Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Pantry of Shame

I'm afraid the terrifying time is coming when I will soon step over the line and become my mom. I have dreaded and fended off this day all my life, but this weekend I saw it loom in all its unmistakably horrid clarity.

Years ago, when I was a kid still living in my parents' home, I remember my mom doing the grocery shopping bright and early on Saturday mornings. She did this because she worked during the week and used to scream about all the "non-working idiots" who would show up at the grocery store just after 5:00 on weekdays.

"They have all day to go there," she'd scowl. "Why do they bring all their tired, snot-nosed brats and go at the same time as the hordes of people on their way home from work? There should be restricted hours reserved only for working people." Not a bad idea. And during years when I've been a stay-at-home mom, I've always remembered that issue and gone to the store during hours when I would not infringe on harried and hurried wage earners. Conversely, during the years when I've busted my butt at work without kids or have busted my butt at work AND been a mom, I have certainly noticed exactly the shopping behavior that peeved my mother. She gave up on the after-work routine, and instead went when the store opened on Saturday. This nearly guaranteed that she was one of only a handful of people in the store, and she'd be back before 8:30 a.m., when she would then drag me out to haul in and put away the goods.

As I got older, sometimes my otherwise clueless dad would help. Mine was a dad whose domains were the garage and the vegetable garden. He needed to do nothing more than point his finger at a garden plot and prize-winning tomatoes would spring fully formed from the ground. Blindfolded, he could assemble a whole car or a hi-fi from random parts with no instructions. But ask him to do anything in the house and he was a bumbling Eeyore.

An indelible crack in our idyllic (hah! I make myself laugh so hard) family life appeared one morning when BOTH Dad and I carried in the groceries and started putting them away. I was working on the can cupboard and dry-goods cabinets. Mom was rushing out to her helmet-head, solid-resin-lacquering hair appointment. My dad was sitting on the kitchen floor stuffing things into the side-by-side refrigerator/freezer (I hate those things and will never have one. Maybe this is why). As Mom headed for the door, he yelled, "[Name!] I am about to put a pound of butter in the freezer but cannot find a place to put it. I notice that you already have no fewer than FIVE pounds of butter taking up room in this freezer along with four cartons of orange juice concentrate and five boxes of peas and carrots. Why do you insist on buying the same items every week when we already have five of everything?"

This might not seem at all profligate to people with many mouths to feed, but we were a family of three. Like me, my parents were only children, but they had grown up during the Depression. My Dad's family were much better off than my Mom's. His parents had been able to build their own house, and my dad started making money at after-school real jobs when he was 12. By the time he was 14, he had his own multiple cars and raced them illegally on some hills above LA with all his pals, a la a much-earlier "American Graffiti."

In contrast, my mom's father died in a head-on car wreck on Pacific Coast Highway (Rt. 1) when Mom was barely of school age. Her mother was a wild artist who refused to follow any straight-and-narrow path (except morally), and was always doing bizarre jobs that barely kept them afloat. One day she would write a letter to Great-grandma telling her she wanted nothing more than to be a milliner and design fabulous hats. The next day she would take a temp job as a court stenographer or work in a railroad office. They were basically poor, proper Baptist southern girls who lived in barrios on what were then the beach-rich "outskirts" of Los Angeles.

Mom told me many stories of how Grandmother would leave her in the morning before school with some change and a note telling her what to get at the grocer for dinner. They didn't have enough money to keep food in the house; they bought their goods day by day. Since they lived by the beach, it was often fish that Mom found the cheapest food. Until she died, she was the WORST fish cook ever. I think she was an intentionally pathetic fish cook. She had had her fill of it, and she had washed her hands of it. (I on the other hand could cook and eat three whole pounds of catfish or anything else and not even bat an eye, I love it so.)

But I soooooo digress! The point is that my mother had a deep-seated fear of never having enough food in the house, because most of her life she never did have enough. She told me stories of how she actually gloated that she had shoes to wear to school when the migrant-worker kids did not. Of course, as a child, I could not really imagine what this felt like. I always had two pairs of school shoes, one pair of church shoes, and tennies. But I saw evidence of want in the kitchen. I do remember as a tiny child when my mother panicked about the Bay of Pigs crisis. She freaked out and I was just a teeny preschooler and started wailing because she was wailing. We did not have a basement or a "bomb shelter" [how pathetically misguided were those?], but we sure enough had enough canned goods to feed the whole neighborhood. What good this might have done after nuclear holocaust, I cannot imagine.

We had a can cupboard that most people would call a "pantry." It started out as a simple broom closet, but my dad put shelves in it. It was floor to ceiling and narrow, but fairly deep. There was never a moment in my childhood when that cupboard was not so jam-packed with stuff that the contents wouldn't leap out at you when you opened the door. Sometimes it would open itself and items volunteered themselves. At an early age I was already trained to catch whatever flew out, having learned the hard way that it was really bad if what fell on your flip-flopped foot was a glass jar.

In my years of restocking the cupboard with new goods, I constantly would have to rearrange things so it would all continue to fit. There were certain cans that became personally legendary to me, sort of like favorite old Christmas tree ornaments. I'd dig around one month and find some ancient loganberries or pumpkin (why did we need those? I don't know! She did not bake pies). Then I'd shuffle the cans and not see them again until six months later. Rediscovering them was almost like running across an old friend or a treasured photograph. I'm pretty sure we harbored more cans of corned-beef hash than three supermarkets put together. This, however, my dad would not complain about because he loved it for breakfast.

