Clash! of! Traditions!

My turn to manage dinner tonight. Our Friday night restaurant habit, which had turned into Friday night takeout during the pandemic, has morphed again. Takeout on Friday nights turned out to be a poor substitute for what we like about restaurants, especially getting out of the house, being around people, and long, loose conversations. Now we’re taking turns to select and prepare recipes a little more complicated than our normal practice (i.e., following the directions on the Rice-a-Roni box). And the person who chooses the recipe gets to order around the others! Bonus! Last week I was sous chef for Sonny’s appetizers extravaganza. This week, I’m in charge of a casserole and a couple of sides, which looks like it will be straightforward. Given where we are in the year, it’s also a warmup for Thanksgiving. Beyond agreeing on no turkey this year, with six days to go we still haven’t decided on the specifics.

Normally when we decide to skip cooking turkey in favor of a different meal or someone else doing the roasting, I’m ecstatic. However, the dashed expectations this year have me missing things I didn’t even like in the first place. Nine-hour road trips, the New Jersey Turnpike, the aunt who insists on marking each cheek with her sloppy kisses, perilous conversations, green bean casserole.

Dave and I had vastly different holiday traditions, and we’ve spent the past 25 years experimenting with mixing them. His Thanksgivings as a kid involved traveling, several households gathering in one spot, and, often, both pumpkin pie and birthday cake, since he was born in late November. Most of his relatives lived within an hour or two’s drive, short enough to make gathering reasonable and long enough to ensure an all-day event. The TV would be tuned to parades and football. Dave and his cousins would play video games or run around the house, and the grownups would do whatever grownups did. As it turns out, once we started participating in these gatherings as grownups: stress about the food, snipe at the in-laws, compare one’s house and children to other people’s houses and children, and try to steer clear of talk about politics and religion. If we gather on Thanksgiving, it’s with friends, rather than relatives. Tradition abandoned.

On the other hand, my childhood was spent hundreds of miles from our relatives. Thanksgiving was usually just the five of us. Sometimes we were joined by a colleague of my father’s. If we had a visitor, there was no television; otherwise, it was parades and football. For anyone not cooking, Thanksgiving was simply an hour of a day off from school as well as one of the three days a year that we ate off of china instead of melamine plates and had lasagne, the true star of the day. This delectable concoction made its way from the china to my stomach much faster than the turkey, sweet potatoes, or quivering discs of cranberry gel. My mother’s lasagne was insanely good; I’ve eaten hundreds, probably thousands, of lasagnes since and never found its equal. It took ages to prep, though, so it only showed up on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I rhapsodized to Dave many times about mom’s lasagne. One year we decided on lasagne instead of turkey. I fought my way through the grocery lines on Wednesday for bay leaves and tomatoes and beef and the like, returning home triumphant. At 1 p.m. on Thanksgiving afternoon, I laid out the ingredients and realized that I had forgotten to buy the lasagne noodles. Dave headed for the grocery stores: all closed. Three 24-hour, 365-days-a-year drug stores later, he found a package of spaghetti, so that’s what we made instead. It was good, but it wasn’t lasagne. Tradition fail.

There are some years when I roast a whole turkey; some years it’s just a turkey breast. We’ve gone to relatives’ houses, had relatives come to us. With a small kitchen and my mediocre cooking skills, the holiday wasn’t all that fun. Tradition put on indefinite hold.

A couple of times we’ve gone to a restaurant, if we arrange reservations early enough. That might have been nice for this year, but…coronavirus. Tradition deferred.

This year, unless I succumb to guilt or mania at the last minute, will probably involve pizza. Maybe homemade, maybe delivery. This actually harkens back to our first Thanksgiving as a three-person family. It was the day after Sonny came home from almost a week in Boston Children’s Hospital. Emergency surgery had saved his life, but he was fragile and exhausted, and so were we. Dave and I had caught a nasty bug that was going around Boston Children’s Hospital. We got back to our apartment, canceled our visit to Dave’s sister, and asked no one to visit because we didn’t know whether we were contagious. Then we ordered in pizza.

