I am a horrible cook.
It has only taken me 34 years to figure that out. Over three decades and the straw that broke the camel’s back was dished up by my ungrateful children.
Last night, I made meatloaf, mashed potatoes and corn. The meatloaf is my mama’s recipe which I tweaked with a little Paula Deen diced tomato action.
As always, I serve the family first, then dish myself up a colder, congealing version for myself.
As I am making my plate, I hear my daughter say (before taking a bite) “I don’t like this!”
My husband says, “Me neither.”
I walk over and give Huck a bite and ask if he likes it. He shakes his head no.
Meatloaf is easy, but it takes a long time to cook so it’s already after 7pm and my family is boycotting my food.
I speed down Hillsborough Avenue, tears streaming down my cheeks to buy a Hot ‘N Ready cheese pizza.
I return to cheers of, “Mommy’s back with pizza!!”
I guzzle red wine, hold back tears and choke down my food with resentment.
It was not bad meatloaf.
It had peppers and onions.
That was my great failure, the unholy insult to their digestive tracts.
I have made spaghetti with real homemade meat sauce, chicken quesadillas, pineapple teriyaki chicken, sweet and sour meatballs, fried rice with honey teriyaki chicken, pesto pasta and just about anything else I can think of that children and a carnivore husband will consume and they think it’s ALL CRAP.
The real burn?
I actually think the shit tastes good. Maybe my tastebuds are busted.
It’s not just that the kids are picky or my husband has a profound aversion to vegetables.
They adore HIS cooking. Ropa Vieja, black beans and rice, Picadillo, Bistec Empanizado, beef stew… I could keep going. It’s all Cuban and it’s all amazing to the kids.
I happen to have already OD’d on Cuban food and prefer the more bland white folk meals, preferably meatless.
I think casseroles are cool.
I think I’m DONE cooking.
Boston Market, baby! Fish sticks and Mac n’ cheese. Hot ‘N Ready and breakfast for dinner. (cereal, because it doesn’t require a frying pan)
So, you’re probably wondering why this is a topic that would make me cry like a little bitch and shrink down into invisibility, diving into a pit of black, sticky despair.
I have come to the realization that I am old.
I am not a skinny, hot young thang anymore. I am all grays, crows feet and stretched out waist bands.
I am Renee Zellweger’s after picture without the plastic surgery.
I am not a driven, dedicated Journalist.
I am the guy wearing jeans and plaid, guzzling caffeine and just trying to get there on time.
I am not a quirky, acerbic, offbeat, indie chick with great hair.
I am a MOM.
That is my great accomplishment.
Just cause you squeeze them out like a champ (I really was quite fantastic at pregnancy and childbirth) doesn’t mean that you are an ace at being a parent. That’s now apparent.
I can control my temper, I kick ass at storytime, I am the ultimate caregiver when it comes to boo boos, vomit and general malaise.
But, I grew up thinking that if you can’t cook, you don’t belong in the kitchen and if you don’t belong in the kitchen, you might want to consider choosing a career-driven life over procreation.
So, here I am. Welcome to my mid-life crisis. I am 34 and suck at everything.
Well, at least everything anyone would ever notice.
I’m a voracious reader, a real bibliophile. So, there’s that.
Good to know I truly excel at something that won’t ever put a dime in the bank or benefit anyone other than myself.
I’m starting a support group: Mom’s Who Can’t Cook, or Do Just About Anything Else Well.
(p.s. I threw away all of the leftover meatloaf, tupperware and all. It was all I could do to keep from burning it in the backyard.)
All Corsa vacations are preceded by a moderate disaster.
One time we had to rush our French Bulldog to the emergency vet for a costly, time-consuming overnight visit that resulted in a diagnosis of “bad gas.”
Another night before leaving on a trip, my husband’s car stopped working.
Stomach bugs, pink eye, even a massive “bomb” dropping onto the hood of my car from the monkey puzzle tree in front of our old bungalow. It never fails.
