My Son the Chef

Last year I blogged that I let down myself and the women of the world by failing to teach my 22-year-old son to cook.

It wasn’t intentional. Cooking and meal prep fell through the cracks between sports practices, CCD and other extracurricular activities that often conflicted with dinner time and family meals.

I’m happy to report that after that blog, my son took a keen interest in cooking, or at least putting up a pot of homemade chili during visits home from college. But it gets better: the kid loves to grill, meaning for the first time in years I have someone to barbecue meat, chicken, fish and vegetables.

I know lots of guys who hate to cook, but are kings when it comes to grilling. There’s something about cooking meat over an open flame in the great outdoors that brings out the caveman in a lot of men.

I’ve always envied women married to these guys. The Curmudgeon has never grilled nor sought to prove his mettle over a fire pit. Since we married in 1983, he’s been very happy to leave grilling to me, which may explain why we rarely cooked outside until now.

An estimated 50 percent of American men handle grilling in their households, with only about 22 percent of women in charge of it. I guess the other 28 percent share grilling duties or don’t grill at all.

I know it sounds sexist, but I usually associate grilling with men. I asked my son why it’s so appealing: “It’s satisfying,” he said. “The sound of the meat sizzling, the flames and the smoke. I think it’s a manly thing.”

My Dad didn’t cook, but he commanded the grill at every cookout until flogging it onto some of my brothers-in-law later in life. He was very specific about his grilling technique: hotdogs were always cooked first at a low temperature. Heaven help the poor soul who tried to throw on a hamburger before the hotdogs were done.

After the hotdogs came the hamburgers and sausage patties, a staple at any Italian American cookout. If there was chicken, it was cooked last. My father deplored all manner of condiments, never putting so much as mustard on his hotdog or ketchup on his burger. To this day, I don’t understand his aversion, but he was resolute in his disdain.

I don’t remember ever seeing my mom grill, which is why my foray into grilling after marriage came as such a shock and disappointment. I’d hope to relegate this task to the Curmudgeon, but he held firm even after seeing his brother, in-laws, and buddies take charge of their grills.

He even buys me presents for the grill to underscore that it’s solely my domain. Over the past few years, I’ve received utensils, a long fork with a temperature probe for checking meat, a combination light and fan for the top of the grill and a fancy spinning basket for marinating and roasting vegetables.

I don’t have the heart to tell him that I really don’t like to grill. In fact, it’s one of my least favorite things to do. When I told my sister Patty my hidden feelings about grilling, she was shocked.

“I love to grill,” she said. “It’s more my thing than (her husband’s). I couldn’t believe it. She loves to grill? I don’t get it.

My son’s new love of grilling is a gift during the pandemic, a chance for me to escape cooking the main course every night. I still help out on sides, salad and the marinade, but I’m beginning to realize what I’ve been missing out on all these years.

Having a guy who grills is the best.

Kitchen’s Closed

A sign courtesy of Pinterest.

Like a lot of mothers around the world, my old neighbor Margaret has had it with dishes in the sink during this pandemic.

In a last-ditch bid for order, Margaret wrote a handmade sign urging her family to put their dishes and glasses in the dishwasher, and posted it on Facebook. A day later, she posted a photo of a full sink, lamenting “My sign is being ignored.”

Most of us haven’t had this level of togetherness with our kids since they were pre-schoolers. And though most of us are making the best of the situation and getting by, most of our kitchens are in a perpetual state of overdrive and chaos.

It’s true what they say about kitchens: they’re the heart of the home. They’re also impossible to keep clean with family members underfoot 24/7, whipping up batches of chocolate chip cookies, making avocado omelets and indulging in ice cream in the middle of the afternoon. All of this togetherness is apparently making some of us very hungry.

The thing about leaving dishes in the sink is they’re evidence. If you don’t want family members inquiring who raided the ice cream at 2 p.m., put the bowl in the dishwasher so no one knows. At least this is how I operate when I indulge and don’t feel like explaining myself.

I grew up in a family where we were expected to clean the kitchen for our mother every night. My father firmly believed that the cook shouldn’t have to clean so two of my sisters and I cleaned the kitchen nightly beginning at age 8, 10, and 11.

One of my sisters handled the dishwasher, while the other was on counters. I did the pots and pans, which sounds easy until you consider mom cooked for nine people every night and liked to use every pot in the kitchen. We did a good job, leaving the kitchen in tiptop shape for the breakfast rush and school lunch prep in the morning.

My father deplored a messy kitchen, particularly dishes in the sink and nearby dish drainer. He insisted that the drainer be emptied nightly, taking people to task for leaving items in it.