Then there was the day when I opened the door, and something had burst over every surface in the entire cupboard. And guess whose job it was to clean it up?

I don't remember exactly what it was, but I believe it was a way-old (and sometimes things in there were over 12 years old!) can of fruit in heavy syrup. I recall the stubborn stickiness, and how I had to wash all the other cans on the shelves, and how the mess mercilessly required more and more wiping.

It was then that I secretly started culling cans. In school I was very interested in biology, especially bacteriology. Among other things, I was freaked out by the idea of botulism. (Hah, now we intentionally inject people with it!) And once I'd heard of botulism, I looked at that can cupboard in a whole new light. That cupboard suddenly looked like an EVERYTHING MUST GO sale.

Flash forward to the present. This weekend, disgusted by the lack of tidiness control I have in all rooms but the kitchen and master bath/bedroom, I started some spring cleaning in the kitchen. I had noticed that with all my winter hoarding, I could never find what I wanted from the kitchen shelves without basically removing everything, pulling out what I wanted and starting over. Furthermore, I hate it when the shelves are dusty or sticky or oil has seeped from the bottoms of bottles and left goo on the shelves. The plan of attack was to take everything out, arrange it by category the way it originally was, wipe down the shelves, and put it all back in memorized order where I could instantly find it.

To my horror, when it all came out into the clear light of day, I discovered I had already nearly become my mother.

Exhibit #1: Beans, Anyone?

This is only a partial expose. Not all of the beans are even out of the cabinet yet! Inventory: Great northern, Pink, Cannellini, Garbanzo, Black, Pinto, Blackey peas, Navy, Small white, Vegetarian baked. Not shown: Roman, Green pigeon, Light kidney, Dark kidney.

Not surprisingly, I used just a few of these to make a huge pot of chili that could feed us for nine days. Fortunately, my neighbors have gone away for a couple of days, so I'm going to put a big container in their fridge. A walk-by chili-ing. The rest, after three days, I'll freeze. Also, note to self: Invest in Goya Foods and get back some of the investment.

Exhibit #2 from the Den of Iniquity: You Say To-mah-to

Inventory: Peeled imported. Crushed organic. Crushed not organic. Sauce, sauce, sauce! Paste, domestic and imported.

Exhibit #2B: Oh, yeah, Beans, Beans, They're Good for Your Heart!
In my mother-in-law's antique mason jars:

Blue jar: Receptacle waiting for the Unknown Beans. Turtle. Red lentils and split green peas. Green lentils. Flageolet. Roasted soy. Mung.

Exhibit #2C: Wait, Did I Say "Beans"?

Oh, yeah, some others. Pea. Mung.

Exhibit #4: Pasta much?

We could feed the whole marathon: Orzo. Gemelli. Farfalle. Spaghetti, thin and regular. Pounds and pounds of cappellini. Linguine. Manischewitz fine yolk-free. Manischewitz fine regular egg. Cavatappi. Medium shells. Wide egg noodles. Homestyle egg noodles. (Even my window frogs can't stand it if I bring more on.)

Exhibit #5: Let's Go to The Movies!

Exhibit #6: What's for Breakfast, Jemmie?

Ooooh, ayyye! And toss me an oatcake with the porridge, Jemmie! (Oops, I'm marginalizing the Irish side.) Long-cooking regular. John McCann's Irish steel cut. These are just the jarred ones. There's another whole huge drum full of regular in the cabinet.

Exhibit #7: Tea for Two, or Three, or Seventy-five

Tazo Zen, loose and in bags. Tazo China Green Tips. Celestial Seasonings: Mandarin Orange Spice and Red Zinger. Edinburgh Scottish Breakfast loose. Bigelow: Cozy Chamomile and Lemon Lift. Traditional Medicinals Smooth Move (a fine laxative--note frog's position). Mighty Leaf Organic Earl Grey. Herbal chest remedy (in plastic bags--it's not what it looks like!). I'm not going to count the cocoa mix.
It's clearly an embarrassment of riches. But at least I've learned I'm better organized in the kitchen than my mother (honestly, who knew!) And to my credit, I buy stuff a few times a year at Sam's Club and BJ's. And we have more members in our family than in my family of origin.

The refrigerator is clean and reorganized every weekend, so we have a clear conscience and need not go there. The teeny freezer compartment, however, is maybe jammed from floor to ceiling and not so fun. Unorganizable on any day, it cascades whenever the door opens.

Next Confession: I didn't talk about the other half of the pantry (oils, juice, vinegars, Chinese stuff). Nor did I begin to delve into the cavernous condiment cabinet, but ALL of the condiments are regularly used, fully justified, and our whole family loves every bit of what's in it. So there.


At 3/12/2008 2:41 PM, Blogger Nance said...

Oh, don't get me started. Your pasta collection is NOTHING compared to mine, and there's no one here but Rick and me. And spaghetti sauce? Try EIGHT JARS!! Tuna? EIGHT CANS. You have me beat on beans, but if we get started on cooky decorating stuff...look OUT.

(I'm really glad that wine does NOT count and that we call it "cellaring.")

At 3/13/2008 2:28 PM, Blogger sputnik said...

Nance, I see your tuna and will raise you at least as many cans of cooked chicken breast. But on the cookies, you would clearly have me beat, since we rarely decorate. The boys eat them before the cookies even get a chance.


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