This time, I take the dogs to get their vaccines so they will be up to date for a week at “camp” and the vet notices my Boston Terrier has a hematoma on his ear that will need to be drained.
Tack on 300 more bucks to what was already a hefty bill and my last day before vacation will be spent rushing him to and from the vet. (not to mention he will be wearing the cone of shame while being humped by strange dogs. Double shame.)
That night I also get ridiculously sick. So sick I call in to work at 3am. Yet, my boss text messages me at 6 in the morning and basically begs me to come in anyway.
I am miserable.
I haven’t washed my hair.
I can’t speak.
I end up leaving early to go to an after-hours clinic for a Z-pack.
While in recovery, I somehow develop a massive swollen gum in the space where my 4th wisdom tooth would’ve been… if I had one there. (but, I don’t) Now, I am kicking off my vacation with wicked jaw pain.
We’re on Cuban time, so my husband and I race around packing and dressing the kids (no small feat) (they have small feet) but then have to sit around wasting time for hours until the rest of the clan is ready to go.
Even then, we must depart in a group.
We’re going in separate cars, but it’s the soldier’s creed. No man left behind.
Anna Maria Island is beautiful and quaint, the vacation house ideal.
There’s a lagoon-like pool with a sometimes operable waterfall and a minimal amount of beach sand collected on the bottom.
We are two blocks from the beach.
This should be a great vacation, except for my aching jaw, endless stream of snot and the sensation I have plummeted instantaneously into the 1950’s.
I end up trapped in a bedroom with two insane children hopped up on VACATION, jumping around the bed we’re all expected to share while my husband is downstairs watching the World Cup.
Maybe it was the fear that this was going to become the anticipated routine.
Maybe it was the burgeoning revelation that the entire trip was secretly orchestrated to coincide with the World Cup in order to torture me.
Maybe it was all I could do to keep myself from racing through the home with a burning bra, but I stormed downstairs and demanded the keys to the car to go for a drive.
The next morning after being pummeled all night long by bony elbows and knees, awoken by the sound of my son grinding his teeth in his sleep and the pain in my whole face… I’m still ready to tackle my pre-women’s suffrage duties and help cook breakfast for the house of 12. (My family, my in-laws, my sister-in-law and her boyfriend, her two kids, his two kids and one teenage friend of her son)
I remember that they cook their scrambled eggs with oil while I opt for butter or butter spray so they’ll probably find mine bland and inedible. I decide to go for the bacon and start to get the pan when my mother-in-law says, “You need to put it in the microwave first.”
I mentally throw my hands up and avoid cooking bacon for the rest of the trip.
The next day at the beach, Mother Nature valiantly came to my rescue.
I am obsessed with sharks. Terrified of them, adore them, secretly hope and dread for encounters with them.
The very first time I am watching my mother-in-law wade in the water with my daughter on her hip, I spot something unusual a couple of yards behind them. It looked like something pointy and dark sticking up out of the water.
Then there were two.
They were moving.
I walked toward abuela Corsa and made a hand motion for her to come toward me.
I could see clearly now there were at least two, possibly three sharks in the water.
I didn’t want to be “that guy” that shouts “SHARK!” and terrifies everyone at the beach. But, then again my mother-in-law is embracing my precious cargo and this scenario is like an unimaginable nightmare.
I remain calm even as my mother-in-law continues to demand to know why I am telling her to come to shore.
Other people see them too, so I have confirmation. These were not dolphins. I know what dolphins are. In fact, we saw some of those later in the day. Completely different swimming behavior.
The same day, we also watched a manatee lumbering along in the shallows.
Late afternoon, the summer storms roll in and I am watching them from our balcony. Billowing, fast-moving, dark clouds. Swirling, hinting at circulation. Palm trees whipping around like witches on broomsticks.
God bless you Mother Nature, you have shaken me from my stress-induced stupor.
