Remember last Saturday? Back when we were seriously concerned, but could still buy pasta and milk at the supermarket? Back then, I was relatively unfazed.
On March 14, a blanket of toxic fog erupted from all sides of our decrepit station wagon, and the world around me disappeared. I steered toward what I hoped was the side of the road to call the spouse. “The wagon died,” I said, in exactly the same way I would have said, “It’s March fourteenth,” or “We need more broccoli.”
Back then, I was still in shock.
I’d already had the kids home for over a week, and though I knew I’d have them home for three more, that seemed doable.
“Maybe we can have a quiet little spring break in Tahoe,” I thought. But then we were ordered to “shelter in place.”
“Now I’ll have plenty of time to find more work,” I thought. And then the economy tanked.
“Okay. This is a great opportunity to reconnect as a family,” I thought. But then the governor announced that schools may remainclosed through the summer—which seems less like reconnecting and more like the tenth circle of hell.
“All right. I can catch up on some house projects I’ve been avoiding, like staining the handrail to the basement…” By that point, I’d downgraded from Hopeful to Resigned, but I was still looking for silver linings. “Maybe we can find some cool art or yoga online…or something.”
BUT THEN, THE WASHING MACHINE BROKE DOWN.
Though embarrassing to admit, that’s the moment when the enormity of the current public health crisis hit me full force. While I’ve been following the news and the new rules, I’ve been operating as if I were gathering information for an ethnographic study: “Wow. Look at how people are behaving during this moment of historical significance.” It just didn’t feel real.
But now? Now I’d like to curl up in a corner and sob into a gigantic glass of wine. Someone please crank up my dosage of memes, adorable animals, and McSweeney’s.
*Thanks to Ellen Schatz for the post title and for being smart and funny even while the world is falling apart.
I’ve had cats for most of my life–all short-haired, lithe creatures with dignity and self-control. I scoffed at other, substandard cats: the ones who binged and barfed, destroyed the furniture, and peed in the corner.
Then came Elsie.
At first she played endless games of fetch and slept on my neck like a tiny scarf. Such charm! Such genius! Once again, I felt pretty smug. Elsie had long hair, which which she deposited generously, and she developed odd habits that made me question her IQ–why would a black cat sleep on the floor right beside my bed, even after being stepped on thirty or forty nights in a row? I’m half-blind with a miniature bladder, and she’s nearly invisible in the dark. Think, cat, think! But then she’d bring her toys and purr in my ear, and all doubt would subside.
Now that her fetch days are over, however, I struggle to entice her with catnip mice, yarn, or even the laser pointer–a toy supposedly irresistible to our feline friends. If I’m lucky, Elsie will drag herself half a yard across the living room rug before flopping in a heap. She still sprawls on my head at night, though, kneading and purring, while dumping her ass-end on the spouse’s pillow. This explains his difficulty sleeping and my recent trips to the chiropractor.
“When did you trade your adorable cat for a giant mop?” a friend asked. A reasonable question, but I don’t really know. It must have happened infinitesimally slowly, in the midst of the chaos and clutter of daily life. We did nothing different with this one: topping up the kibble, checking the litter, letting her in and out ad nauseum. Isn’t that all you need to do with cats?
Recently, I woke in terror as an intruder ascended the stairs. “Calm down,” my bleary-eyed spouse advised. “I set the alarm; no one’s in the house.” Unconvinced, I went to investigate, but all I could find in the shaky circle of my flashlight was my beloved fur turkey. What was happening here? It took half an hour to get my heart rate down and admit that my cat made the stairs creak. Considering Carl Sandburg’s poetic line: “the fog comes on little cat feet,” it was time to do something about my corpulent pal. As a Bay Area resident, I’ve seen the fog roll in a bazillion times, and it never makes a ruckus.
Since Elsie’s unable to reach around her belly to groom herself properly, she has also developed a case of back dandruff and a small mat near her tail. I’ve tried to help. I now own a variety of supposedly life-changing tools—all with names like “The Furminator” and “The Unhairing”–but the only brushing Elsie will tolerate without retribution is on her cheeks. This doesn’t solve any of her developing issues, but man, oh man, are her sideburns soft and sleek.
As her mat grew and multiplied, I began to consider professional grooming services, which felt like some sort of personal failure. After all, I cut my kids’ hair—always have—and only recently graduated from Supercuts myself. How could I drop that kind of cash on a cat, especially since they’re supposed to groom themselves?
