Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bark Me Better With Meat Sauce

Why is that mothers can’t stay in bed and be sick?

I felt ill, and went upstairs one afternoon to lie down.
There it was. The saddest scene of all. Mom. Lying down. During the day. When other people in the house are awake. And need her for…nothing, everything, something very minor but absolutely urgent.

The nerve. Actually, no one needed me for anything at that moment.

My younger son was with his reading tutor. My older son was doing his homework. Normally, I would be milling around the kitchen, packing up my younger son’s lunch for tomorrow, sending our dog Roxy outside to lie in the sun or stare at the squirrels. I would be munching on carrots and preparing dinner for tonight. But I felt sick---tired, stuffed up, enervated, and in serious need of taking a load off.

I went upstairs and lay down on my bed. Roxy, a yellow Labrador who has very little to do in the afternoon, followed me upstairs. I closed the shades. She must have sensed I was in distress because she started to bark.
“Woof, woof!”
I willed her to go away.
She sat next to my bed and barked at me again.
“Woof! Woof!”
I didn’t need a translator. The bark went like this: “Mommy, get up! No lying down on the job!"
I silently barked back: Shut up Roxy.
Woof, woof!”
I closed by my eyes. “Shut up, Roxy!” I yelled. “Go downstairs.” She looked at me with her big brown eyes. She stared at me hard. It was a look that said, “Up and at 'em, you need to go do something!” In truth, Roxy herself does very little. In the mornings, we run four or five miles. When we get to the park where my kids play baseball and roller hockey, we stop for water. I cup my hands, pour some water into them and hold them out for her. She laps up the water and if it’s really hot, I dribble some over her head. Then, we run home. She gets half a cheese stick, I eat a yogurt and read the paper, then I go upstairs to write.

Roxy spends the rest of the day napping in the family room, searching the kitchen floor for crumbs, and waiting in the dining room for someone new to come in the house. I work in the room above the garage (formerly the nanny’s room). She only comes to see me if she needs to go to the bathroom, or wants a snack. Hours go by, and she doesn’t stop in to stay hello. But the minute I am prostrate, she gets hysterical.

What, I wonder, does she think is going to happen if I lie down in broad daylight? She is two-years old, fourteen in dog years. She had never seen me collapse or cry; and though she has certainly seen me yell, out of frustration, exhaustion or rage (often at my kids, occasionally at my husband, rarely at her), my dog has never seen me fall apart in a heap.
She has nothing to fear, except that I might want a nap.

Still, I knew how she felt.

Nobody wants to see Mom lying down. And truthfully, I never have. I was raised by seemingly indefatigable women. My husband was raised by the same. My mother had a hysterectomy when I was sixteen. She warned my brother and me that she would be in bed, recovering for many weeks. I prepared myself. Then, on day three, she got up and walked around. She made dinner. As my mother remembers it, I hissed, “I thought you were going to be sick longer!” A few months later, she had enough energy to leave my father.

As for my mother-in-law, she was briefly hospitalized when I first met my husband, but recovered quickly. I haven’t seen her sick a day since. My grandmother died at 98 of complications from pneumonia, and though I occasionally heard her complain about a toothache, which she remedied by gargling whiskey, I never once heard her complain she wasn’t feeling well.

As for my mother-in-law’s mother, she died of complications from shingles, but until a few months before she died, she did the NY Times crossword puzzle every day and took the bus into Philadelphia to go shopping.

So, I know how Roxy felt. Moms don’t lie down. They get busy. They are busy.
Except when they feel like crap, which I did.

I got out of bed, pushed Roxy out of my room and shut my door.
Roxy barked and barked.

I couldn’t friggin stand it. Had she no mercy? Not a shred of patience?

Finally, I couldn’t bear it anymore. Exhausted by her (no one is louder, more persistent or sounds more anguished than she does when she wants something), I hauled my butt out of bed and schlepped down to the kitchen. Maybe if I wandered around in a daze, I would feel better. I opened the freezer, and spotted a package of ground meat---veal, beef and pork. I did not feel like making meat balls, which I always ruin, or meatloaf, which I love but have trouble persuading my children to love too.

I wanted someone to take care of me. (Well, who doesn’t?) The person who would take care of me was an older Italian aunt, humming in her apron on a Sunday afternoon, stirring a big pot of meat sauce. She would say, “Come sit down, darling, take a load off, this is for you,” and she would hand me a bowl of meat sauce and a plate of buttered noodles, and give me a kiss on my forehead.

I do not eat noodles and this older Italian woman does not exist in my life but still I yearn for her.