I inherited my father’s disdain for dirty dishes in and around the sink. When I was a reporter, the worst thing was going into someone’s house and seeing dirty dishes from the night before in the sink. It was gross, and just didn’t make a very good first impression.

Today, I make a point of making sure my sink is clean if I know someone is coming over to work on my house. It’s the least I can do, sparing them having to look at the remnants of last night’s meal.

I’m what you might call a binge cleaner. When I clean the house, I go all-in, striving for it to be immaculate. I don’t want anyone underfoot or getting in my way. I certainly don’t want anyone walking in after I’ve mopped the floors and leaving behind footprints. (This includes the dog.)

She’s cute, but even Cali isn’t welcome in the kitchen when I’m cleaning.

Since our lockdown began about six weeks ago, I’ve been trying my best to clean around people, which is impossible. But then it occurred to me that even restaurant kitchens are closed for a few hours each day, allowing cleaning crews to do their jobs.

With this in mind, I announced that the kitchen is closed from 1-3 p.m. on Monday for deep cleaning. When someone screamed down from the second floor to protest, I repeated my announcement: “Kitchen’s closed. It reopens at 3.”

I cannot convey the relief I felt closing the kitchen. For two blessed hours, I had the room to myself, putting away wayward pots and pans, placing knives in their slots in the butcher block, storing away serving spoons and spatulas, removing clutter from counters and even swabbing the cabinets with lemon oil.

Closing the kitchen gave me the time and space to reclaim it and clean it to my standards. And though my kids initially rebelled, they understood my need to do things my way. They’ve been living with me for years, so they understand that I’m a little obsessive. And to be honest, I think they were relieved I didn’t ask them to help.

I’m thinking of getting a “Kitchen’s Closed” sign, and expanding my cleaning hours to include another day or two. If nothing else, it will guarantee me some alone time and give the kitchen the rest it deserves.

Who’s Zooming Who?

The Curmudgeon crashes my FaceTime session with my sister-in-law Ann to show her his bandana mask.

I’ve never loved talking on the phone.

Even back in my early days of newspaper reporting, I preferred to talk to people in person because I could get a better sense of whether they were being truthful or lying.

I derive a lot of information and feedback from looking at people: whether they’re engaged, distracted, bored or want to end a conversation. I’m a visual person, one who appreciates the importance of body language, eye contact and subtle nuances.

My disdain for the phone is legendary among my family and friends. I don’t call people often. It has nothing to do with how I feel about them. It has more to do with the way I communicate, and it’s not through my sense of hearing.

One of the biggest reliefs of my life was when my children were old enough to answer the phone and take messages for me. It was like having two tiny secretaries running interference, though I know some people found it incredibly annoying and off-putting.

I know spouses who talk to each other several times each day, but I don’t do that with the Curmudgeon. We rarely call each other unless it’s to warn about a speed trap down the road, or report that we’re low on kibble or doggie yogurt.

In fact, the Curmudgeon may detest the phone more than I do. He failed to call me once during a 4-day boys’ weekend to Martha’s Vineyard two years ago, pushing the outer limits of what’s acceptable and what constitutes spousal neglect.

But with social distancing and sheltering in place the new normal, I’m now turning to my I-Phone and laptop every day to connect with people. Instead of just talking, though, I want to FaceTime.

Up until recently, FaceTime was reserved for my son at college. But since we’ve been in quarantine, I’m FaceTiming my sisters, friends and neighbors. If I haven’t FaceTimed you yet, I guarantee I’m thinking about it.

I ask everybody if they have FaceTime, and am always a little disappointed if they don’t. My mom doesn’t have it, nor does one of my sisters. I can’t tell you how sad I am about that.

I tried to FaceTime my next-door neighbor Jim, and when he didn’t answer, I texted, “I’m trying to FaceTime you about a neighborhood matter.” When he still didn’t answer, he texted me back, “You’re trying to FaceTime Jimbo?”

Yes dude, I’m trying to FaceTime you because I can’t talk to you on the street the way we usually do. I want to bounce a neighborhood issue off you, and I want to see your face when we discuss it. Capisce?

We ultimately ended up exchanging text messages, but you get my point. I need to see people to connect with them. I don’t care what they look like or if they’re still in bed. I just want to see their face.

I FaceTime one of my sisters nearly every day, and we’re usually in the same place: she’s in her bed and I’m sprawled on my couch. There’s no pretense on either end, though I was a little embarrassed when she noted, “Isn’t that the same sweater you were wearing yesterday and the day before?” Um, yea.

My sister and I have gotten so comfortable FaceTiming that I’ll make or accept a call in any state. The other day, my hair was coated in olive and coconut oil and she never even mentioned it. I’m not sure if I should be relieved or offended.