The days that followed were filled with moments of joy, stress, hilarity and a healthy dose of awkward.
Perfect example of the latter: One of the said extraneous children along for the trip is about 9 years old.
He’s soft-spoken to the point of being irritating and even more bizarre than I was as a child.
He’s also a bit sneaky.
He and his sister appear to have some kind of arrangement that allows them to cheat and win at card games, hide each others’ crimes and possibly bury bodies in the backyard unnoticed.
At one point, my mother-in-law shouted that she saved me a piece of cheesecake.
Within a matter of seconds, I watched the boy grab the last piece and stick it inside an orange Dixie Cup so nobody would know he did it.
The night before I watched him go for some cheesecake in the freezer and when he saw me watching him, he rushed to open the freezer and put it back but his chicken-like arms were too weak to open the door.
He squeaked out a strange animalistic cry of frustration, like someone squeezed a rabbit REALLY hard.
To add insult to injury, a short while after he purloined MY piece of cheesecake, he shit it back out in the bathroom ATTACHED to our bedroom.
He is a Junior, so they call him “Tito.”
He shall henceforth be known as Cheesecake Tito to me.
Here’s another good one: In the afternoon, my husband was on the beach mercilessly teasing my sister-in-law and mother-in-law because they have decided they believe mermaids exist. Their scientific proof was viewed on a television show.
That night we’re playing Apples to Apples with the whole family with the exception of my sister-in-law’s boyfriend. He’s apparently holding some kind of grudge because he lost a game years ago to me over the definition of “The Big Bang Theory.”
So, while we’re playing we hear the sound of harmonious singing pouring from the open door to his room. It was like the bewitching melodies belted out by sirens, the ones who lure sailors to their deaths. The mermaids!
So, my husband says “He’s in there, unfurling his mermaid tail.”
I don’t know why, but this made me laugh so hard I almost peed my pants.
I am a chortler. Maybe the occasional guffaw slips out. I NEVER laugh that hard.
I was crying, I was speaking in tongues, I was HAVING FUN.
Then there was the moment we were waiting for the trolley near a church and the truly Cuban members of the family decided to pose for a picture.
We ended up in Downtown Anna Maria Island, which for the record, does not exist. We were meandering down neighborhood streets looking like lost Okies drenched in sweat.
But, there were magical moments.
I watched my daughter discover the joy of being slammed by waves, overcoming her perpetual fear of the ocean.
I saw my son kick around a soccer ball with the big boys until sweat was dripping off his little melon head.
I saw sharks, I laughed until I cried and I drank more beer than seems humanly possible.
Yes, I was impaled nightly by little kid limbs. I spent much time trapped in bed watching PBS kid shows on the lousy cable while everyone else screamed about the World Cup downstairs.
I got a sun rash and gained five pounds. (my weird tooth issue resolved itself after days of gargling salt water)
But, it’s still the best vacation we’ve had with the kids since they were born. Good enough that my poor son is still grieving.
I am too.
Little known facts I’ve learned from my Cuban familia.
1. Titties are an acceptable topic of conversation. The use of the words “titties” or “tetas” is also acceptable.
2. If you are embarrassed for people to see you in your pajamas, breastfeeding or if you refuse to eat food they provide, you lose your Honorary Cuban card.
3. Traveling in herds is preferable.
4. Baby genitalia are cute and/or funny.
5. All meals must include rice.
6. All meals must be followed by Espresso.
7. If you do not own and/or use a pressure cooker you are NOT Cuban.
8. A trip to the beach requires a moving van. (and a POD)
9. Holiday dinners are preceded by a heartfelt speech during which other family members can mock you or take pot shots.
10. If you can’t stand up for yourself, stand somewhere else. You do not belong.
11. Cuban time does exist. You must turn your clock back a full hour when planning.
12. It ain’t a real party without a pinata.
13. Yellow rice is actually orange and best cooked with PBR.
14. Forget everything you knew about Thanksgiving turkey. You’ve been doing it ALL WRONG.
15. Don’t ever insult a Cuban woman’s cooking, even if it’s Bacalao and smells like rotting, farting flesh.
I just started on the HCG diet again.
