We are in the oven because the children are so resourceful. Good listeners. Problem solvers. Self-preservationists.
Everything you want your kids to be.
Once upon a time there was abundance. So much to eat I would get anxiety thinking about it. How will we ever get through all this food? Who’s going to eat that succulent roast chicken, this fresh bread, that museum piece Jell-O salad your mom brought over? What about these piles of fruit, glittering gem-like on the counter? It will be impossible to eat it all before it spoils. Let me make a cobbler. Here, put those in the freezer. Take some to the neighbors.
Wait, you’re leaving? You’re going away to make more money at the place where they praise our wedding picture. Good, good. We need money for food. I’ll stay behind and take care of these hungry, relentless mammals. I wonder when they’ll talk. I can’t wait to hear their little voices.
Someday they’ll tell stories. They’ll go to work, eventually. In the meantime, they can help us eat all this food. This plenty.
I wasn’t much of a cook until the babies were born. The nurse handed me a rolling pin after the umbilical cord was cut. What’s that? I asked as flour rained down on my hospital gown. She insisted I take the rolling pin although it was heavier and more cumbersome than the flesh-thing in my arms.
At the hospital they wouldn’t answer any of my questions about food. They were happy to talk about breast milk, but I am not concerned here with free and freely flowing nourishment. Breast milk requires calories, but nobody ever teaches you about food. When I asked, someone brought me a poster of a technicolor food pyramid.
You told me to relax. Stop trying to master everything in one day, you said. Quit the compulsive micro-management. You issued the famous commandment: enjoy him. You’ve got to enjoy him while he’s small.
Why? What will happen when he’s big?
I’ve been thinking of that laughter now that I am locked in this metal box with you. At the time, I could only study the little tyke’s face as we tried to pick a name. The process lasted for days and now I forget which one we settled on.
Hank. Hannibal. Hector.
Let us praise processed food. We owe it everything. It disgusted us. It made us sick. Oh, but it was good, better than good because it was a lie. Hostess pies, with fruit or chocolate filling. Macaroni and cheese. Frozen pizza, any brand. Rice-A-Roni. Hamburger Helper. Crusty chicken fingers. Salty soup in a can. Soft orange cheese spread over MSG crackers. All the chips.
Water with corn syrup, dye and bubbles.
Be honest. If you are American, the first thing you ever cooked was processed. Unless it was toast, or maybe your unfortunate egg debut.
Now that food is scarce, I find myself craving these abominations. I long for the artificial flavors, those obscenely bright colors. Our offspring knew nothing of this (we used to be rich enough for real food, yes), but once, we found a bag in the forest. One of those opaque plastic bags. Sealed. You ordered me to drop it. You said it was poison. You held the fuzzy beasties back by their scruffs, but I opened the bag with a defiant pop.
It was over before it started. My mouth filled with saliva. My childhood crashed over my head and coursed down to my intestines. You wept. The kids went off like sirens. The contents of the bag were gone in seconds.
I wish I could say what it was. Sugary? Salty? Chewy? Crunchy? Nobody knows. All I could see was my mom, coming home from work, smiling. I hadn’t thought of her for years, but there she was, young and fresh, asking me if I’d had a snack. My family history was reborn and thriving there, for a second, in my mouth: all the immigrants, the hours clocked at mindless jobs, the years of schooling, the tight living spaces, alternately hopeful and horrible, where so many of them were crammed together. Sunday dinners with my clan were reduced to a trail of crumbs on my dry lips.
The horrible cramping started. You fell to your knees in agony. Our tiny chicks writhed, something evil escaping from both ends. I walked away, content to suffer alone.
We used to think location was everything. I couldn’t decide if I preferred the forest or the big city. You, brilliant you, found the perfect compromise, a townhouse with a sliding glass door that opened onto a forest. Unfortunately, the time came when we couldn’t find food anywhere, not on the shelves in the stores, not on the boughs of trees. It no longer mattered where we were.
