My brother turns 40 on Saturday, and it’s had me thinking. For the time being, I have eaten more dinners with my brothers and my parents than anyone else. That will change once I’ve been married a few more years, but for now, it’s still them. Funny thing is, I can’t remember the last mediocre, get-the-job-done meal I had with them. “The boys” have both grown into good cooks, and have married good cooks as well. My parents, now retired, have more time to cook and shop, and they wow us with more and more adventurous meals. We have dinner together pretty often, and when we do it’s celebratory—more of a party, really. We bring appetizers, new recipes we’ve found; we drink beer and wine. Meals are lengthy, loud events because there’s a lot of life that happens between the meals.
Back in the 80’s, though, dinner was just that—dinner. It was not how my parents expressed their creativity or something that filled them with guilt. Absolutely NOBODY was taking pictures of their plates and “sharing” it with anyone. There were 10-12 meals on the Monday-Friday rotation: spaghetti, tuna casserole, frozen pizza, breakfast for dinner, hotdogs, pot roast. Saturdays were full of soccer, projects around the house, grilling out, and Sundays were big meal days. My mom was the master of the Timebake. While we were belting out “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand…” at church, a whole chicken was turning golden brown, simmering in its own juices, back at home. We could smell the food from the front porch, and my mom knew if the chicken was overcooked or still in good shape while we waited for my dad to find our house key on his janitor-style keyring. Any leftovers from our Sunday feasts were used later that week, meat loaf was repurposed as thick cut lunchmeat on the dreaded meatloaf sandwich, roast beef was re-heated and served with gravy over a thick slice of bread (yum!), and leftover chicken went into a chicken pot pie or was added to chow mein.
La Choy Chow Mein (still available for purchase at your local grocer) is sold in what looks like an extra tall tin can. However, it’s really two cans held together by a thin blue seal. Once separated, you have a small can and a large can. I can only speculate that one can holds the chow and the other can the mein. My mom (or dad) emptied the chicken chow mein from the can, some “chicken” already in there, but if there was Sunday dinner chicken, it was added. She warmed the chow mein while white rice steamed on the stove in a blue enameled pot. To build the chow, she started with a rice foundation, a scoop of the mein, and a sprinkle of crunchy noodles. At the table we could add our own metered splashes of soy sauce from the bottle with the flow-regulator top. Mom rounded out the meal with a slotted spoon’s worth of Dole Pineapple chunks, and dinner was on.
I can’t remember if my brothers and I were excited about chicken chow mein night or not. We were, however, excited about the water chestnuts. I think there were three and half water chestnuts in every can of La Choy Chicken Chow Mein*, and by goodness, we wanted them. Those crispy, flavorless, disks were the crown jewels of a weeknight meal. Our forks plunged through the gelatinous mound, moving aside squishy carrots and translucent celery to find the prize. I would push my one water chestnut to the side, making sure that I didn’t bite into it unintentionally. Water chestnuts demand intentionality. I chose to eat mine mid-meal, not wanting to start or finish with a crunch so special.
Even for a simple family meal, there is much to be done. Setting the table, washing the dishes, and putting the dishes in the dishwasher were all kid jobs. Plating the food and making the drinks was my parent’s domain (or domein 🙂 My mom would (and frequently still does) walk a lap around the table serving food directly from the pot and then would put any leftovers back on the stove to rest. She or my dad were also in charge of prepping the drinks for the meal. We mostly drank water, NEVER milk; that was a telltale sign of a weird family. Who washes down spaghetti with milk? That’s crazy talk. There were those special nights when my mom would open the aluminum pod of Lipton tea mix and stir up some gritty, lukewarm “tea” in a putty colored Tupperware pitcher. On those nights, she and my dad would have Diet Rite in the chipmunk glasses from Pizza Hut. Party ON! Maybe my parents were in charge of drinks because drinks spelled trouble. Ben, while getting a refill poured by my dad, would inevitably pull his cup away midstream. Not cool, Ben. To this day, if you’re holding your cup out, my dad will give a subtle nod that says, “Uh uh. Put that cup down, kid.” And there was, too, the cup drama. Like so many 80’s households, we had a stack of nesting, plastic Tupperware cups in various colors. Did the cups and pitcher come in a set or what? And, Mom, were they actually sippy cups that you had us using until we were teenagers? No wonder Ben needed so many refills. We all had our own seats at the table, our own plates of food, and our own right to the BLUE CUP. Drinks looked better and tasted better from the blue cup. The meal, and the entire day, were going your way if you had the blue cup. The blue cup was the water chestnut of cups. Rivalry over the blue cup grew so obnoxious and so senseless, that the blue cup was removed and sentenced to live in the gold linen cabinet in the laundry room with the Christmas table cloths and the off-season curtains. It stayed there so long that we started fighting over the next best color, green, and to this day there is no blue cup in my parent’s house. It’s all very mysterious.
For Mother’s Day last year, my mother bought me a funky pitcher with four colored nesting cups. She knows I love the housewares. I have had this pitcher and cups for less than a year and somehow I have used it like 700 times. I have conducted a field study, and The Blue Cup Gene is dominant. Each night my kids race to blurt out, “CanIhavethebluecup?” before I get to the table with the pitcher and cups. Once the blue cup has been gifted to the Chosen One, you guessed it, the green cup is then called for. I cannot explain this phenomenon—maybe it’s all the chemicals in these plastic cups.
Childhood meals were balanced, made with budgets and family life in mind. They were made to feed us and bring us together. Tomorrow my whole family is leaving for a week-long party to celebrate my big brother’s 40th birthday. We have all signed up to make meals, and the lineup promises to be delicious. I thought about bringing chicken chow mein for posterity and a laugh. I’m going to make chicken fajitas instead because I like the way we eat now. I like the festivity and the fresh foods. But, I do have for my brother the greatest gift of our childhood—the biggest can of water chestnuts I could find. They are his birthright. And I will raise, in toast, a 66 cent blue Tupperware cup I found at a thrift shop. A toast to the meals, the laughs, and the love we have shared. Happy Birthday, Tim! I loved you then, and I love you now.
*I wanted to know how far down in the list of ingredients water chestnuts are in the La Choy nutrition facts. Unfortunately, as you can see from the screen shot, I am unable to perform this function at this time. That just seemed so right.