I because -- especially in the two-gallon size -- they’re great for brining. My two biggest chicken issues resolved, I managed the rest with more usual tools: tasting, patience and a chimney full of charcoal. The result was grilled chicken with cumin, mint and a glaze of orange. It wasn’t a sauté, and it wasn’t oven-barbecued, but the look on her face and the quiet pleasure with which she crunched a whole seed of cumin between her back teeth told me that it gave Mom what I wanted her to have -- what any cook hopes to give his patron -- memories: one tied to the past, one wrapped in the present. I'd had what she needed, and it had cost me nothing.

<div align="center">* * * * *

See the recipe for Orange-glazed chicken with cumin and mint in RecipeGullet.

* * * * *</div>

Dave Scantland (aka Dave the Cook) is an Atlanta-based writer and graphic designer. He is also director of operations for the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters.

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Ah, thank you, Dave the Cook. What a lovely piece.

(Really hit home with me--my 75 year old mom lost her husband of 50 years just after my marriage of 25 years bit the dust. It's been 5 years now, and while she misses my Dad, she and I are both enjoying our independence. )


Edited by sparrowgrass (log)

sparrowgrass

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My habit is to cleave to the perimeter of the market: that’s where the freshest stuff is. If it’s not fresh, like cheese or sausage, it’s there because that’s where the refrigerators are. So I circumnavigate the room like Magellan waltzing about the recognizable edges of his notorious globe, dipping inland only when my mission requires it -- for detergent, sugar, flour, canned tomatoes. I’m not certain that I even breathe when a shortcut requires a promenade through canned meats. Mom, however, senses no danger in this forbidden country. She plunges between shelves laden with canned corned beef hash, Maxwell House filter packs and Campbell’s Beef and Barley soup.

This is a fertile insight, and may be the closest thing to a culinary litmus test that I'd ever consider using. I think eGullet Society members who are single should specify in their Match.com ads that they "cleave to the perimeter" of the supermarket. "Only respond if you really know what that means."


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Love it. Thanks, Dave.


-- Jeff

"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." -- Groucho Marx

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and I run my finger down the grinder grate, like a thirsty wino checking a pay-phone slot for spare change.

that line will run through my head all day. that, and "i had what he needed and it cost me nothing."

lovely, lovely piece. thanks!


"Laughter is brightest where food is best."

www.chezcherie.com

Author of The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook ,The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook and The I Love Trader Joe's Around the World Cookbook

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I can't add anything to what's already been said. A lovely piece.


Stop Family Violence

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I really enjoyed your piece, Dave. I grew up in Ohio around the same time and I found that part of the story to be almost visual for me. I can see that parking lot.

Reminded me also of grocery shopping with my mother as a kid, something I took great pleasure in and I still find the grocery store to be pleasant and calming, a real treat, even though, like you, I pluck my goodies from a variety of birthing grounds.

I remember the plastic PICK AND PAY logo on the cart, and the rack with the Jack and Jill magazines and the crinkle of the wax bag in the Barnum's animal cracker box . . .

Sigh.

My mom also had an affair with the Jolly Green Giant. That guy gets around!


I like to bake nice things. And then I eat them. Then I can bake some more.

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Thank you Dave. I echo the others - very lovely.


Cheers,

Anne

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I just loved this. Read it twice running, and will again.

Memories of Mothers and their affinity for foil-wrapping and onion-soup-seasoning abound amongst us of a certain generation. And I've been right there in that blazing parking lot, translating through a windowcrack, handing out the smokes, the matches, the crumpled, sweaty dollar.

Just lovely.

Plus, I gotta have a special affinity for a man who immortalized a hindprint in the moonlit sand, just for me.

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Lovely. all of it sparking thought in me.

and this amazing image quietly tucked in the middle where it doesnt stand out, it simply adds its shine to the whole:

the fairy-tale die-cut windows of the tiny blue cottages where dried pastas live.

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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. . . large whole shrimp and medallions of lamb, tangled in spinach noodles with a sauce thickened by feta, parmesan and garlicky cream, garnished with orange and grapefruit sections. For reasons both emotional and gustatory, the meal lingers in my memory as a favorite, but now it strikes me as the most unlikely assemblage of Mediterranean ingredients I can imagine. If I hadn’t experienced it, I’d never have thought it up. (A few times over the years, I’ve tried to replicate it without success. Maybe my memory is faulty, and it was just plain odd from the start.)

It does sound unlikely -- in fact, I have to admit it sounded strange and unappealing when I first read the description. But it was intriguing, and I found myself mentally adding the components, mingling them in various ways, and now I'm convinced they could work. Yet another evening of experimentation awaits, I can tell.

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Dave, that was very touching. Condolences on your marriage, but it's wonderful that you and your mother are able to offer each other emotional support and enjoy breaking bread together.


Michael aka "Pan

 

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Thanks, everyone, for your kind words. This piece took two years to write: two two-hour sessions, twenty-four months apart. If you liked it, thank Maggie, who tortured me into finishing convinced me to finish it.

Your reverence for your mother's guidance and passion for all manner of foods might even fit in nicely in this Mother's Day tribute thread, Dave.