I like to disaffectedly refer to it as the Help Control the Gut diet.
I won’t bother describing it. It works, removing fat from all of the right places during an insanely short amount of time.
It sounds awesome, if you don’t mind being perpetually exhausted and on the verge of passing out.
There are a plethora of subversive ways my life plots to derail the diet.
I go to my mother-in-law’s house and the evening begins with beer, nachos and queso. My father-in-law doesn’t even ask, just hands me a beer. I mean, when do I EVER say no to a beer?
My daughter asks me to blow on her nacho cheese which means I will inevitably have to touch it with my tongue or lips to be sure it’s not too hot. Biggest tease ever.
Thankfully no one notices I am steadily chugging water. I had no idea you could grow to HATE water.
The endless course meal moves on to toasted bread with olive spread. My mother-in-law asks me if I like sun dried tomatoes. I say yes, but I won’t be having any because because I am back on the dreaded diet. (She is aware of how said wretched diet works)
She says, “NO, no, no. I cooked all of this food. You are going to eat. No, no. You have to eat.”
I never know how to respond to statements like that. “Uh, no?” Awkward, awkward, awkward.
Then I get to watch as everyone eats rice and chicken along with assorted goodies, the kids sneaking Hershey’s Kisses and cookies.
Yesterday, I meet my husband and the kids at our favorite waterfront dive for lunch and he immediately slides a beer over and says, “This is yours.”
So sweet, yet so evil.
I had to push it back and instead choke down a drink with Club Soda that tastes like lighter fluid and is actually a “cheat” on the diet.
My daughter is great at sharing. I am so proud and so sick of her trying to force-feed me gold fish, fish sticks and mac n’ cheese.
Now, the world begins to conspire against me. We turn the clocks ahead an hour. My son is up late coughing and crying because he’s sick. My daughter wakes up from a nightmare at midnight demanding milk.
I drive to work, eyes half closed drinking black coffee. (which is allowed, but no other food until noon)
This means I am still falling asleep at work AND the coffee is shredding my stomach.
At lunchtime I have to walk past the vending machines to get to my pathetic portion of meat and veggies in the fridge. I NEVER notice the vending machines until I am on this diet. Now, I would stab a bitch for a corn chip.
Newsrooms are notorious for cakes, cookies, cupcakes, chocolate and everything bad. People just plunk it down on a desk for anyone to take, free of charge. Today, no naughty free crap trying to lure me away from the diet. But, someone has already offered me a Watchamacallit.
So, I sit here lips burning and fingers sticky from peeling an orange. I hate peeling oranges more than most people hate cleaning the toilet.
I have already started dreaming about carbs. I literally dreamed I was eating Tofu Woon Sen. It’s just vegetables, tofu and clear noodles… a meal most would consider “healthy.”
For me, it’s one more pair of pants I have to abandon forever to the widening abyss of items to donate to Goodwill that is my closet. It’s a living, breathing, gaping chasm, hungry for more.
But, not as hungry as I am right now.
I’ve never done crack or heroin, but carbs can’t be that far behind. I would eat uncooked grains of rice or raw pasta. I would snort bread crumbs.
Keep me away from all sharp objects.
To say marrying into a Cuban family was a culture shock would be an understatement.
I’m not making a blanket statement about all Cubans, just sharing what I’ve learned about MY Cubans.
Prepare yourself to be offended. Most topics that white people would consider gauche are not only acceptable topics for My Cubans, they are the preferred ones.
I was encouraged to breast feed in front of the family. “It’s natural,” they said. Maybe in Africa, the remote parts where they don’t have DOORS.
The other day during lunch at Chili’s, the first hot topic was foreskin. My poor teenage nephew looked like he was going to shrivel up and die in the pan of queso.