Still, there are limits to everything and how far you’ve let yourself go. The other day, she said, “I think it’s time for you to do something about your roots. I see a lot of gray.” Sisters can say this to each other. Friends, not so much.

Seeing people on FaceTime and Zoom makes me feel less alone and more connected. And I look forward to these virtual meet-ups more than they probably deserve. My sister-in-law Ann organized a Zoom family cocktail party and I showered, put on make-up and wore a black blazer.

“A blazer?” my son asked.

“Well, yes, this is the most excitement I’ve had in weeks and I want to look pulled together,” I said. Sad, but true.

We thought we might see a milestone during our virtual gathering when my nephew Teddy threatened to lop off his ever-growing man-bun in front of all of us. It was an empty threat, though perhaps he will do it when we gather again same time next week.

If you haven’t held a Zoom party yet, I recommend it. It’s the next best thing to being there.

Shop Defensively

My son at an Easter egg hunt in much simpler times.

The grey, white and red behemoth off Interstate 95 beckoned as I drove home from New London, CT.

I pulled into the parking lot of Costco in East Lyme and made one promise to myself: if there’s a line of shoppers waiting to get in, I’m leaving. It was raining hard, a punishing downpour with gusty winds, and I was in no mood to get soaked waiting to shop.

Everyone told me not to worry about a special Easter meal. The Curmudgeon even suggested tacos given the circumstances. But I wanted something special to mark the holiday, which is always a special day in our family.

Easter outfits, and back in the day, even bonnets and new spring dress coats. Coloring eggs with dye, wax and appliqués, then using them for egg salad and deviled eggs. Easter baskets filled with chocolate and jelly beans and Easter egg hunts. Celebrating the risen Christ at church, and returning home for an afternoon feast with relatives.

Easter, Early 60s.

Ordinarily, our extended family of about 35 would be gathering at my sister’s house to celebrate Easter. But with social distancing and sheltering in place in effect, everyone is staying put and marking the holiday at home.

I’m going the traditional route: baked ham, scalloped potatoes, spring vegetables and a salad. I figured I’d pick them up at Costco, a place that seems designed for stocking up during a pandemic.

The aisles are wide, allowing 6 feet of social distancing if everyone pays attention and behaves. There are arrows on floors, directing people which way to go to minimize contact with other shoppers. And there’s tape on the floor at 6-foot increments near the cashiers, showing people where to stand.

The problem is that some people are completely oblivious, failing to follow arrows and realize they have to make adjustments during the Covid-19 crisis. This isn’t business as usual, not by a long shot. And even though we’re all social distancing, that doesn’t give people permission to be socially ignorant.

Cases in point:

+ Signs at the Costco entrance clearly state that only one person per household should be shopping. A middle-aged woman marches down an aisle barking out orders, with her college-aged daughter pushing a grocery cart behind her. The pair commandeer the entire aisle, failing to move to one side to accommodate other shoppers. Neither are wearing masks or gloves.

It looks like they may be shopping for a large party, but that may be a stretch on my part. In any case, I make a point to get as far away from them as possible. It’s clear they’re following their own rules during this pandemic, and I wonder how many others they’ve violated over the past month.

+ I wait at the top of an aisle as a middle-aged couple debates whether a product is a good deal. I can’t enter the aisle without breaking the 6-foot rule, so I wait. They’re completely oblivious to other shoppers, but I try to give them some slack. The second they move, a young woman plows past me and giggles because she thinks she’s cute. Not funny, and I told her as much.

“Um, I don’t think so!” I muttered under my mask. But I don’t think she could hear me, which is probably a good thing. I’m not sure I want an altercation in the rice aisle. But seriously, when shopping, look around and be aware of who’s around you. Don’t be a jerk. Wait your turn.

+ Wear face masks. I know, everyone feels self-conscious wearing them in public, but you’re wearing them to protect lives so get over yourself. I was shocked by the number of Costco shoppers who weren’t wearing face masks or gloves. On a positive note, I was impressed that all of Costco workers were wearing face masks and gloves.

Remember, some people carry the virus and have no symptoms, so you’re wearing a mask to protect others, including the workers who are keeping stores open for us. My mom has a friend who recently tested positive whose only symptom was a runny nose. No fever, chills or coughing.

+ Shop defensively. Be aware of shoppers around you and wait for them to clear a space before encroaching on them. Think of it like driving and waving someone into traffic. When I waited for a man to leave the bagged potato area and then waved, he nodded in appreciation.

