Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Kitchen at Home

Mattbites had a link to Table Fuel, in which a post asked for kitchen tales, and then yesterday Tea asked where her readers get their love of food, sort of broadened to include when/why people learned to cook (or maybe that was just in the comments). For some reason I was thinking about these two things together and somehow they sounded like similar questions. I was going to post a comment to Tea's post, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed like I was going off on a tangent.

I didn't learn to cook until after college, and even then was much less than skilled. When we were growing up, No did the cooking that Mom didn't do (French toast, baked chicken, and pumpkin pie), and when I was in college the only dish I made was one we called "Cats and Dogs," which was rice combined with drained canned kidney beans and thawed mixed vegetables. Jujubi and Phil were excellent cooks (bean soup, moussaka, enchiladas) and there was always the dining hall. When I lived with Shobi-wan, she did the cooking, including a spinach mushroom crepe that I liked despite the fact that I didn't like spinach in those days.

When I worked as a residential counselor at Harry's Mother, meals were important. We would house up to ten angry, sad, confused, struggling, and/or relieved teenagers at a time in a beat-up but clean house with old couches and chairs in the parlors and four plastic-covered mattresses to a bedroom. These youth were in transition, some returning home and some going to family friends, other relatives, or the non-custodial parent by the end of the ten days. It was important to the agency and important to the house staff that the house seem as cozy as possible (which indeed it did, especially when it was full).

One way this was done was to serve a regular dinner every night, with all the youth and the two evening staff (and maybe the Crisis Intervention Specialist, if for some reason he or she was around at dinner time) at the table together. The youth selected chores and helped with either prep or clean-up (but weren't allowed anything more dangerous than a cheese grater). I don't remember most of the meals we served there, but a few in which I was involved stand out.

One was a meal that was a disaster during a really frustrating shift. I was working with another substitute residential counselor, and he was new to the agency and new to RC'ing. His intentions may have been good but he was a terrible RC that night. The house was full of energetic, pre-supper teens and my partner spent an hour reading "the log," which could be interesting but wasn't all that necessary. I was in the kitchen trying to think of something to make out of the rather depleted stores in the pantry and as this was before I really knew how to cook I couldn't invent something. I wound up serving corn dogs and boxed mac and cheese (what a yellow dinner that was!). That wouldn't have been so bad except that we had only six corn dogs, and the next day the youth, rightly so, complained to the House Manager. I explained to her that I didn't really know how to cook and because of my colleague's choice of priorities had had to supervise all the youth while I was trying to prepare dinner.

A successful meal happened during a break-up. I was pretty depressed and was barely eating when at home, and I had been elected to prepare a meal for eleven other people. I found a box of matzo meal in a cupboard (something that would never get used at the house) and decided I could make chicken matzo ball soup. I'm not sure what inspired me to do this; there must have been chicken broth in the pantry and leftover chicken in the fridge. I made a big pot of soup and made enough matzo balls for everyone to have three (I've always been a fan of crowded soups). I explained that they were eating chicken soup with dumplings and the youth - excuse the pun - ate it up.

One Saturday when I was working Crisis Intervention I knew that of the two staff members, one couldn't cook at all and the other was really sick (but since she couldn't find coverage had come to work anyway - that's a different story). I was thinking about what I could throw together quickly, since obviously dinner prep was going to fall to me and I had to be able to drop everything to intervene in a crisis if I got paged.

I received a call from a parent who had hosted a graduation party for her son. I think she knew about us because her son's friend had stayed with us once. I was really happy to meet her at the office and pick up the leftover food: A six-foot submarine sandwich and a four-pound tub of potato salad. I thanked the mom profusely, and everyone, not just the RCs, at the house was enthusiastic about this picnic meal on a hot June day.

I have always had a sense that food is home and the kitchen is the center of the home. I think this is because it's where the food and drinks are and where (for a lot of us) someone who loves us was while we were growing up. We made cakes with Nana there, we did our homework there, we painted or played with Play-Dough there, and in a lot of homes, kids usually enter through the back door, which always seems to lead to the kitchen. I think the entity that was Harry's Mother felt that it was important to provide as ordinary but tasty and filling meals as possible so that it wouldn't feel like an institution. With a regular meal time, served family-style, and (most of the time) decent food, we made Harry's Mother homey, even if it wasn't exactly home.

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