Twenty-three years later, it’s probably time for a repeat. Tradition win.

Store-bought

Today Sonny turns 23 years old. A few days ago I asked him the most important question about this day: what kind of cake he wanted. I asked rather than assumed because it’s always possible that his tastes have changed. His last four birthdays have been celebrated away from home, on campus. Nothing had changed:

“Blue,” he said, starting as usual with the aesthetics of the icing.

Flavor?

“Vanilla.”

White cake or golden?

“Golden.”

I went to Shaw’s, though not for flour and eggs and whatever else goes into a scratch-baked cake. I walked past the cake mix aisle and headed for the bakery, my eyes scanning the cakes in the refrigerated section for blue. The problem with blue is that most often, cakes with blue frosting are chocolate cakes. I got lucky, though, spying a golden cake with sparkly ombre blue buttercream on the sides, white on top, with a big blue flower in the center.

Possibly my buying a store-made cake generates a frisson of disdain from readers who are foodies/good at baking. I truly admire Martha Stewart-like adepts who make their cakes from scratch, wrap presents so neatly they should be on a magazine cover, and organize champagne garden parties for 25 people at the drop of a hat. Homemade cake can be delicious. I’ve even made cakes from mixes a couple of times (never had the courage to try from scratch) to modest noises of approval from Dave and Sonny. However, we aren’t confident cooks, and we just…like the store-bought cakes better.

Like a lot of the ASD population, we have sensory issues related to food. There are some commonly accepted tastes and textures that we haven’t been able to learn to tolerate, much less enjoy. Over the years, with a great deal of deliberate practice, I can take a lot more bitterness and spice and textural variety than I once could. I willingly eat veggies, even though I don’t like most of them, and I often order salads at restaurants. But if someone puts dressing on that salad (or sour cream on my enchilada), I cannot eat it. I smile and say thank you and thrash the food around with my fork to conceal that I haven’t touched it.

Basically, our tastes tend to be a bit child-like and to favor predictability and consistency. Maybe if elderberries would be an interesting addition to this year’s cake, but we’ll never know. We do know that Sonny will like the store-bought cake.

Next month, November, comes Dave’s birthday. I’m already looking for a Pepperidge Farm Frozen Confetti Vanilla Layer Cake every time I pass a freezer case. Once easy to find, this staple has largely disappeared from the stores around here. A year or two ago I had to go to nine grocery stores, searching. It’s a hazard to be expected when your tastes are formed in childhood while brands change to reflect contemporary tastes. (Plenty of red velvet and coconut, no vanilla…why?)

My birthday preference is a cherry-topped Sara Lee cheesecake. Cheesecake became my favorite dessert when I was about 17, and over the years I’ve had a ton of terrible as well as wonderful cheesecake. Too dry, too big, toppings that look nice but taste weird, flavors that sound good but turn out yucky. With Sara Lee, I know what to expect.

It strikes me that with our red, white, and blue birthday cake preferences, my little family has also achieved American flag colors. I’m not feeling hopeful about America or American democracy at the moment, but I did spend a bit of time googling down the rabbit hole to learn that at least 28 countries have red, white, and blue flags. The countries are a varied bunch geographically and politically, as they include North Korea, the UK, Australia, Iceland, France, New Zealand, and Russia. The symbolism of the flag colors varies by country. Back near the original birthday of the USA, Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, defined the colors of the US seal and flag as signifying purity and innocence (white), hardiness and valor (red), and vigilance, perseverance, and justice (blue). Like a lot of people’s birthday wishes and hopes, these were high targets, maybe unreachable.

My own wishes are modest. I hope I’ll find the Pepperidge Farm cake sometime in the next six weeks. With my own birthday coming up soon, I hope that Dave will find my Sara Lee. Good luck to him! But today I’m focused on Sonny, who is celebrating his first birthday as a full-fledged member of the adult world. His shift today at Target started at 6 a.m. My wishes are for him to enjoy his workday, his presents, and his slice of sparkle-frosted birthday cake.

No shredded grass today

Want.  Chocolate.

