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Family planning

(article, Meg DesCamp)

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“Are you buying for an orphanage?” the grocery checker asked, eyeing the three overflowing carts that my mother and my two oldest brothers were maneuvering through the checkout line. “Because if you’re buying for an orphanage, you get a 10 percent discount.”

We were newcomers to this small town on Lake Michigan, where my dad had been hired to run the local pulp mill. So Mom smiled politely (one of the many things she did well) and said calmly, “No, just stocking our kitchen.” 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="How did her mother cope with feeding a family of 10? She drank three pots of coffee a day and read a lot of murder mysteries."] Are you buying for an orphanage? It became one of our family stories, and we eight kids laughed about it. But Mom was humiliated and angry — so angry, she said later, that she was tempted to say yes and get the discount, even though she knew the truth would catch up with her. Small towns are like that. 

“I can’t comprehend asking such a question,” she would say, shaking her head. “That town didn’t even have an orphanage.”

Here’s what I’m unable to comprehend: Planning, shopping, cooking, and supervising kitchen clean-up, day in and day out, year after year, for 34 long years, until the youngest of your eight kids (me!) finally leaves for college. 

Here’s another thing I can’t comprehend: My mother never complained about the sheer volume of effort and creativity demanded by cooking for that many people. Not in my hearing, anyway. Of course, she did drink three pots of percolated coffee a day, and she read a lot of murder mysteries. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Unlike my calm, competent mother, I whine incessantly about food duties. Also, I swear a lot during all phases of food procurement, preparation, and clean-up. You’d think I was cooking for Napoleon’s army — or an orphanage — instead of for four people.

Occasionally I remember what my mom faced and wonder: What’s wrong with me? I have it so easy compared to her!

In my defense, however, I ask you to note the following:

# My mother did not have to consider gluten intolerance. She was a terrific baker, and our house usually smelled like fresh-baked bread or warm cookies. Homemade bread or rolls were an integral part of most meals. I inherited both her love of baking and her talent for it.
# My mother did not have to consider vegetarianism. At least, not until the late 1960s, at which point she gave my teenaged hippie sister the freedom to prepare and cook her own food, until the unfortunate “Grow Your Own Bean Sprouts” stink-and-moldfest of 1970. My own teenaged hippie daughter has not asked to grow bean sprouts. Yet.
# My mother did not have to consider lactose intolerance. We lived on dairy. We thrived on dairy. Our second refrigerator was stocked with several back-up gallons of milk at all times. I learned to drink directly from the carton by watching my brothers. Strangely, this skill has also been displayed by my teenaged daughter, who has no older brothers to learn it from. Perhaps it is genetic rather than learned behavior.
# My mother never considered making different foods for different people, and I salute her for that. Dinner was dinner, and you ate it or you didn’t. There was always the cereal cupboard if you didn’t like meatloaf and baked potatoes and green beans, something I have gotten increasingly skilled at pointing out to my own children.

I, on the other hand, must consider Items 1, 2 and 3, above, which makes it hard to stay out of the trap of Item 4. Our family consists of one vegetarian (the milk-carton-sucking teenager), one gluten-intolerant husband, one lactose-intolerant preteen, three pets whose food allergies continue to surprise and confuse me, and one omnivore. No prizes for guessing I’m the last one on that list.

The dinner scene at my house undoubtedly has my mother rolling her eyes (and probably flapping her angel wings in bemusement). Picture, if you will, the supposedly simple pasta dinner: Two large pots of boiling, salted water. One package of wheat pasta and one package of rice pasta and two different cooking times. One pan with homemade vegetarian spaghetti sauce. Another pan with the same spaghetti sauce and sweet Italian sausage. One loaf of garlic bread in the oven. Two slices of non-gluten bread cooling in the toaster. A small bowl of Parmesan cheese for those who can tolerate it. A big bowl of greens with dressing on the side, because the kids hate “salad sauce.” Sliced apples and peppers for those who don’t like greens. 

The results? Chaos, impatience, cold pasta, and colder non-gluten toast. And, yes, swearing, another thing I never knew my mom to do in the kitchen, except that time the pressure cooker exploded and we had to wipe split-pea soup off every surface, including the ceiling. 

So you can roll your heavenly eyes, Mom, but here’s what I’ve learned about juggling intolerances and dietary preferences:

# The freezer is your friend. We have a full-sized freezer in the garage stuffed with essentials, including cooked edamame, which the veggie teen eats straight out of the bag; frozen bean-and-cheese burritos, which the 10-year-old can nuke on her own; meatloaf waiting to be cooked; bags of chopped veggies ready to hop into a saucepan; and ice cream, soy-based ice cream, popsicles, and frozen homemade cookies. 
# A little planning goes a long way. Every sauce I start is vegetarian; ditto every soup. If necessary, partway through the process, I put half of the liquid into another pan and add whatever meat I’m using. This won’t satisfy hard-core carnivores, but it works for us.
# There are a LOT of gluten-free baking mixes out there, some quite heinous. Our current favorite is from Pamela’s Baking Products. I still bake mostly with wheat, however, and my husband’s gotten really good at whipping up his own pancakes.
# Don’t be too hard on your household vegetarian if she asks to leave the table earlier than you’d like. If it’s a “cruelty against animals” issue, it can be really hard for such a person to sit through a meat-centric meal.
# Eggs are also your friend. Probably once a week I heat sliced veggies in a large saucepan, toss in some whipped-up eggs, and let it cook over a very low flame. Slap some hash browns on the side (from your freezer, remember?) and everybody’s happy. And if they’re not? There’s always the cereal cupboard. Or the freezer (burritos, remember?).
# Get your kids involved, especially if they have food preferences or intolerances that increase your kitchen workload. 
# All hell will not break loose if your children hear you swearing.

In fact, if I’d been my mom, I probably would have said to that grocery clerk, “Hell, no, I’m not buying for an orphanage,” and then we would have been known as “that family whose mom swore at Emmeline down at the A&P,” because small towns are like that. 

Instead, my friends told me they loved being at our house, because my mom was kind and our home smelled like fresh bread. I’ll bet my mom would take that over a 10 percent orphanage discount any day.

p(bio). Meg Descamp doles out advice at her blog; her book Slug Tossing and Other Adventures of a Reluctant Gardener was published by Sasquatch Books in 1998.

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