I never need to open my refrigerator to know what produce it houses; I keep a mental file of what I have purchased. For instance, I know that right now nestled next to the long-lived carrots and celery are a single red pepper and a package of cremini mushrooms.
These vegetables nag at my memory because they must be used soon, or they will spoil. Fruit is easier to track; it mounds in changing patterns, visibly, in a bowl on the counter. I bought a bowl from a Signals and Wireless catalog warehouse sale nearly twenty years ago, and since then it has been a focal point of my kitchen. Today I removed a large cantaloupe from it and cut it up; I peeled an orange yesterday, and as I bit each section in half, its sweet, sticky juice ran down my fingers. I will keep eyeing the lemons this week, pondering—muffins? lemon-sauced chicken?
Somehow, I have become a person who plans meals around produce—around a deep-seated fear of wasting. It should not be surprising to anyone that fear leads to oversight—to order. For me, this particular fear manifests as a steady anxiety as I move through each week—even before that, as I shop, agonizing over the amount of fresh goods to buy. Often, I place three apples in a bag, then return one to the display, calculating: how many days will I cut one up for lunch? I weigh a bag of hearts of Romaine in one hand and a bundle of Brussels sprouts in the other—too much for a single week?
I used to plan meals enthusiastically for my three boys and myself, the years we were alone, especially as they reached high school, and I had to maintain a budget. They could eat enormous amounts of food. It was my job to make sure there was enough, that it was affordable, and that it was relatively healthy. I always went to the store with a list of dinner ideas for that week—hearty meals, often pasta-based, that would feed these young men who ate like a crowd — chicken lasagna, spaghetti pie, brown rice hotdish. Buying extra ingredients, especially fresh ones, was a burden I avoided. I could succeed only if I avoided waste.
I made up rules in those days, too, allowing myself permission to buy certain items that were stocked in abundance—say, cereal—only when they were both on sale and I had a coupon. It was never onerous to remember the parameters I set for myself; I was proud of my frugality and practicality.
Now, things have shifted; I have shifted. I go to the store with a list and some vague ideas, but I prefer to plan as I cook. This week, I will make a pinto-bean and vegetable casserole on Monday that will use peppers, zucchini, loads of onions; chicken drumsticks and a potato kugel on Thursday that will incorporate one package of mushrooms hiding in the crisper drawer and the remnants of a carton of sour cream. As the week progresses, I will worry more and more, scour through cookbooks to find the recipe that will allow me to use what I have before it goes bad.
When I wake in the middle of the night, I wonder: What will I do with that red pepper? An egg bake? I experience a strange mixture of triumph and relief as I figure it out, plot to avoid my shame — letting food spoil.
* * * * *
The kitchen of my childhood was not always a happy place. My mother stayed at home with my two sisters, my brother, and me for many years, filling our table with hearty meals she had grown up with on the farm — fried chicken, pot roast, meat loaf. She served what my father wanted, always—never scrambled eggs because he preferred them fried; bacon that was limp rather than crisp. We begged her to make our Sunday frozen orange juice in the blender; we craved the light froth at the top of our glass and, as we kept sipping, the cold tart taste of orange that followed. Though she made it that way sometimes, she seemed annoyed that we would constantly ask.
She did some canning in those days, too. I remember standing next to her, my nose just above the cupboard’s edge, watching her pour hot paraffin onto jars of chokecherry jelly. I sensed she did not like this work; she spoke sharply to me when I asked to have a jelly sandwich for lunch. I knew even then she was trying to be frugal, having watched her peel a sink full of the tiny apples that grew on the tree right outside the kitchen window for a measly pie or two. The thin spirals of peel mounded in the sink, as she turned each fruit in her hand, boring out the bruises, their sweet, cidery odor filling the kitchen. She did the work because she knew she ought to and because she had helped my grandmother on their farm do it as she grew up, but it didn’t seem to give her much joy.
Then, my parents divorced (my father was an alcoholic and a philanderer), and my only brother died — twin tragedies that would change the whole trajectory of our childhoods and family life. My mother had to take multiple jobs to support us, since at the time she had no marketable skills. She’d gotten married at 19, having given up a decent secretarial job and independence, as did many women in the early 1960’s. She had four children in quick succession and had to use her energy to clean and cook and keep us out of her hair. What spare energy she had was spent to defend my father against bosses made angry when he missed work or came in hung over. She had little energy left over to hold my father accountable for his dalliances; the lipstick collars (the worst clichés) slid by with little fuss, until he confessed to my mother that he had carried on an affair with the next-door neighbor couple. That was enough for her, and the Catholic faith she treasured, to permit divorce.
After the divorce, my father rarely paid child support (which we discovered only years later), and so my mother shouldered the entire burden of feeding us on a very strict budget. I wonder if she was as proud of her efforts as I am of mine now.
