My parents were never fans of fast food. We couldn’t afford to dine out much as a family, and when we did, most of the places we went were small, informal, greasy spoon type diners, which were comfortable and served darn good food for the price. My Mom prattled on incessantly about the “crap” that was in fast food. She ground her own meat for hamburger once she learned from a friend who was butcher that grocery store hamburger comes in pre-ground and they regrind it to advertise “fresh ground beef.” And of all the fast food joints (there weren’t quite as many then as now), McDonald’s was the most evil to them. I never even went to a McDonald’s until I was in the 5th grade and, after an early morning football game, one of the Moms took all the team’s cheerleaders out for a late breakfast. (Yes, I was a cheerleader in elementary school. Don’t let it shock you too much.) I was excited to go but when we got there, had no idea what to order. I didn’t know what any of the food was on the menu and everyone was moving so quickly. I told the chick’s Mom I didn’t know what I wanted so she got me an Egg McMuffin, which I thought tasted like cardboard and salt, and the orange juice tasted like Tang. It probably didn’t help that I had a flu coming on, and when we went to this girl’s house afterwards, I ended up puking all over their bathroom. I wasn’t in a hurry to go back.
McDonald’s has other notable and odd memories in my life. In high school, I was asked out on a date by an upperclassman when I was only a freshman or sophomore. He had a job and everything, and offered to take me to McDonald’s before we went to a school basketball game. I was running track at the time and was thin as a rail with a metabolism to match, and was frequently hungry because I didn’t get enough food at home sometimes. One can only eat so much government cheese and rice, or cheese and spaghetti. He told me I could get WHATEVER I WANTED, NO LIMIT. I ordered (and ate) a super sized Quarter Pounder meal with fries and a coke, a 9-piece chicken mcnuggets, a chocolate shake and a box of McDonaldland cookies. He stared at me as I was snarfing up the last bites of cookie and said something like wow, you sure can eat. I was embarrassed and realized I not only looked like a glutton, which wasn’t very attractive, but I’d probably ordered a very expensive amount of food. He reassured me that it was fine and laughed about it, which was kind.
In middle school, my Mom came to get me one day as a surprise, to take me out to lunch. This had never happened and I knew it was weird, but she told me we were going to McDonald’s and I was so, so excited. It was like my birthday or something. The Big Mac I was chomping down on turned to glue in my hands and green mush in my stomach when she told me she and my Dad were getting a divorce. I was sick to my stomach the rest of the day. I quickly realized that it all made a great deal of sense – I’d always thought he was a good Dad but a terrible husband (and he was a good Dad to me, in many ways, but also very flawed).
After my parents got divorced, for many years it was just me and my Mom living together while my sister was away at college. She had been under constraints for so long that sometimes, she just flew in the face of normalcy. One of these rare, wonderful things was when we would have cheeseburgers for breakfast. It only happened a handful of times but they were special times, times where we felt like we were doing something just a little wrong and wacky, which we needed. We struggled so hard financially that these little episodes were like some kind of managed stress relief. This is also the time period where we established our now long-standing tradition of starting Thanksgiving Day out with a piece of pumpkin pie (we make pies the day before). You never know what to eat for breakfast on Thanksgiving – you don’t want to eat too much, with the big meal looming, but you have to eat SOMETHING. The pie is the perfect breakfast. Gives you some sugar energy to get the cooking done, goes well with coffee and helps you power through the day.
Mom and I made a lot of food memories in those years. As I got older, into high school years, she would sometimes let me have half a can of beer while we sat out on the porch and watched the cars go by and talked about our days and whatever drama was in our lives. She had a string of very bad jobs and very bad bosses in the struggle to support both of us, and I was continually having boy trouble, so there was always a lot to discuss. On these nights we’d often get out the little hibachi grill and heat it up, marinating some bone-in chicken pieces in an Italian dressing made in one of those measuring cruets that Good Seasons used to sometimes provide with their seasoning packet. We wouldn’t even have anything with it, just the chicken and maybe some beer or a can of Coke. Or we’d split a pizza or sub from the Leaning Tower and watch old movies on TV. I hated having to turn over the money I made at the jobs I had in fast food or at a local deli, but she explained that I could either give her the money and we could have electricity the next month, or I could go buy a new pair of jeans. She wasn’t kidding, either. We spent more nights than I’d like with me staying at a friend’s because the heat was shut off, or at my aunt’s because the power was shut off. A water pipe burst in the front yard and my parents argued from their separate homes about who would pay which portion, and eventually that got shut off too.
There were more desperate times than that, even. We both managed to get food, but it wasn’t always easy, or legal.
Mom and I make different food memories now. Every year she works with me to make phyllo for our own spanikopita, which we try to make once a year, hoping one day I can do it completely without her. We work on the homemade noodles every Thanksgiving, and this past holiday, the noodles were completely my own doing without her help at all. We talk on the phone about things I’ve bought when I wonder about what to do with this or that new thing, and she always has ideas. She was the one who taught me about timing a meal, about mise en place (she didn’t call it that), about how to smell when something is done. She’s still teaching me to cook, even though she doesn’t cook much herself any longer. It’s perhaps one of the most valuable things she spent time teaching me, and maybe, serves as a lesson for me that you’re never done being a teacher as a parent.