My husband Dave remembers childhood Easters because his family would go to  church that day (and Christmas, their biannual visits) and then drive an hour to his aunt’s house for a big dinner featuring ham and tension.   My family moved a lot when I was a kid, never near enough a relative to visit without at least a six-hundred-mile drive.  Since we went to church every Sunday, another Sunday didn’t feel remarkable.   We didn’t dye eggs or hide and hunt them; we didn’t have money to buy new outfits;  we didn’t cook a feast.  My strongest Easter memory is of baskets, presented at breakfast, untouchable until after lunch, my stomach growling through every Easter sermon.

Once Sonny came along, I enjoyed making holiday rituals for him.  All of us are on the autistic spectrum, and it’s almost ridiculously easy to make a ritual: just do the thing at least three times.  Easter stumped us.  Neither Dave nor I wanted a Sunday of tense relatives and ham, and our pediatrician admonished us that serving up an enormous bucket-o-candy was borderline child abuse.  We wound up going for Easter baskets with toys and just a little candy.     Plus some chocolate for Mom and Dad.  Bite-sized Godiva or Ghirardelli bunnies, Cadbury eggs and the like.

Easter isn’t performed so massively or consistently in American culture as holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, or the Fourth of July.   Movies, ads, TV shows, books…I can absorb the behavioral and emotional expectations for these holidays because there are so many models provided.  But Easter programming features mostly Bible-based narratives or televised church services, punctuated by an occasional Easter Bunny animated feature.   Easter-related ads don’t even show people most of the time, just animated sweets, or animals made of sweets, or animals delivering sweets.

Spring is here: eat some sugar.  That message does resonate…with me, at least.  The baskets I remember so fondly were stuffed with shredded green paper, studded with jelly beans and candy eggs wrapped in pastel-hued tinfoil and surrounding a large chocolate bunny.   Once I’d brushed off the “grass,” which tended to cling, I would start on the bunny’s ears, as the proper way to eat a chocolate bunny is always from the top down.  Cheap milk chocolate, brittle and going dusty around the edges; delicious.    Hollow if I’d been naughty the day my mother went shopping; solid if I’d been nice.

Easter is chocolate to me at the most basic level, although it’s packed on other meanings through time.  This year, with the somber mood induced by disease and death, I didn’t get any Easter candy.  Grocery trips have been few and cautious.  We discussed whether we should do Easter candy before my last store run, and we all agreed we should leave it off the list.

I thought that it wouldn’t bother me, but on Easter morning…it seemed such a waste of an opportunity to enjoy a comfort so small and valued.

Want.  Chocolate.

Boogie-woogie-hygge

Hygge has made it to my town library!  Hygge’s a Danish word, pronounced Hoogie, it’s branded as a Scandinavian approach to happiness.   I’d seen references to this trend on TV and in magazines and found it intriguing.  When How to Hygge appeared on the New Books shelf, I eagerly checked it out.

The elements of hygge as presented in the book: get exercise, preferably outside.  Value and treasure hanging out in the house with family and friends.   Take pleasure in eating and drinking, especially homemade pastries, preserved fish dishes, and glog.  Lots and lots of glog.  Wear thick socks and cuddle up in soft blankets, watching the fire.   Have a home that features simple wood furniture, with minimal clutter, but with plenty of books and candles and cut flowers (but only of the same color, evidently two or three colors is not Nordic).  Take pleasure in mastering skills like wood chopping and room painting.

Part 1 – Exercise, preferably outside 

“I just bought these boots this morning,” said Dave, as we hippety-hopped—or, more often splashed–our way along the muddy trail.  Both Dave and Sonny (Sonny was home for Easter weekend) had been up for a family hike around the Ponkapoag Pond.    The pond is surrounded by woods.  The trees were still bare, the spring buds just starting to appear.  The ground was mostly dirt and rocks and fallen tree trunks, some of them obviously recent uproots after a viciously windy set of storms.  April showers had made navigating the trail more of a challenge.  Dave was the only one of us who had appropriate shoes, and he wasn’t yet ready for them to get too muddy.  Meanwhile, Sonny and I wore sneakers, not waterproof.  After about 20 minutes, my socks were soaked through.

