Who wants Shake ‘n Bake?”
The breadcrumb coating was an excuse to eat poultry, so Mom served it up on Grandma’s Willow china once a week. We never had pork chops or fish, unless you count Gorton’s. Instead, food was just sustenance. We had no heirloom meatloaf recipes or secret spaghetti sauce from Uncle Steve. Both of my parents worked, so meals weren’t elaborate. Everything came from a box, a can, or the freezer. We bought in bulk: Hormel chili, Brunswick stew, and those Chef Boyardee pizza kits.
I still remember helping out in the kitchen as a kid, which meant opening up the can of Pillsbury biscuits and hearing that distinct pop! of gratification. The food wasn’t fancy, but Emily Post was our buddy. My mom loved place cards, candle-snuffers, and salad forks, so the table looked top-notch even if the food wasn’t. By the age of six, I knew the knife’s blade must face toward the plate. We had designated spots around the table and well-rehearsed words to say. We lit candles and used coasters. The whole thing was a ceremony. Everyone drank milk, and the phone was taken off the hook. For dessert, we had Nilla wafers sandwiched with peanut butter or, on a special night, green pistachio pudding. I would smile and lick my lips. Say what you will about Steak-umms, but we always ate together as a family.
Today, my dinner table looks a bit different.
Each of my boys uses a distinct strategy with meals, racing to the finish line to receive a treat. I never used that word before kids, except with our old Boston terrier who could high-five and barrel-roll on command. Today, I loathe the word. Even though we’ve cut back on dessert to after-dinner only, every bite is a move closer to that sugar-something they want.
After the first nibble, they ask, “How many more bites?”
“All of it,” I say. “I want to see a happy plate!” I detest those words, but they come out involuntary. I remember almost vomiting from eating lima beans when I was seven, so I know my technique is sound.
Atticus, at six, will eat anything. Kale, calamari, pho. He loves Sriracha sauce. The kid has tried more fruits and vegetables than I knew existed before the age of thirty. He devours cucumbers, kiwis, and star fruits, and he will shovel quiche and black beans down without complaint. But my younger son, Levon, could care less about his brother’s track record. He is his own man at the table. All he wants are breakfast bars. He knows how many bars are in each box and how many boxes are in the pantry. He has three for breakfast every day and keeps his scissors in a secret spot. Some people run out in the middle of the night to buy coffee for the morning. I go out for bars.
The thing is, my wife knows food. She’s the one with the time-honored and top-secret recipes, written in Spanish, thanks to her Cuban-Italian grandmother. The words live in a tiny red notebook: arroz con pollo, picadillo, ropa viejo. I’ve never eaten better in my life. I’ve taught her where to point the folded napkin, and she has taught all of us what a real plantain tastes like. And when she’s ever in doubt, she always can fire off a text to her mother and voila! the yucca comes to life.
Years ago, I did the cooking for both of us. There were lots of fried eggs and Pam-soaked pans. I guess there is one trademark dish that was handed to me. I can cook an egg.
But most of the time, I’m just counting kernels of popcorn into bowls, trying to remember if I am on ten or eleven, or I’m looking at my watch saying, “You can have that LEGO guy in three more minutes.” I’m constantly rationing out identical portions of minutes and bites. At a recent estate sale, I saw a kitchen scale, one of those hefty suckers, used for Boar’s Head turkey at the deli counter. I could use it with all consumable goods. Wait, just a second, boys. Daddy needs to measure that. Nothing haunts us like those things we didn’t buy.
Unless it’s the thing we did. My offense is 1-2-3 Magic. I’ve studied the intricacies of this system. Despite the book, DVD, and one-on-one instruction from a local master, I am still trying to count to three like a champ. Trouble is, I never know what number each kid is on. I want a light to blink on each boy’s forehead and remind me. Instead, Atticus points out my error: “No, Dad, you already gave me a two.” I want more wizardry out of the system. A dream plays through my head where we sit at the table and chat each other up about how we helped strangers change flat tires or shared our Fuji apples at snack time. In that same pixie-dust imagine-land, everyone speaks with an inside tone and finishes every crumb off his plate. We say, “please” and “thank you,” without being reminded. Instead, I find myself defending the quinoa and the homemade mashed potatoes. “That is really awesome,” I say. “That is what every Chima guy eats.” I tell them Santa and Jesus are watching. I bribe and plead and make deals.
I can still remember that Shake ‘n Bake commercial with Alice from The Brady Bunch. To me, it meant a lot, getting her endorsement. “You just shake, then bake.” There’s never been a truer tag line. I loved watching the chicken parts do somersaults in that space-age plastic. If it showed up on the table tonight, I’d eat it – no counting and no deals required – and the boys would do the same.