We gave cultivation a chance, but it had long since given up on us. Something was wrong with the soil, the seeds, the water. The sun itself, so increasingly hot, would not play along.
I was left with my stomach and its strange specialty, painful emptiness.
It’s not good to focus obsessively on one thing, but when you’re hungry, you have no choice. Your body focuses for you. Food becomes a castle you cannot capture. Your mind turns to boiled leather, grass, tree bark. Rats.
Starvation takes a long time, that’s the problem, and while you’re waiting, terrible things happen.
Once, when I was small, we drove past the monument to the Donner Party on our way home from Nevada. There they stood, a family of four pioneers in bronze, casting their shadow over our car. My parents whispered darkly in the front seat, evading our questions, refusing to stop, while I turned to get a better view of the doomed family. A father, a mother, a little girl, a babe in arms. Perhaps they were survivors? As our car sped past, my eyes settled on the face of the mother, gazing into the golden distance.
Only two families made it through the Donner tragedy intact. More than half the Donner Party were children. Hungry children.
Why didn’t I identify with the poor little girl on her knees behind her parents? Why did I prefer the mother? I must have seen myself as a survivor. I must have realized there was no advantage to falling so far behind you were stuck to the barren earth.
But surely, they weren’t going to leave that child behind. The mother must have called to her over her shoulder. Get up, get up. She must have told her it was almost over. Soon they would eat. Life would go on. They were almost there.
One morning the girl asked me to teach her how to cook, but by then there was no food left. She had a wooden playset of kitchen things. A mixer, a bowl, a few utensils.
My hands shook as I mimed the actions of making a cake. Flour, oil, eggs. I sifted. I stirred. I cracked an invisible egg.
What are eggs? the girl asked.
I went looking for a storybook. There had to be one with farm animals. I opened a merry boardbook set in a pastoral wonderland and turned the pages until I came to the image I needed. Overcome by tears, all I could do was point.
I looked at the expectant face of the little girl. My little girl. What was her name? Grace, Giselle, Gabrielle? It was something with a G, I was sure of it.
A brown station wagon pulled up in front of our townhouse.
Our offspring clapped their spindly hands and ran outside to greet it.
In that moment I felt them grow up and launch themselves away from us. You sensed it too but refused to speak. Our marriage, or whatever this arrangement is called, began the process of dying by increments, as slow as starvation.
They seem to have a plan, I said into the cold air. Winter surrounded us. I strained to see who drove the car but could discern only a shadowy figure.
When they came back, they were each carrying a big gingerbread house and wearing grins so huge and unkind that I winced. I did not want gingerbread but nevertheless my mouth watered. The candy decorations would be a fine distraction, a mouthful of memories. The gingerbread, no matter how hard or dry, was sustenance. Perhaps we could make it into a crumbling salad, a sweet gruel, a miserable casserole.
We could finally, finally have a family dinner.
Are we going to share? I asked, my voice foreign and cracking.
Knives of laughter. Those kids ran past us, through the townhouse, and straight into the forest.
The sun went down. We went inside and locked the front door. A dozen questions rattled around in my dizzy head, but I held them all back. I lay down on the couch with a view of the forest before me.
I fell asleep.
I forgot about you.
I forgot about us.
Is it getting warm in here? Have you always had that rosy glow? Do you remember the taste of my lips?
Didn’t anyone think to invite the butcher? He’s the life of the party.
Potluck is not very lucky at all.
A turkey and a housewife step into a kitchen. A farmer and a stepmother walk into the woods. A drought and a blight visit the earth.
What’s that delicious smell? When do we eat? What’s for dinner?
I’m determined to wait for the moment when the oven door opens. That’s the obligatory scene of the kitchen drama, one that every cook anticipates. And when it opens, I will see those two beautiful faces.
The truth is, I’m proud of the children. They are leaders. The voice of their generation. Celebrity chefs.
Everything a mother could hope for.