Food wise, fourth grade was a seminal year for me. I always had my bespectacled face stuck in a book and if a character ate something unfamiliar to me, that warranted a trip to the library. I’d go upstairs to the Juvenile Collection, sit cross-legged in front of the cookbooks, and carefully read multiple tables of contents until I came across a recipe that corresponded to what I’d read in a work of fiction. This is how I came to make popovers for the first time. Corn fritters, too. And because some of my favorite authors like Judy Blume and Norma Klein were Jewish, I’m going to guess that I the only Black child in all of Los Angeles braiding her own Challah. Of course, books are a form of escape and that’s exactly what I was doing because in the fourth grade, my mother fed me the same dinner for a year.
I’ll share the menu with you should you happen to be a parent yearning to torture your child.
Slice and steam a zucchini for, oh, 45 minutes or so. When it’s so overcooked and slippery that it falls off the fork and burns your leg, it’s done. Buy a pasty white slab of fillet of sole in a light blue Styrofoam tray. Remove it from the tray, place it in an ovenproof pan, and bake at 350 until it’s even whiter. As a side dish, follow the directions found on the back of an earthy, paper sack of brown rice. Once cooked, it will taste exactly like the light blue Styrofoam tray. And finally, for the beverage: buy a 20-can case of frozen grape juice at an exclusive, members only shopping venue called Fedco. When thirsty, pull one can out of the freezer and mix with water into a plastic jug that is permanently stained from all the other times it’s held grape juice.
It hadn’t always been this way. Before that fateful year, she made a variety of dishes. What they lacked in fanciness they made up for in delectability. She would brown ground beef then mix it with white rice, salt, and pepper. Served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon, it was simple and satisfying as all comfort food is. And she’d always cook an extra portion of rice and set it aside. In the morning, I would wake up to her at the stove, reheating the rice with milk, sugar, and butter turning it into a cozy porridge. She fried excellent chicken and whipped amazing mashed potatoes. Her lasagna was legendary.
So what happened?
She got healthy. She learned about preservatives and processed foods and did her best to do the right thing. There had never been any of those kid-lust items like sugar cereal or American cheese in our house. But when fourth grade rolled around, it was taken a step further. White rice was swapped for brown. Salt was banished. Meat was minimal. And that beautiful pink and white box of C&H sugar? That was moved to the top shelf, relegated to special occasions. My mother was a no-frills cook to begin with; without seasoning salt or taco spice packets, she became a no-flavor cook, too.
Every so I often, I ask her why. I say, “Why, mother?” in my Oscar-worthy, almost Katherine Hepburn-ish voice. “Why, why, why did you torture me so?”
I always make sure to perform this drama when there are lots of other relatives around in hopes that she will be shamed into explaining herself to me.
She just laughs her easy laugh and says, “Oh, I don’t know.”
But I think I do. She was a single mom in the ‘80’s and I now understand that the constraints of money and time directed her toward simple solutions. Julia Child was much too complicated. Alice Waters was 400 miles away. It would be another decade before Whole Foods and the Internet was something used only by MIT professors. Cooking had never been her interest and with the added responsibility of making it good for me, it just became too much for her. She did what she could, she did it with love, and that love tasted so bad that I ran to the library desperate for better food.
Most of my friends were being raised by single moms, too, and what I was experiencing played out in different ways in various households. I recall one friend’s kitchen where everything was frozen, boxed, processed, pre-sliced, or tinned. At another friend’s house, the whole family shared a giant, oily vegetable omelet for dinner. “Sorry,” she whispered to me at the dinner table when her mother’s back was turned.
Even the repetitive menu was not uncommon. One mom made her three kids spaghetti with meat sauce and a side of potatoes five nights a week with take out pizza on Saturdays and meatloaf on Sundays – for their entire childhood.
Though my year of the beige and bland dinner did nothing to make me smile, it did possess a quiet integrity. When I finally did sample the forbidden fruits of white bread and bologna, I was shocked to learn that I didn’t like them at all. They always looked so marvelous on TV yet in real-life, white bread attached itself to the roof of my mouth in a way that reminded me of a silkworm cocoons we had in our classroom.
I consider myself lucky. I didn’t have to retrain my palette or eating habits like my peers who were raised on soda and for this I will be forever grateful. But at the time, it was up to me to rewrite the story.
I was ten years old and had read a book where a girl ate apple pancakes. Was this real? A trip to the library proved that apple pancakes were indeed a delicious fact. With the help of my grandma, I planned a Mother’s Day brunch. We served apple pancakes to family and friends who still mention this meal from time to time. My mamma was proud of me as if she'd taught me herself. And in a weird way, I guess she did.