An Excerpt from Marion Winik's The Lunch-Box Chronicles
Because 5:30 soccer practices and 6:30 soccer games have horned in on the family's evening meal every other day this week, tonight I am going all- out. We are having the beloved Yellow Dinner. The Yellow Dinner, as you may have guessed, is composed entirely of things that are golden in color, and is also characterized by a major convenience food component. Complementing the mouthwatering entree, oven- fried Shake'N Bake pork chops, are canned corn, bottled applesauce, boxed macaroni and cheese, and Poppin' Fresh rolls. Presentation here is of the essence: each color-coordinated item must be ladled out in a neat circular blob that does not touch anything else on the plate. A person less experienced than I in catering to the appetites of youth might not realize that, just as a soufflé can be deflated at the last minute by a slammed door, hours of careful preparation can be irreparably spoiled by allowing disparate foods to mingle during serving. I've heard of a mother who boldly situates the broccoli on the shore of the ketchup, trying to dupe her children into green vegetable consumption when they lick it off. Such tactics would not pass muster here. Nor do lame excuses about everything combining in the stomach during digestion.
"Please, Mom, that's gross. I think I just lost my appetite."
Wherever my children picked up the phrase "I lost my appetite," I do not know. But it has become one of the banes of my existence. Dinner nightmare number 105: One kid starts talking about farting and pee-pee, everybody else joins in in a can- you- top- this manner, screeching with hilarity, until someone claims to have "lost their appetite" and immediately, everyone else follows suit. They've all lost their appetites! And they scrape back their chairs and run out the front door, leaving behind the huge servings of seconds they just ladled onto their plates.
But tonight is the Yellow Dinner, we are not having any guests, and perhaps we can navigate around the perilous straits of scatology and lost appetites. Guests can be trouble in so many ways, for of course it is incumbent on the gracious host to vociferously adopt any and all food dislikes expressed by a visiting friend.
I am in the home stretch, dumping the corn into a pot, when I hear the refrigerator door creaking open ever so slowly behind me.
"Close it," I say without turning around. "Dinner is in ten minutes. Less, even."
"Mom, I'm dyyy-ing."
"But you've been eating nonstop since I picked you up from school, Vince. I can't imagine how you're going to eat any dinner as it is."
He looks at me with eyes so wide you can see white all the way around the blue. "I will, Mama. I really will!"
"Listen, why don't you help me set the table. That'll get dinner out even faster."
"I don't want to set the table! Just one piece of cheese?"
"Please, please, please, please!"
Oh, good, we're into the word repetition portion of the evening. "No, no, no, no--"
"Okay, okay, okay, okay!" Vincie's little face is twisted into a caricature of fury: wrinkled brow, frowning lips, alligator tears trembling in the narrowed eyes, now squeezed to slits and practically emitting blue sparks.
"Calm down, poodle," I tell him. Do not ask why I call him poodle, or I will have to confess that it's short for "Vincent Valdric Noodle, the Poodle Noodle Doodle," which, along with "Vincie La Voo," is the common form of address for this poor child in his own home. Though he has banned the singing of the famous theme song I composed for him when he was a baby:
My name is Vincie La Zoo,
and I am here to poo- poo
I am coming to town and
I am wearing a crown
I can't even talk and
I'm just learning to walk
But I can boogie- woogie- woogie
till the sun goes down.
Vincie La Voo! Poo- poo!
Vincie La Voo! Boo- hoo!
Vincie La Zoo! Woo-woo!
Vince- a- lator, Vince- a- lator,
Vince- a- lator, Vincie La Voo!
Though he has forbidden the song - especially because it is most often sung by a diabolically giggling older brother - so far he hasn't insisted that I stop calling him Poodle, or its many variants, such as Poodley- Noo and Poo- tell. I do not know why I do this. I do not know why I started calling the neighbor kid, Daniel Dominguez, Doogie Howser. I've never even watched Doogie Howser. And I don't know why I persist in my controversial career as a composer, driven to create musical works such as "Hayes- n, Amazin' Raisin, King of the Wild Frontier," despite the popular outcry inspired by my oeuvre.
I do know I am not the only parent who suffers from compulsive nickname behavior. Among my acquaintance are numbered children called Bij, Cakey, Goo- goo, Bug, Boogah, Cootie, Jodgie and Beaner. My own sister has admitted to referring to her child as Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream on Top.
Anyway, my kids have been known to call me You Big Stupid Lady and Poopoo Mama, so we're even.
It is a race to the finish line as the Raisin scarfs macaroni and cheese out of the serving bowl and the Poodle sticks his finger in the applesauce. It's Mom's Dinner Challenge: Can she get it on the table before they eat it all? I whisk the bowls off the counter and onto the table, which features two normal place settings and, at a third seat, the grown- up version of the Yellow Dinner - a single glass of chardonnay.
"Mom, how come you're not eating anything?" Hayes asks solicitously, fork poised over his pork chop.
Me, eat this shit? No way. I may not be macrobiotic or even vegetarian anymore, but I have not tumbled all the way to Shake'N Bake pork chops, or just about anything else the kids will eat: the canned chili and tamale dinner, the buttered noodles with parmesan cheese dinner, the grilled cheese and canned soup dinner, the fun- with- ramen dinner, the Hamburger Helper dinner or its many cousins, all lined up in clever little boxes in my pantry. And there's always the unidentifiable Crunchy Tan Thing, that ready- to microwave nugget which forms the centerpiece of so many meals at home and out. Is it chicken? Fish? Mushroom? Egg roll? Pizza bite? Who can say?
Actually, I take it back, I kind of like the ramen.
The truth is, a lot of this food is exactly what I grew up on, then turned up my nose at when I left home and began my life as a bohemian artiste.
"I'm not that hungry," I tell Hayes, "I'll eat something later."
Yeah, right, like all the food Vincie leaves on his plate and everything remaining in the serving bowls, too. In this way, as every red- blooded American woman knows, I will not really be eating the food, and therefore it will have no calories, fat or cholesterol.
"Have something, Mom. Have the macaroni and cheese. That's one from grains and cereals and one from the milk group!"
Well, I think that may be overstating the case for this particular rendition of the dish, but I don't want to give the kid a complex. "Oh, no dear, don't mind me, I don't need anything. You eat." When did I turn into such a Jewish mother? Shake'N Bake pork chops notwithstanding, I've really got this thing down.
I put a little corn on a saucer.
"Mommy, we forgot to say grace," Vincie informs me with his mouth full.
"Okay, good idea, go ahead and say it."
Together, they say the grace they learned from Robb's daughters, which they prefer to Mommy's homemade one, spilling the words out as quickly as possible: "Thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you God for everything."
"Amen," I agree.
Hayes finishes vacuuming round one off his plate and goes for seconds, while Vincie nibbles a tiny cube of pork chop and plays with his applesauce and lists the people he plans to invite to his birthday party, which is now only seven months away. "Sam, Daniel, Calvin, Caleb, Cody, Jasper, J.J., Jack, Marshall, Gabe - "
"Hey, you're not getting very far with that dinner," I interrupt.
He looks at his plate in dismay. "I'm stuff- ted," he reports.
"What a surprise," I say, mostly to myself.
"Can we go out and play now?"
"Take your plates to the dishwasher first. Actually, Vince, I'll take care of yours... And hey - don't go past the big lot! Are you wearing your watch, Hayes? Come back by seven-thirty - Bye!"
The Lunch-Box Chronicles is due in bookstores April 15.