We backtracked and tried a different trail, where another few minutes’ hike found us water-logged again.  Where the water hit the trail, though, we got to enjoy a patch of vivid green vegetation, a hopeful vision.

“Who wants to go back to the car?” asked Sonny.

Part 2 – Treasure time spent with family and friends 

“So who wants to hang out tonight?” I asked.

“Hang out and do what, Mom?”

“Make a fire.  Sit on the couch and talk.”

“But it’s 60 degrees outside.  And didn’t we talk at dinner last night?”

“There’s hockey and baseball on,” said Dave.

I would have to finish the hygge experiment on my own.

Part 3 – Eat, drink, and make your house hygge

I decided to conduct this part of the trial in my studio, where I already had cut flowers–some pink, some purple–in a vase.   They were pretty, except for some raggedy bits where Capone the cat had nibbled at them.   While my studio vibe isn’t minimalist or Danish, I do have wood furniture and lots of books.  I put some candles on my desk and started moving them around, trying for a calming arrangement.   Now for the food and drink…The only pastries in the house were individually wrapped Entenmann’s cheese danishes, so I put one on a plate.  No glog in the house, either…I had a sore throat and headache starting, so I made a nice hot cup of Nighttime TheraFlu.  I lit the candles, took my snacks and a book, wrapped myself in a blanket, settled into my comfy chair, and waited for the hygge to hit.

I’m a quarter Norwegian, after all.  I figured that within half an hour I’d develop a contented, maybe slightly smug, happy feeling.  Forty-five minutes, max.

An hour and a half later: book finished, feeling fairly relaxed, but a bit disappointed.  I blew out the candles.  Wax had dripped onto my desk.

Part 4 – Take pleasure in mastering simple skills 

I spent 10 minutes getting the candle wax off my desk.   I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Part 5 – Aftermath

So I’ve failed hygge.  A quarter Norwegian turns out not to be quite Scandinavian enough.  Yes, hygge was pleasant, comforting, but it also felt like sinking in one of those beanbag chairs that kind of clutch at you and force you to contortionist measures in order to get up.

The closest I’ll ever get to hygge, I think, is the time I spend, most afternoons, drinking  a mug of coffee in my comfy chair.   The chair’s by the window, so I can look out at the garden and the street, with all its cars and trucks, and I can look at my office clutter and remind myself of what I’m trying to get done today, and I can enjoy the pictures on the wall, and I can check out Capone snoozing (dreaming of world domination) on the piano bench.  I get a teeny bit of relaxation, but by the time the coffee’s gone, I’m ready to bounce out of the comfy chair and head for the world outside The Nest.  Turns out that I need mess and energy alongside the calm.

The List

How we ended up trying The Brook Kitchen was the Friday night traffic on Route 28, which was especially horrible.   Backups at every traffic light; it had taken us almost 20 minutes to drive a mile and a half.  Dave’s blood sugar was crashing.

“I don’t think I can make it all the way to 18,” he said.  We were almost at the commuter rail station, about seven miles from Route 18, our dinner destination for the evening.   The crossing lights flashed red as the train arrived, another delay.

“Want to try Lynnwood, then?”  The pizza place was a right turn and a couple of hundred yards away.

Dave right-turned-on-red with alacrity.  I felt happy to have had the idea.  Plan B, not always the worst plan.

Friday night dinner out is still the ritual, even with Sonny off at college.  It’s a hard habit to break.  Rituals are always lurking for us.  I’m not sure if it’s a spectrum thing or not, but for our family it seems to be:  once, twice, always.  We do at least change up the Friday night restaurants.  That’s not always easy, constrained as we we are by our shy palates.  When Sonny’s around, burgers or pizzas or chicken tenders are menu mandatories.   Dave’s easier; he just wants the restaurant to have meat of some kind.  Me?  I can usually find something, but I joke (not really a joke) that every restaurant should be required to offer a grilled cheese sandwich.  Throughout my childhood and until I was about 25, I would always order grilled cheese if given the option.   It’s hard to mess up a grilled cheese.

