by Maria Schulz
When I was in college, I had to read “Friends, Good Friends—And Such Good Friends” by Judith Viorst. In that essay, Viorst talks about the different kinds of friends you can have, and the levels of intimacy that each different type of friend shares with you.
Of course, the best friends to have are the people who, after hearing you’re sick or hurt, will cook for your family, pick up your medicine, do your grocery shopping, drive your kids everywhere and anywhere, and know that you’d do the same for them in a heartbeat.
I saw this kind of friendship in action when I was about 6 years old. That’s when my mother had to go into the hospital because of a cancer scare. Our little world almost came apart at the seams without her to keep everything together.
I first knew something was wrong when I stumbled out of bed at about 2 am one morning, only to find my parents’ bed unmade and both of them gone. My big brother, Tony, was in the living room watching television.
“Where’s Mom? Where’s Dad?” I said.
Tony snapped awake. “Um, they went to the movies. Go back to bed.”
It didn’t really make a lot of sense to me that my parents went out to the movies at 2 am, but adults never made any sense to me. So, I turned around and went back to sleep.
The following morning, I got up about 5 am and couldn’t find my mother anywhere. My father was in the kitchen, having a cup of coffee.
“Did you enjoy the movie?” I said to him.
He looked up and stared at me. “What movie?”
“Tony said you went to the movies last night. Where’s Mom?”
My father laughed. “We didn’t go to the movies. Your mom is in the hospital.”
“WHAT?” I said, and started to cry.
My father wrapped his arms around me and gave me a hug. “It’s okay,” my father said. “The doctors just want to look at mom for a little bit. I’m sure she’ll be home soon. In the meantime, we’re going to play a fun game!”
“Really?” I said. I was kind of hoping I could just go back to bed, but this could be fun.
“Yes!” Dad said. “I’m going to wake up all of your brothers, and we’re going to clean the house from top to bottom!”
Of course, this didn’t sound like fun at all, but it did keep our minds off the fact that mom was in the hospital and no one could say when she would be coming back.
But even more disturbing than the fact that my mother was sick was this: what were we going to do for dinner?
This is where our family and friends stepped in.
My grandmother was immediately pressed into service, since my father had to work all day and someone had to be around for the seven of us.
My father was the equivalent of a drill sergeant, waking us up at the crack of dawn so we could spend a couple of hours cleaning the house every morning before trudging off to a full day of school.
But my father’s ability to crack the whip paled in comparison to his own mother’s ability to keep us all in line.
Somehow, my grandmother managed to get us all to pitch in, clean up, and help. The dog was kept out of the living room, our books were cleaned off the dining room table after our homework was done, and she managed to cook us dinner for the first few nights without any drama or tears (from us or her).
Spaghetti and meatballs, roasted chicken, and burgers—lots and lots of burgers—were on the menu for the first few days that my grandmother had to feed the nine of us, plus my Uncle Don, who came over to help out. Mostly, I think he came over to eat.
By about Friday, my grandmother was on the verge of a total nervous breakdown, and this is where our family and friends came to the rescue. They were good enough to bring trays and trays of food, and for that we were very grateful. I think my grandmother was the most grateful person of all.
Of course, since we were children, we weren’t very diplomatic about our likes and dislikes. There were a few dishes that we absolutely hated. In fact, after eating some of them, we mostly resembled Tom Hanks in Big right after he tries caviar for the first time.
Here are some of the dishes that got a BIG THUMBS DOWN from us:
1. Meatloaf: since this was the 1970s, we got a few of these. There seemed to be no end to the nasty variations on this theme. One came stuffed with a horrible smelling cheese (blech); another one came covered with roasted onions (gag), and a third arrived slathered in a honey/ketchup concoction that was so sweet it made my teeth ache. This, from the same person who thought a Charleston Chew with a Chocolate Milk chaser was the perfect snack. No, this was definitely not like Mama’s cooking at all!
2. Egg noodles with ground beef and mixed vegetables: I am gagging just remembering this dish, which had some kind of weird cream sauce. If I had gone to this person’s house for dinner, I would have thanked them profusely for it, and then put my dish under the table for the dog to lick it clean, if please Lord almighty there was a dog in the house.
3. Eggplant Parmesan: I love eggplant parm now, but then? YUCK! My brothers and I even hated our mother’s eggplant, so you can imagine how popular this dish was. However, our father—depression era baby that he was—never saw a dish of food that he found worthy of the garbage can. No food would land there, which meant we would have to eat it—even if the dogs wouldn’t.
4. Spaghetti and Meatballs
5. Lasagna, stuffed shells, or chicken parmesan were all problematic coming from anyone outside our family. Why is that, you ask? That’s because no one in our family ever used jarred sauce. EVER! And although we were small children, we could smell the difference from a mile away.
Of course, it’s a miracle that anyone, let alone 10 other families, agreed to make food for our motley crew. I want to thank them now, because I certainly wasn’t thanking them then. It wasn’t that they couldn’t cook. I think it was that my mother’s version of anything was usually so much better.
I guess the real problem was this: I just wanted my mom to get better and come home. That, and the dishes they sent were kind of terrible.
Recently, a friend of mine has been laid up. So, a bunch of moms decided to band together and cook some food for her family while she’s on the mend.
This immediately sent me into a panic. It’s not that I can’t cook. I can! Really. The problem is, some nights are more successful than others. For instance, there are nights when I put something down in front of my family and they practically put me in a chair, lift me up on their shoulders, and parade me through the streets, serenading me with unbridled joy.
“They like me, They really like me!” It’s enough to turn me into Sally Field.
And then, there are other nights…like tonight, for example. Tonight, I made a dish that I’ve made a million times before. It’s a chicken and stuffing casserole that my husband and kids usually enjoy.
But…not this time. Although I put it in the oven for the right amount of time, the dish was a total failure. The stuffing was soggy, the chicken was rubbery, and everyone hated it. Two bites, and then the whole thing got tossed right into the trash.
It’s one thing to torture your own family with a terrible meal. But should I really inflict my hit or miss cooking on another family? Does that sound fair? Haven’t they suffered enough?
My husband tried to make me feel better. “Do something with your sauce,” he said. “That’s always good.”
“Yeah,” my girls chimed in. “Make some kind of pasta.”
While I considered my options, I heard them talk about what a bad dish I made that night and how sometimes I am, surprisingly, a really good cook. After a few minutes worth of discussion, we narrowed the choices down to: spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti, or lasagna.
In the end, I decided to make Baked Ziti for my friend and her family. I’m doing it because that’s what friends do for one another. And, since it’s a meal I’m cooking for a different family, I’ll follow the recipe and make sure it’s a success.
“They’ll love it,” Gary said. “Just be sure to make an extra batch for us.”
The fact that my husband still wants to eat anything I cook is a good sign. I’m hoping that he and my kids are so excited by it that they get ready to carry me through the streets and sing for joy.
I just hope my friend’s kids don’t start their own blog some day and talk about their traumatic experiences with the baked ziti a “friend” made them when their mom was sick.
I saw a Baked Ziti recipe that included sour cream and provolone cheese. Sour cream does not make an authentic Italian dish. Use ricotta cheese instead of sour cream (always) and lose the provolone cheese (mozzarella is enough). Also, this recipe calls for sausage or ground beef. I use ground beef, but in lasagna I will sometimes use sausage as well. It’s your call.
So, Hungry Lifers: what’s the worst thing you ever cooked for your family? What’s the best thing? Do you like Baked Ziti? Please leave a comment and let us all know. Thanks!