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MARTHA DOESN'T LIVE HERE

December 12, 2000

I can still see it in my mind’s eye. It’s a photo from Gourmet magazine. There is an orange, its peel slightly separated from the flesh. It’s sitting on a lovely china plate atop a blue and white tablecloth. On top of the orange, as a decoration, is a single strawberry, lightly dusted with powdered sugar. It was an illustration of a simple presentation for some fancy breakfast. I came across the picture during the year Walt and I were engaged and I showed it to him, telling him that this was the kind of thing I hoped to do after we were married. He was thrilled.

I’d always looked forward to being a housewife and imagined myself setting a lovely table each evening, fixing gourmet meals, eating by candlelight, having meaningful converstaions, and occasionally throwing wonderful dinner parties.

When we were first married, I packed Walt’s lunch each day (as I still do today), and tried to be creative. I still remember the time I fixed an Italian lunch, including a red checked dishtowel as a “tablecloth,” a mini bottle of chianti that I had melted candle wax on to set on top of the dishtowel, and then an Italian-theme lunch. The wife of Walt’s co-worker remarked, wryly, that the novelty of fixing such lunches would soon pass. She was right.

I can’t remember the last time I fixed a special lunch, or we ate by candlelight (unless the power was out). My kitchen is a museum to the bygone culinary periods of my life. In the back of a bookshelf, covered with dust and cobwebs is a fondu pot. I remember the fondu years. I think our first meal in our first apartment was fondu. We would have fondu parties, dipping huge chunks of sourdough bread into bubbling cheese at about a zillion calories a bite. Those were the days. We also went through years where we had occasional fondu parties, with cheese fondu and meat fondu and ending up, of course, with the ever-popular chocolate fondu. The parties ended when a friend’s child spilled the oil from a meat fondu on himself. I was always afraid to have meat fondu after that.

I still have lots and lots of bread pans, though I now occasionally make bread in a bread maker and haven’t used a real “bread pan” in years. When the kids were little, I baked all of our bread (no mean task, since we’d go through a loaf a day). My friend Char and I would go to a specialty store for things like cracked wheat, rye flour and soy flour. Every day I would be up to my elbows in bread dough, scaring the dog by slamming the dough into the bread board to work up the gluten. It was great exercise and a fantastic way to get rid of aggression.

The wok, cleaver, and various bottles of spices and sauces are left over from the Chinese years. I took two classes in Chinese cooking in adult night school from Martin Yan, before he became a famous TV chef. What a character he was. And I really learned how to cook a pretty good Chinese dinner. The secret of Chinese cooking is to accept that it takes you all day to chop, and 10 minutes to cook.

The height of my gourmet Chinese chef days came when I cooked a 7 course meal for 10 people in a friend’s apartment. Unfortunately the friend had only one very tiny counter, about three feet square. If it weren’t for Tupperware, I never could have made that meal. The only way I could do the meal at all was to put each recipe on a card, number each card, and then put all the chopped ingredients into Tupperware. Each container was numbered to correspond to the number on the recipe card. I still can’t believe that it all came together so successfully. 

I’ve given away a lot of the cake decorating equipment, but I still have some Wilton pans in the shape of animals. I spent a lot of years decorating cakes, the result of another couple of night school classes. We celebrated every event that came along with a fancy decorated cake, which was odd, because actually none of us likes cake very much. Walt in particular doesn’t like cake, so when his birthday came around that year, I made him a lemon meringue pie and hid it. Then I decorated a cake pan and brought it to him to cut. He thought it was a cake, of course, was very surprised when he tried to cut into it and I brought out the pie instead.

There are other less impressive signs of my feeble attempts to be Martha Stewart. There is the stack of straw plate holders and the cute silverware basket that I was going to use when we revived the art of the barbecue around here. None of them has ever been used (I actually bought them because David was so excited about the idea, but he died before we could make it a summer tradition).

There are wonderful big deep pots from the days when I made soup often (Lamb Soup of the Middle East was a particular favorite). There’s the expensive Tupperware stuff that I was always going to use to change my cooking habits, but never did. I have all the equipment for “stacker cooking” and a cookbook to help me do it, and I think I’ve made one (count ‘em) stacker meal.

There are the two bookcases full of cookbooks that I used to use, but which have gone unused for such a long time. If I wanted to, I could whip up gourmet meals from India, Italy, Greece, Mexico, anywhere in South America, Japan, China, or Thailand. I have a banana cookbook, a beer cookbook, low cal, high cal, and regular cal. There are vegetarian books, a hamburger cookbook, a potato cookbook, a few chocolate cookbooks, and everybody's fund-raiser books (especially my bible, "Trifles from Tiny Tots"). There are books of casseroles, a book of things to stuff in a tortilla, a crepe cookbook, a cheesecake cookbook. There is a book about pies, several about cookies, and a couple about soups and salads and breads. Lots of Mexican cookbooks and when we’ve had too much Mexican and high cal foods, a whole shelf of diet cookbooks.

With all the recipes and equipment at my disposal, my normal cooking through the years has been generally pretty plain (though when we have company, I always experiment with something I’ve never cooked before). There’s nothing guaranteed to evoke a “yuck” from a group of kids more than slaving all day over a hot stove on some gourmet treat.

While I did subject them to an occasional feijoada or risotto, my cooking generally consisted of my specialty: “something with hamburger in it.” I’m not sure why I even have all those cookbooks. I could have made do with just one book that starts “Take a pound of hamburger....”

As the kids got older and we started watching out for our diets a little better, my meal planning changed a bit. Now it was “something with chicken in it.” (We never did really get to “something with fish in it,” except for the inevitable tuna casserole, since Walt’s not a big fish eater.) The taste varied by the liquid I cooked with or the spices I threw on it, but basically it ended up being a theme and variation on chicken and rice or, for variety, chicken and pasta.

Now that the kids are grown and gone, I could go back to my idealistic fantasies of 35 years ago, but somehow I’m just not into sticking a strawberry on top of an orange any more. Nothing in the supermarket inspires me. The thrill is gone. It’s the same old stuff week in and week out, served at a table piled high with projects I haven’t quite put away, and usually while we watch Jeopardy. Maybe one day I’ll surprise Walt and give him an orange with a strawberry on top of it for breakfast. He’ll probably ask where the toast is.

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