Lynnwood is one of those restaurants that probably used to be somebody’s house.   They have pizza and drinks, that’s it.   Cheap wine and domestic non-craft beer go surprisingly well with the crispy, small pizzas, served piping hot on a metal pan, with paper plates, paper napkins, no silverware.  Red-and-white-checked oilcloth covering the tables.  Takes a while to get your pizza because it’s so busy, but totally worth the wait.

Evidently everybody else in town had the same thought.  The pizza place’s two parking lots were full.

“Back to plan A,” I said.  “Unless you want to try Lucky Lou Lou’s…”

“Ha ha,” said Dave.  “We’ll wave at it as we pass by.”   So we headed again for Route 18–this time going a back way that would be longer, but with less annoying traffic.

Lucky Lou Lou’s was about on about Plan F or G of a restaurant that we have patronized sporadically for years.  Some of the plans involved name changes.  First it was Deann’s.   Sonny loved Deann’s because there was a movie-style popcorn machine by the front entrance.  The hostess would scoop popcorn with a wooden bowl and set it on your table.  As we scanned the menu, we’d race to the bottom of the popcorn bowl.  Deann’s made a pretty good grilled cheese sandwich as well as Sonny’s favorite, the bacon cheeseburger.  One wall had photographs of the staff with a legend on each that showed how long each employee had been working at the restaurant.   Then Deann’s became the Halfway Cafe.  Plan B, just a few tweaks.  Same popcorn, same decor–heavy wooden booths painted a dark brown, a bar in the back, a game room with a couple of arcade machines off to the side.  At some point the employee photographs disappeared.  Similar menu, generic American of burgers, meatloaf, chicken, fish and chips, mac and cheese, etc.

Then one day a couple of years ago Halfway Cafe moved to Plan C.  The hostess scooped the popcorn into the bowl, walked us to a booth, and cleared her throat.  “We have a new menu,” she said.   “Please ask the waiter if you have any questions.”   The new menu featured enthusiastic descriptions of the dishes.  (Usually a mistake, in my opinion–it’s always a pity when the dish doesn’t taste as good as the description.)   Gnocchi, gazpacho, pumpkin ravioli, scallops.  Grilled cheese sandwiches were gone.  A bad sign.   The next time we returned: a new menu again.   Then a year ago, yet another new menu, but without fanfare, no explanations proffered.  And a little sign on the wall once adorned with employees’ photos, saying “Coming soon: Lucky Lou Lou’s.”

We went to Lucky Lou Lou’s once.  No popcorn machine.  No grilled cheese.   Blaring music, a vaguely southern menu featuring things like fried pickles and waffles, and sad, slow waiters.   As we left, the three of us agreed: Lucky Lou Lou’s was off the list.  Even creatures of habit such as we have to draw the line somewhere.  Sonny was the most reluctant.  He doesn’t like to give up on things, even when they aren’t working anymore, even when they’ve become pathetic and frustrating.

Dave and I got ready to wave and pass by, but we saw a different name, a different sign.  The Brook Kitchen.  “Wow!” I said.  “Lucky Lou Lou’s is no more.”

Route 18 was still many miles away.  Dave’s stomach was growling audibly.  “What do you think?” he said.

“Why not?” I said, and we turned the car.   Plan C.

There was plenty of space in the lot, not the best sign, but my worries vanished as we entered.  There was a lovely large bar under a high ceiling so the room feels spacious and grand, the old booths refinished and moved farther apart so they don’t loom, TVs for the sports types but not loud or intrusive, and best of all: a grilled cheese sandwich on the menu.  It was a short menu, not particularly poetic.   I had a burger and sweet potato fries, which were excellent.   The popcorn machine seemed permanently retired, but I didn’t miss it.  I can’t wait to tell Sonny that The Brook has made its way back onto the list.  I just hope that they stick with this plan.  How to figure out when your makeover’s done and it’s time to just be?  That’s a hard one.