I wanted Bolognese meat sauce. That was it. We had all the ingredients: Meat, milk, carrots, celery, turkey bacon, wine, a jar of tomato sauce. Who, besides vegans and vegetarians, doesn’t love Bolognese meat sauce? I stuck the package of meat in the microwave. It took about ten minutes to defrost the veal, beef and pork. (Yes, we are Jewish, and no, I don’t serve pork as a matter of course, but we are Reform Jews and kind of lax. And though my husband grew up Conservative, kosher and observant, both his mother and grandmother, and my mother and my grandmother, grew up with very little religion, so my husband has learned to look the other way when I sneak the occasional pork into a meat dish.)

I mashed carrots, onions, celery and turkey bacon in the Cuisinart and sautéed them in olive oil.
I added ground meat, and white wine.
I took a can of whole tomatoes, crushed the tomatoes in my hand, and sauted those too. I let the sauce cook and cook. At the end, I added a cup of cream.

I’ll be frank here. The sauce took a long time. I was standing and stirring and because I didn’t feel well, I chased the sauce with a cold can of diet Coke.

You don’t need to use cream in this recipe. I have made this before with Skimplus and it works just as well. You could use real bacon too, and it would taste divine, but the turkey bacon makes it taste just awesome. And at the end, you can add Parmesan cheese, which makes it even more fattening and delicious.

To be frank, the sauce takes a couple of hours but the trick is to make a lot and freeze it, so you have it for dinner next week too.

This sauce will always make you feel better.

Believe me, I know not everyone feels like cooking at the end of the day. And in my heart of hearts, I really just want to lay my sorry ass down and ignore the world when I’m not feeling well. And sometimes, I’m so sick, that’s what I do. I take my temperature, announce I have a fever, and direct my husband to "just deal."

But when I'm okay, I love to cook.

I have two kids, and a dog, and a husband who comes home hungry from work. There are plenty of nights when I teach, or when my older son has hockey practice, and I ask my babysitter to just boil up some macaroni and cheese, or take a box of pizza out of the freezer. But there are also plenty of days when I cook---to make myself feel better, to give myself something to do, to avoid writing, to stir up my writing, or just to plain old Mother-of-the-Year it and make my family something warm to eat at the end of the day.

I cook, therefore I am.
I cook, therefore I am a good mother.
I cook for three or four other people, therefore I am not alone.

My own mother, an excellent cook in her own right, has on occasion called me selfish. I am selfish, I will cop to it. Cooking makes me feel less so, even though the truth is I cook to make myself feel better. But I also cook to make my kids feel loved. I lose myself when I cook. I chop, I mash, I pull out the Cuisinart, I read recipes. A long day of writing something no one may ever read is interrupted by preparations for a meal that several people will definitely eat.

For the lonely, insecure writer, cooking is a sure way of finding a loving audience.

I give my babysitter dinner to take home. I drive over to my sons’ handwriting tutor, a lovely woman who has become like a second mother to me, and give her lentil soup or chicken. I pack up food for my mother and my stepfather.

I have always thought I write better than I feel, and I write better than I talk. By the same token, I cook to express love, when I can’t express it. I can be cranky and yell at my kids for hours but if I make them a dinner that they actually eat, I have redeemed myself.

There is also the whore/housewife theory, which I subscribe to, that says that men want to be loved and fed. If you make love to your husband, and/or make him dinner two or three times a week, he will never leave you.

My good friend’s husband left her for another woman and my other friend observed that the new girlfriend was probably doing handstands in bed. I said she was probably cooking for him too. At least for a little while.

Conversely, I fell in love with my husband on our third date because he cooked for me. We went shopping for fish, and salad, and we went back to his apartment and he grilled fish for me on his long, thin patio, which was the best thing about his apartment. After dinner, he kissed me. It was the last time he took it upon himself to make me a meal, but it sealed our deal.

I thought: He can do it all. He cooks. He reads. He holds down a job. He loves me.

But back to the Bolognese meat sauce. My older son loved the sauce. My husband didn’t eat it for several days so I froze it. Many, many days later I thawed it out and heated it up for him. He couldn’t get enough of it.

The secret ingredient, I think , is the smoked turkey---which, by the way, I also took out of the freezer. There is nothing kosher about this dish. We mix milk with meat all the time, but I think that when I mentioned the word “turkey bacon” my husband blanched.

What makes it, and almost any ragu delicious, is the combination of mashed up carrots, celery and onions, garlic, salt and pepper, which, when combined with salt and milk or cream, and stirred in a heavy saucepan for a couple of hours, turns into a paste so delicious, with sweet, tart flavors that aren’t easily identifiable, but taste like love. Which dinner should.

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