To make matters worse, the cat carrier scares the crap out of Elsie. Literally. Ever tried to remove diarrhea from the long fur of a pissy cat? I wasn’t about to shell out for a kitty day spa, only to arrive home with a fecal-crusted ball of claws. Not only did I need a groomer, then, I needed one to magically appear at my doorstep. Too ashamed to ask for recommendations, I rooted around on Yelp.
Apparently magic entails a lot of paperwork. After filling out four pages of disclaimers and waivers–basically assuring the legal team that I would pay for every scratch and tear my pet might inflict–I started to panic. Elsie’s not a fan of strangers, or being held, or grooming, or anything besides eating and hopping on my head in the middle of the night. But what choice did I have? So I continued. I answered all sorts of logistical questions and personal queries and checked a litany of boxes: dry shampoo, thank you very much. I’ve seen what a terror my cat is when she gets wet. Yes, yes. A thorough brushing. Nail clipping. Booty buzz. Extra fees for mats. Dang. This was adding up like a weekend in Napa.
Nine days later, help arrived in what looked like a Frito-Lay truck. Let’s call her Agatha. Agatha was friendly and fierce, with big, brawny arms. Immediately at ease, I handed Elsie over. “Please remove your cat’s claws from my flesh,” Agatha said calmly. She was so calm, in fact, that I thought I had misheard. Next, we reenacted an episode of the Three Stooges before prying my pal off because–let’s face it–Elsie has four paws, and I’ve only got two hands. She proceeded to glue herself to the exam table like a starfish. “Ah,” said Agatha. “The pancake defense.”
Agatha took this moment of paralysis to lecture extensively about reading food labels and calculating the proper caloric content for a cat of this stature. “Even an extra ¼ cup of kibble a day could have caused this,” she said sternly, pointing to Elsie’s swollen torso. She introduced me to the concept of “puzzle feeders,” devices designed to make my cat exercise in order to get her food, and gave me a pep talk about pet health and happiness. She advised me to start setting aside $2,000 for a deep dental cleaning when Elsie turns 10.
Then she went to work. Agatha was not a pushover like me; she gave Elsie a brushing to remember. “I call it ‘making kittens,” Agatha explained, “because there’s a ball of fur big enough to make another cat.” This was no exaggeration. “Look at all that fur you won’t have to eat today,” she said to an aggrieved Elsie, as the hairy mountain continued to grow. She brushed with the fur and against it. She hauled the cat up and brushed her belly, her legs, her tail, her hindquarters. “You need to check her lady parts frequently for foxtails,” she advised.
I’m pretty sure I’ll repress that advice—just like the vet’s recommendation to brush my cat’s teeth.
Agatha clipped claws, removed all mats, and shaved the butt of my yowling cat, even managing to fasten a purple bow-tie around her neck. Elsie looked great—maybe even a few pounds lighter—but she was mad as hell.
I tipped Agatha extremely well. I couldn’t have made kittens without losing a limb.
These days I’m brushing Elsie more regularly–on more than just the cheeks–as well as feeding her more conscientiously. She’s still quite large, but I’m not worried. I’ve got Agatha’s number, so help is just a paycheck away.
Despite unending mountains of dishes, I love Thanksgiving. Gratitude is a potent tonic for many ills, and all others can be cured by a good meal with loved ones plus a couple of days off.
What I don’t love is the traditional Thanksgiving menu.
Luckily, no one in my posse complained when turkey was jettisoned for the moister, far tastier roast chicken, and banning marshmallows was a breeze. If only they recognized pumpkin pie as the clammy, odd-textured abomination it is. Squash should be savory. Let’s make a nice soup instead–with a little sage, perhaps–and follow with chocolate.
P.S. I thought I was alone in my lukewarm response to the classic turkey dinner until I read a piece in the New Yorker entitled, “Wonton Lust.” Here’s a brief excerpt from Calvin Trillin’s brilliant essay:
“The Thanksgiving ritual is based on eating, and, in that spirit, I particularly want to give thanks for the Immigration Act of 1965. Until then, this country virtually excluded Chinese while letting in as many English people as cared to come–a policy that in culinary terms bordered on the suicidal…. Naturally, I’d speak during [our Thanksgiving] meal about what Americans should be grateful for. ‘If the Pilgrims had been followed to the New World only by other Pilgrims,’ I’d say to the girls between bites of duck with Chinese flowering chives, ‘we would now be eating overcooked cauliflowers and warm gray meat. So count your blessings, ladies.’”