Beautifully written and conceived ... a poor choice of words to relate to motherhood ... :wink:

Mom doesn't believe in Mother's Day! Any thoughts that lack of indoctrination in this custom might have led to the breakup of my marriage would be off the mark, however. Whether she realizes it or not, she always gets a special dinner.

My habit is to cleave to the perimeter of the market: that’s where the freshest stuff is. If it’s not fresh, like cheese or sausage, it’s there because that’s where the refrigerators are. So I circumnavigate the room like Magellan waltzing about the recognizable edges of his notorious globe, dipping inland only when my mission requires it -- for detergent, sugar, flour, canned tomatoes. I’m not certain that I even breathe when a shortcut requires a promenade through canned meats. Mom, however, senses no danger in this forbidden country. She plunges between shelves laden with canned corned beef hash, Maxwell House filter packs and Campbell’s Beef and Barley soup.

This is a fertile insight, and may be the closest thing to a culinary litmus test that I'd ever consider using. I think eGullet Society members who are single should specify in their Match.com ads that they "cleave to the perimeter" of the supermarket. "Only respond if you really know what that means."

I'll let you know how this works out.
I really enjoyed your piece, Dave.  I grew up in Ohio around the same time and I found that part of the story to be almost visual for me.  I can see that parking lot.

Reminded me also of grocery shopping with my mother as a kid, something I took great pleasure in and I still find the grocery store to be pleasant and calming, a real treat, even though, like you, I pluck my goodies from a variety of birthing grounds.

I remember the plastic PICK AND PAY logo on the cart, and the rack with the Jack and Jill magazines and the crinkle of the wax bag in the Barnum's animal cracker box . . .

Sigh. 

My mom also had an affair with the Jolly Green Giant.  That guy gets around!

My dad, who didn't get much space in this piece (but likely will in subsequent columns), was partly responsible for the shopping-cart "K" of the Kroger logo (which is still in service). Even at six, I reveled in the subversiveness of shopping at Albers, their Cincinnati rival. My first lesson in irony happened when, seven years later, Dad got a job at Colonial Stores, who owned Albers. One of the first things he initiated was the systematic shutdown of the chain.

The Jolly Green Giant is one thing. The real predator, I'm convinced, is Poppin' Fresh.

I just loved this.  Read it twice running, and will again.

Memories of Mothers and their affinity for foil-wrapping and onion-soup-seasoning abound amongst us of a certain generation.  And I've been right there in that blazing parking lot, translating through a windowcrack, handing out the smokes, the matches, the crumpled, sweaty dollar.

Just lovely.

Plus, I gotta have a special affinity for a man who immortalized a hindprint in the moonlit sand, just for me.

How do you read while running?

Early lessons die hard. I've toughened up a little, and I no longer reach into my pocket for each and every applicant, but somehow I still can't pass up someone who presents a frank plea for a smoke. And if someone asked for a good dinner, I'd probably invite them home.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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. . . large whole shrimp and medallions of lamb, tangled in spinach noodles with a sauce thickened by feta, parmesan and garlicky cream, garnished with orange and grapefruit sections. For reasons both emotional and gustatory, the meal lingers in my memory as a favorite, but now it strikes me as the most unlikely assemblage of Mediterranean ingredients I can imagine. If I hadn’t experienced it, I’d never have thought it up. (A few times over the years, I’ve tried to replicate it without success. Maybe my memory is faulty, and it was just plain odd from the start.)

It does sound unlikely -- in fact, I have to admit it sounded strange and unappealing when I first read the description. But it was intriguing, and I found myself mentally adding the components, mingling them in various ways, and now I'm convinced they could work. Yet another evening of experimentation awaits, I can tell.

If you can make this work, my hat's off to you. And if you're serious, please let us know how it turned out.
Dave, that was very touching. Condolences on your marriage, but it's wonderful that you and your mother are able to offer each other emotional support and enjoy breaking bread together.

Thanks, Michael. It's not the situation I expected or wanted, but it's something that not many people get to experience. I'm learning to appreciate it.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Thank you.................

:smile:

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Gee. I'm really sorry to have to tell you this, but Poppin' Fresh passed away. His obituary follows.

Please join me in remembering a great icon. Veteran Pillsbury spokesperson, The Pillsbury Doughboy, died yesterday of a severe yeast infection and complications from repeated pokes to the belly. He was 71. Doughboy was buried in a slightly greased coffin. Dozens of celebrities turned out, including Mrs. Butterworth, the California Raisins, Hungry Jack, Betty Crocker, the Hostess Twinkies, Captain Crunch and many others.

The graveside was piled high with flours as long-time friend, Aunt Jemima, delivered the eulogy, describing Doughboy as a man who "never knew how much he was kneaded."

Doughboy rose quickly in show business, but his later life was filled with many turnovers. He was not considered a very smart cookie, wasting much of his dough on half-baked schemes. Despite being a little flaky at times, even as a crusty old man, he was still considered a roll model for millions.

Toward the end it was thought he'd raise once again, but he was no tart.

Doughboy is survived by his second wife, Play Dough. They have two children and one in the oven. The funeral was held at 3:50 for about 20 minutes.


I like to bake nice things. And then I eat them. Then I can bake some more.

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