“There’s so much more to think about now,” he said. It’s true if you’re a responsible shopper. You can’t expect to follow the rules of social distancing and get out of the store in half an hour.

It took about twice as long for me to shop because in many cases, I had to wait for aisles to clear and circle around to go down aisles the right way. It was also the first time I had been to that Costco, so I didn’t know the lay of the land.

My shopping trip took so long that my kids were actually worried, and scolded me for leaving without my phone. I’ll remind them of this the next time they leave me hanging about their whereabouts, and fail to respond to my texts or phone calls.

Masking the Issue

When the new recommendations came out about masks, the Curmudgeon immediately asked, “Where’e my balaclava?”

The Centers for Disease Control’s new recommendation to wear face masks in public to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has a lot of us scrambling for cover.

My 86-year-old mother fashioned her own homemade mask out of fabric and elastic on her Singer sewing machine. I’d trust anything my mother sews. She sewed 20 sturdy lavender-infused silk eye pillows for me when I launched my own yoga business several years ago, and they were commercial grade.

One of my sisters asked for a homemade mask for her birthday.

Several years ago, she also surprised my sisters and me with seven handmade aprons stacked on her dining room table. It was her not so subtle hint that she expected more help from us on Christmas Eve. Yes, we got the message loud and clear, at least for that year.

She’s also sewed baby quilts for every one of her 17 grandchildren. Her latest creation for her first great-grandchild was the hit of the baby shower last summer. And no college send-off was complete without a handmade crocheted afghan from mom to put at the end of your bed, or fling over a chair.

People who can sew and handcraft are truly blessed, particularly during this pandemic. They can put their skills to work by fashioning homemade masks for families, friends and health care workers, giving them purpose and providing a public service during this deadly pandemic.

I have a portable sewing machine, but it spends much of its time in the front hall closet. I didn’t inherit my mother’s sewing gene, which is why I haven’t joined the movement to make face masks. I’m afraid that my masks would literally fall apart at the seams, putting anyone wearing my creations in jeopardy.

Like a lot of women of my generation, I took sewing as part of home economics in junior high school. As part of the class, we had to sew an outfit and wear it to class. I bought a Simplicity pattern for a pantsuit featuring a short-sleeved tunic top and matching pants. I know, it sounds hideous, but this was the early ’70s.

Mom’s homemade face mask.

For the material, I chose yards of olive green corduroy. I pinned the pattern to the material and carefully cut it out, feeding it through my mother’s sewing machine. I did it all on my own except for the zipper, which my mom sewed in.

Finally, the pantsuit was ready to be modeled. It put in on in my bedroom and walked into our family room, proud of my creation. But my parents burst into laughter. The pantsuit was an abomination because I’d failed to correctly line up the stripes, or wales, in the corduroy. On one side of the tunic and pants, the corduroy was dark and on the other it was light.

My foray into sewing ended in 7th grade after I tried to make a pantsuit like the one on the right.

Boy, did I feel foolish.

I have a faint recollection of my mom pulling the outfit apart, and helping me put it back together the right way. OK, maybe she even did the whole thing herself. But I swore off sewing after that experience. I’m proof that even though you come from a line of expert seamstresses, some skills skip generations.

The Curmudgeon knows this. I’ve maybe sewn one button onto a blazer in the 36 years we’ve been married. So when the new recommendation came in about face masks, he asked, “Where’s my balaclava?”

“You’re going to walk around wearing a balaclava in public?” I asked. “Someone’s probably going to think you’re going to rob a store.”

After some digging, I unearthed his dark gray fleece balaclava, which I bought him about 15 years ago to hike and run during New England winters. I also found mine, which provided a more reasonable alternative for facial coverage than the zebra eye mask I found in a drawer.

We decided to wear our balaclavas around our necks during a long walk with the dog, and hike them up around our faces if anyone approached. But we didn’t run into anyone wearing a mask, eliminating the need to break out our face gear for the first time.

I was relieved. I’m not relishing the idea of wearing my balaclava in public because I look and feel ridiculous. Like most things in life and during this pandemic, it’s going to take some getting used to. But I may not have to wear the balaclava after all.

Turns out that my older sister asked my mom to make her a mask for a birthday present. When some of my other sisters heard about her mask making, mom promised to make them masks too. Naturally, I put in an order for myself and the Curmudgeon.

As any good mom will tell you, what you do for one child you must do for all of of them, or face accusations of favoritism. So my mom is going to be busy over the next few days, sewing masks for children, grandchildren, in-laws and anyone else who puts in a request.

She’s going to be very busy, but somehow I don’t think she minds. Or maybe she does, and she’s just too nice to say. In either case, I’m calling her today for a status update on our masks.