1. Let’s say your mom has been fighting a stupid virus for five weeks now. But instead of lying in bed quaffing Dayquil, she rallied and took you to the beach. She and her pounding sinus headache ran around playing games with you. After that, she took you out for the most amazing ice cream OF YOUR LIFE. Then, while you showered and sat on your butt watching TV, she made a tasty dinner comprised of: mashed potato patties, salmon burgers with lightly curried ketchup (your favorite), cucumber slices with a drizzle of cilantro oil, and even a %*($!! sprig of parsley. When you see your plate, the correct response is:
A) What? Where’s the bruschetta? Weren’t you going to make bruschetta tonight?
A few years ago, I had to take a class that was supposed to be about graphic design, but instead focused on the moral superiority of mindful of food preparation.
Ah. Art school.
Fifteen minutes into the first six-hour class, I had heard more yammering about the meditative benefit of chopping each herb leaf thoughtfully than any parent of two should be required to endure.
Almost reflexively, I heard myself joining the conversation, “That sounds lovely, but if my microwave broke, I would cry.”
Everyone stared as I shifted uncomfortably in my folding chair.
I wasn’t kidding, though. That was the year of chicken nuggets–the only protein my pre-school kids would consume at the time. Who has time to thaw and bake those suckers for 30 minutes when the kids are already melting down? If I could stop the crying in four minutes flat, I was going to do so. Much as I love food, sometimes life dictates that meals be reduced to emergency fuel injections.
I can guarantee that the people who coined the phrase “slow food movement,” never stopped by my house in the late afternoon. It’s not only my kids who melt down, either. Just ask the college friend who traveled with me for seven weeks one summer. After a few days with me, she started shoveling snacks my way every 40 minutes–no doubt for her own self-preservation. Let’s face it, at 5:30 pm, the only coherent thought I’m capable of forming is: GOOD GOD, LET’S GET SOME FOOD ON THE TABLE, PEOPLE.
Somehow, all of my antagonistic feelings about hippy-dippy, artisanal, homegrown, hand-ground, infinitesimally slow food items have been channeled toward Mollie Katzen and her cavalcade of Moosewood cookbooks.
I blame this on the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, a recipe I tackled once fifteen years ago. Imagine a vegetarian version of Midwestern hot dish with broccoli stems poked in like trees. Bland. Floppy. Nothing forest-y about that hot mess, and no tater tots or Durkee fried onions to offset the disappointment.
I suppose there are many reasons why I should love the Moosewood cookbook, I just can’t think of any at the moment. I do know what I don’t like, however:
There is an ungodly amount of cheese in there. All kinds. Especially cottage cheese, which is foul.
There are no photos, and I know why. Hippie food is ugly.
Stupid, stupid 63 ingredients in every dish. I blame Mollie for the jar of asafetida that sits in my spice cupboard. Does everything need to be so darn complicated? Each recipe takes a million years. Maybe y’all plan your meals a year in advance. Not me. News flash: at 5:30, I will not be soaking anything overnight, nor will I be driving from co-op to co-op looking for dried mint and a half an ounce of tree ears.
What the *()$%! is Noodle Kugel, besides grounds for divorce? Who puts noodles in dessert?
And what about Scheherazade Casserole? Is the cook slain after serving it, or is she saved by reading aloud the long-winded recipes?
Which reminds me, it is exceedingly wordy.
We played a little game the other night. Whoever was “it” would choose a particularly odd recipe, and everyone else would try to guess the ingredients. FYI: when all else fails, try “cheese” or “seeds” or “more cheese” or “raw bulgur.”
Here’s the main problem, though. It looks like a cookbook for nice people.
Little swirly things nestled between sections, sketchy drawings of seraphim and urns and trellises and lots of leaves that prefer to be carefully, thoughtfully, individually chopped.
And there is that cloying, lovingly handmade font. Given the date of publication, maybe the whole thing was hand-lettered, and I should probably be impressed. But to me, it is the visual equivalent of bad potpourri. A culinary bed and breakfast with stiff, frilly pillowcases…plus an annoying hausfrau who will not stop nattering on.
I’m sure there is lots of useful information and some tasty recipes buried in there somewhere. When my kids go off to college, I’ll take that thing down and read it cover to cover. In the meantime, though…I hear there is a website entitled: WTF should I make for dinner? Now that might fit better with our current lifestyle.
p.s. Sorry, mom. I will admit the shepherd’s pie was fairly tasty.