Setting the Table

Setting the table for dinner, I grabbed two large forks for my husband and me, and three small ones for our boys. I always do. Without thinking twice.

But one of those boys is six feet tall and about 170 pounds. And it dawned on me tonight that he’s been using the wrong fork.

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African Feasts, Spanish Fiestas, and Cheeseburgers

I typically make dinner for our family six days a week. So, you might think I relish the homework assignments where cooking is involved.

I do not.

Frankly, I’d rather write a paper, make a poster, spend hours on a diorama, or muddle through a calculus problem. And it seems that the African feasts and Spanish fiestas always happen during a week of tests, meetings, and any version of silly end-of-trimester chaos you can imagine.

I love project-based learning. I want more global awareness built into my kids’ curriculum. But I have boys who bite off more than I’d like to chew.

One year, my oldest decided to report on the history of cheeseburgers. Having never seen him more excited about school – and this was six years ago – we cooked up a cheeseburger buffet for 22 kids.

Big hit.

Ridiculous.

Tonight, my fourth grader and I are making a dish from Botswana that combines ground beef, milk-soaked bread, and strawberry jam. He found it on the Internet, but…

I don’t even know if it’s a real dish.

And after soaking the bread and chopping the onions, he cracked the egg, which exploded all over the kitchen counter and floor. “If that chicken were born, it would have ADHD!”

I know. He’s having fun.

Still, I cannot imagine a single 4th grader wanting to taste our dish.

Fortunately, my middle son, after his brother’s cheeseburger incident, decided that mom likes it when he volunteers chips and salsa. Every fiesta, always timed perfectly with the Christmas parties and end-of-year celebrations, he offers, “Mom, how about chips and salsa?”

And I can’t help but smile.

Dinner with Teenagers

When you first have children, you look at them and think how absolutely beautiful they are. You want to hold them, smell them, make them laugh. But as they grow into teenagers, you start to see who they might become with their own set of passions and beliefs. And you see the day when you will learn from them.

They are suddenly interesting. Sometimes more interesting than your colleagues or friends because they are willing to talk about anything, pushing the envelope on your thinking without being afraid that they might offend you. Wondering about things you might not have thought to wonder about. Not knowing any better than to ask the questions you’re not supposed to ask “in good company.”

“Can I try a sip of that?”

Tonight, sitting around the fire pit, the conversation with our thirteen year old morphed from what happened at school today to whether a college education is important and if there is a difference is between Stanford or Harvard or Princeton and a school no one’s heard of. We discussed the education of the last few generations in our families. Left the old country before high school was done and worked as a bus driver. First to go to college. Focused on a premiere college because that was your guarantee of a better life. And now here we are, calling college an expensive IQ test and almost expecting it to implode before our children’s children think about applying.

A week or two ago, we talked about both sides of the abortion issue. Mom and dad, do you guys agree on this one? The black, white and gray of a complex, emotional issue.

And for the last two weeks, our fourteen year old lectured us at dinner on the complex and resilient history of Germany. We helped him strategize about how to win WWII in his-school assigned role as the leader of the evil Axis. How did you get Germany?

Then when we are tired of academic banter, the teens catch their breath, readying themselves for the next argument about the NFL Draft, because a night doesn’t go by in April without analyzing every move made by our favorite Packers, Falcons, Broncos and Chiefs this year and for the last ten years.

Because that’s fun at dinner too.

When Boys Cook the Turkey

A few days before Thanksgiving, there was a proclamation made at our house that the guys would be in charge of the turkey. So my husband and our twelve year old prepared it for brining.

“Get the liver and stuff out,” father said to son.

“Where are they?”

“Just reach into the hole at the end.”

“Wait, that’s his butt! I am not reaching into the turkey’s butt!”

We all looked up from whatever newspaper article, book or teacup we’d been focused on. Grandpop’s eyebrow arced in amusement.

“No really? It’s in his butt?!”

“Yep,” said my grinning husband.

“That’s disgusting!” But like any respectable twelve year old, he reached inside.

“Ewwww! I can’t believe I’m doing this!” giggling as he pulled out the neck. “What’s this?”

“His neck.”

“Oh my God, is this his heart?” he asked, triumphantly holding up a purplish blob.

“Yep.”

“Ewwwww!” as he pulled out the kidneys, then liver.

“I can’t believe I just pulled them out of his butt!”

As my husband washed out the now hollow turkey, our son played with its innards – squishing them, poking at them, sliding them along the countertop. “What does its heart look like inside?”

“Cut it open and see.”

The readers and tea drinkers paused. More eyebrows raised.

“No,” said his grossed out grandmother.

Our ten year old showed up suddenly at his brother’s side, and he did it anyway. He dissected the heart. Then the kidneys, which were much harder to cut. “Not that interesting.”

Solid purple.

Then the slimy liver. Not much for a boy to celebrate there either. “But I can’t believe you made stick my hand in the turkey’s butt!”

Then the turkey was brining, and the guys left the kitchen, content with their work – red-purple turkey juices still oozing across the counter for respectable ladies to clean up.

And I wondered why, after 47 years of turkeys, it had never dawned on me to look inside their hearts.

A Small Milestone in a Big Knife

Last night our five year old asked if he could cut his own chicken.

He did not let go of the knife my husband handed him until he was done with his meal.

He described the differences between a “cutting knife” and a “spreading knife” in detail, as if he has been studying them to prepare for his big night. He asked when each of us first got to cut our own chicken, hoping that he had earned the right sooner than we had.

If it weren’t for my husband, I would have said, “not until you’re six.” But he was ready, and so proud of himself. Independence is critical to self-worth no matter how old you are.

Looking across the table at my grinning little boy, I marked the moment. The days of cutting my boys’ chicken for them are over.

A Perfectly Grilled Beef Tenderloin

The other night, we celebrated a first at our house. As I placed some perfectly grilled beef tenderloin on the table, my third grader pointed out, “We’ve never had steak at the kitchen table.”

True. I usually do not make steak when my husband is out of town, which is the only time we do not eat in our dining room. But he’s been traveling more than usual, and I was tired of pasta. So spread out on the kitchen table that night were steaks, a side of pesto pasta and salad with great tomatoes and ripe avocado. Something for everyone.

Then as the third grader served himself some salad, he said, “You know where they have the best salads?”

Clearly Mom’s kitchen table is not it. “Where?”

“School lunch.”

Out the window went my pride for the perfect meal.

“And their spaghetti and meatballs are awesome!” added his brother.

A crushing blow.

“Oh!” shouted the third grader again, “and the chicken alfredo!”

“The only thing is,” said the fourth grader, “we really need Mrs. X back.” The woman who runs their school lunchroom is on maternity leave, and I have protected her identity so another school doesn’t steal her away. “She is way nicer than the substitutes. The subs don’t let you have any food if you forget your lunch.”

If the other moms’ cooking is as sub-par as mine apparently is, when Mrs. X returns, there will likely be a dramatic increase in full lunchboxes stashed in nooks and crannies all over campus.

We’ve all seen them, actually, and we pass them by thinking, “who could possibly forget their lunchbox?”

A Good Night Gone Bad

Tuesday night dinner. Homework is done. Report due Friday that caused much heartache over the weekend is done. Everybody is eating the food I cooked without drama. It’s a good night. Then…

“Mom, you’re definitely not hot,” said the 10-year old out of nowhere.

“Not good,” my grinning husband lowered his voice.

“Well, you used to be hot,” the 10-year old tried to recover. “But now you’re too old.”

“Digging yourself into a hole, dude.”