It is late afternoon, right before dinner. My two kids are starving and crabby and I am negotiating the evening meal selection with my 4-year-old. He's angling for SpaghettiOs. I counter with the suggestion of real pasta and a slice of turkey meatloaf. He whines on about the canned meatballs. I whine back that he's had SpaghettiOs twice this week. His skin is going to turn orange.
He rethinks and goes for the standby hot dogs. I actually hear myself say, "How about some chicken nuggets?" He looks horrified and suggests a bologna-and-cheese sandwich. I draw the line at bologna. We settle on a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. Hold the jelly.
I cannot believe I am having this conversation. How did I get here? I used to be a no toy guns or food additives for my kids bleeding-heart liberal. There were certain things I pledged I would not do when I had kids. I would not name them Ashley or Rainbow, I would not let them sit mindlessly in front of the TV and I would never serve them food from a can. I completely failed at the food thing.
My preschooler's favorite meals these days consist of meat-by-products and mechanically-separated turkey. He refuses vegetables unless they are slathered in cheese or brown sugar. Seedless watermelon has too many seeds and celery makes him gag. It's a horrifying embarrassment. It's even more frightening because I have a degree from a cooking school. In Paris yet.
Sometimes when I am preparing dinner, or should I say "opening" dinner, I catch sight of my dusty, framed diploma from La Varenne. Underneath the diploma, there is a bookshelf. Wedged between M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child is a humiliating collection of those mini-magazines purchased at the checkout. Four Hundred Things to Do With Velveeta. Seven-Minute Bean Casseroles the Family Will Love.
Eating used to be synonymous with pleasure. These days dinner is about speed. Since kids seem unable to know when they are hungry, it is up to me to read their signals for food. When the big one starts launching superheroes at the little one and she starts gnawing on the VCR remote, they want food. Yanking ingredients from the pantry, I heat, re-heat, microwave and toast-r-oven, trying to remember what's on the "I don't like that anymore" list.
I am no longer troubled if there are too many items on the plate of the same color. My expectations are low: Is it food? Will they eat it? When the last French fry has been lobbed and the chaos of dinner is over each night, I get down to plucking the mixed vegetables from my toddler daughter's hair.
After cooking school I worked as a pastry chef in a number of good French restaurants, where the waiters are really French and mostly nasty. Where the wine list intimidates and the flowers are gorgeous. I moved on to my own catering business where I lovingly built wedding cakes using lots of gold leaf and candied violets. I made my own puff-pastry and chocolate truffles. Now I serve untoasted low-fat pop-tarts. My good knives are dull and getting rusty in a child-proofed kitchen drawer. I actually asked for an electric carving knife last Mother's Day.
During life pre-motherhood, I once dragged my reluctant husband to the then-brand new Dean & Deluca's in Georgetown. We gazed at the displays of roasts and chops like we were at Tiffany's. Well, I gazed. He kind of glazed over. He didn't care about the adorable baby squash or the selection of fresh pasta. Food shopping, as it turns out, is not a spectator sport for Donald.
When we were first married, we enjoyed three months before I became pregnant and queasy. During this short spell I still had the energy and interest to go the distance in the kitchen. Donald, however, was so darn appreciative that I cooked, it almost didn't matter what the food was. I saw him once get a little nutty over a tuna sandwich.
"Oh my God, Bets . . . there's celery in here?! It's brilliant!"
A classmate from cooking school was recently named one of D.C.'s best chefs, with her picture on the cover of Washingtonian magazine. The night we were to take some friends to her restaurant, I tried on every piece of clothing I owned, desperate to find something that didn't scream "Dodge minivan!" Deranged with anxiety, I also ate through the last of my son's recent Halloween haul. Perhaps I should "out" myself to my friend, I thought. Admit that I now buy iceberg lettuce and that we eat Wonder Bread. That the only kind of fish my husband will eat has to have the word "stick" in it. I was sure she was going to see right through my feigned interest in her free-range duck.
Near the end of our meal she came out of the kitchen, flushed and harried. Her "whites" were starched but she looked spent. As she sat and talked to us about the kitchen and the food and the fatigue and her life, I floated away a little. I thought about the insane amount of money this dinner would cost. I thought how silly my dessert plate looked--a chocolate napoleon, whose precariously stacked layers measured eight inches high, just daring me to eat it. I kept thinking about how many Twizzlers my kids had thus far negotiated out of the baby-sitter.
I refocused when she asked to see pictures of the children. She glanced through the dozen shots and grinned.
"Geeze, two kids. Is it hard?"
"No," I lied. "Piece of cake."
Later that night, I walked through my dark kitchen and breezed by the fridge. Coupons for Snackwell's, hot dogs and macaroni & cheese fluttered under those annoying little alphabet magnets my kids never play with. Smiling at one of my son's preschool masterpieces, stuck carelessly beneath a Batman magnet, I remember my promise that tomorrow he and I will bake brownies. From scratch.
Stevie will be on a chair beside me at our kitchen counter, tossing flour all over and pouring in too much vanilla. I can't wait to inhale the sweet smell of his chocolate-smudged cheeks as we drag our fingers through the last of the sugary batter. Brownies go great with SpaghettiOs.