The divorce changed the way we ate, of course. Dinner was whatever could be made quickly — Kraft macaroni and cheese, Dinty Moore beef stew, spaghetti with Ragu sauce, fried Spam sandwiches. I assumed some of the responsibility for cooking—really, heating—those simple meals because I was interested and because I knew it would help my mother. The mood in our kitchen, not surprisingly, was often lighter without my father and the tension his drinking had brought to the family. But there was still a hint of tension underneath.
We were not destitute, but we were poor. We had enough. Mostly. Sitting around the kitchen table on Sunday mornings, we scoured the newspaper—together, all of us, my mother, my two sisters, and I—for grocery coupons and sale items. Eventually, I shouldered this task of meal planning for the entire family. Trips to the grocery store would be as purposeful and efficient as I could design them—there was no extra money for frivolous food we didn’t explicitly need for meals. I relished the task, took pride in making sure we ate well on our skimpy budget.
Toward the end of the month, inevitably, money dwindled. No more shopping could be done. We ate generic canned chicken noodle soup (with its salty, slightly rancid broth) or oatmeal, sometimes bread and gravy — a dish I despised. I understood that using up leftovers was our only choice, but I swallowed my mouthfuls grudgingly.
Once the beginning of the month came, my mother got paid, and the welfare check came, we’d have a full cupboard — beginning again a cycle of abundance and want that became a familiar element of the landscape of my childhood.
We were not unhappy. Dinners were full of conversation; we cleared the kitchen table and did homework there. A single box of Chef Boyardee pizza mix, embellished with a bit of hamburger, fostered a celebratory mood. We picked up slices speckled with small mounds of meat, bit off greasy mouthfuls, tangy with the flavor of the sauce. A simple bowl of Dinty Moore beef stew over a toasted English muffin satisfied; its gravy scent was overlaid with the sweet, earthy smell of carrots. The glory was not that the food tasted good; it was that we were together, fighting—though we wouldn’t have said it at the time—for our place in the world, in spite of setbacks.
The older I got, the easier it got; my mother gained job experience. She moved into accounts payable and then into credit — work that was both higher paying and more satisfying. It took less effort to make ends meet. She eventually began cooking again, as she transitioned from multiple jobs to just one. She cooked for pleasure now: rich manicotti, affordable sirloin steak — seasoned and broiled –, mashed potatoes, baby peas.
When we three girls were in high school, she bought a dishwasher and had my uncle install it, though that did mean no more nights when my two sisters and I stood at our separate stations—washing, rinsing, drying and putting away the dishes—with music and good-natured bickering our soundtrack for this simple work.
* * * * *
The kitchen of my present is a perfect room. It is large and square, painted recently a pale gray green with one wall—the one above the windows that face the front yard (with its bird feeders, hosting cardinals and chickadees)—painted a rich lavender-blue for contrast. Cupboards line three walls, including a tall pantry cupboard.
This is the room that sold the house to me. I spend most of my time here—it’s where the music is, where guests gather. It’s where I scan cookbooks and magazines, looking for creative ways to use the vegetables in my crisper drawer.
This morning, as I diced that red pepper I was so worried about for scrambled eggs, I smelled its sweet acidity and felt a deep satisfaction with my life; I did not know I would end up here, in such abundance. I lead a life of privilege, one that still takes me by surprise. As a child, we rarely had fresh vegetables, except for potatoes and carrots from our garden. As I chop, I feel enduringly grateful for what I have.
Out of abundance comes vigilance. I must not waste what I am lucky to have. To have enough also enables me to give, to extend my good fortune to others.
My son Nate stopped by yesterday because he was sick and needed to borrow a thermometer. He took his temperature in my kitchen, then pocketed the thermometer because he needs to make sure he’s fever-free for work. Before he left, I also managed to place in his hands a few bottles of non-alcoholic beer I bought for him for a recent family gathering. I offered packets of tea for his cold, and a lemon — too good in the tea — for the vitamin C.
On rare occasions, a stalk of celery browns and wilts, or a bowl of leftover gravy or spaghetti sauce (always homemade) molds in its dark corner of the refrigerator. I throw the celery into the compost bucket—a good save since most food that goes bad in my house can be saved in some way. If I had a dog, I’d save even more: I’d feed him whatever I couldn’t eat, as my grandmother did on the farm.
I have wrestled my demons and won, warded off the certain shame that comes with failure. The reward is the wrestling. I keep my convictions in a world of ease and waste, with muscular effort.
Tracy Youngblom earned her MFA in Poetry from the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. She has published two chapbooks of poems and two full-length collections, including her most recent, Boy, set to release in February 2023. Her work has appeared in journals such as Shenandoah, Big Muddy, Cortland Review, New York Quarterly, Potomac Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and many other places. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Poetry, most recently in 2017.
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Lovely writing! There is so much story between the lines.