The second hot topic came about because I was being harassed again for refusing to eat Bacalao. (See previous post.) This led to an anecdotal reference to a Cuban song about a guy who smells something delicious cooking in the kitchen, which turns out to be women boiling their underwear.
My mother-in-law randomly told us the other day exactly how many times she had diarrhea. When you look at her in shock, she says, “What??”
Oversharing is considered casual conversation, which means I probably seem like a stick in the mud. In reality, us white folk are probably too hung up on what other people think about us. My Cubans are right. This is the real and quite literal crap that happens to all of us.
Now, let’s talk about kissing. I remember when I met my mother’s British friend in Miami at an outdoor market, and he leaned in to give me the customary South Florida kiss on the cheek. I stretched backwards like Keanu in the Matrix.
I have a very definite body buffer zone. Burst it and you shall die. What I didn’t know when I met my husband was that it’s actually a required kiss on the cheek every single time you meet and again when you say goodbye. Cuban families are not generally small and they tend to move in clusters. It’s a lot of kissing.
Which brings me to goodbyes. The world’s longest, most drawn-out goodbyes. Over the phone, in person … doesn’t matter. Goodbye will lead to discussion about the next time you’ll see them, what currently ails them, what the week will hold and how’s the weather.
I’ve learned that when my Cuban family yells, they’re just “passionate.”
When my children are behaving like brats, they just have “strong personalities.”
My Cubans will never let something go, like forcing a daughter-in-law to eat stinky fish.
But, they don’t hold grudges. Family is family forever, no matter how often they screw you over. They have what most consider an “indomitable spirit.” (Which has to come from living in a country where survival is dependent on being resourceful and resilient)
My mother-in-law told me about how the government only issues you one bucket in order to wash your newborn baby. One bucket per family. When they fled Cuba, they gave their bucket to a neighbor and the government took it back within days.
One thing you will never be in a Cuban family is bored. (Unless you’re my 15-year-old nephew, who thinks that almost everything is boring.) Or hungry. You’ll definitely never be hungry.
Like the school lunch room is prime real estate for bullying, the dinner table is the premiere choice for children misbehaving. In our house, very little of dinner time is actually spent consuming food.
There was the moment my daughter thought it would be funny to “hide her hands” underneath the placemat and dumped an entire cup of milk across the table. Or my son was banging a spoon drenched in Chef Boyardee sauce under the table repeatedly, spewing pseudo blood stains across the room. (Yeah, I feed him Chef Boyardee. I’ve considered graduating to Hamburger Helper, but it seems so… complicated)
Somehow my kids spend most of their time simply not eating. They poke food, chew a single bite for ten minutes and before you know it they say, “I’m done.”
I have no shame. I bribe them with promises of chocolate and Jell-O and that’s just to get them to eat a single piece of meatloaf or a single green bean. (My daughter thinks it qualifies if she removes a single bean from the pod and eats it.)
But, the real insult comes the moment I set their plates on the table and say, “dinner is ready.” I feel so proud that I created a meal that has a protein, a starch and a vegetable and still tastes good and the second my daughter walks up to the table she makes a stank face and says, “I don’t like that.” Even worse, she takes a bite and then says, “I don’t like that.”
Then my husband takes a bite and he doesn’t have to say anything. I can tell by the look on his face that he considers it barely edible.
My children prefer their daddy’s Cuban food. Picadillo, ropa vieja, beans and rice, breaded steak and homemade chicken nuggets. When it’s my turn it’s inevitably a failed experiment. It’s soul-crushing.
The dogs are the only ones in the house that enjoy dinnertime. The second one of the children tastes something and decides they don’t like it, they toss it to a dog. I’ve seen my dog scarf down things that couldn’t possibly fit down his gullet. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Boston Terrier eat an English Muffin in one retching swallow.
Bacalao is the bane of my existence. When you think about in-laws, it probably conjures up thousands of other points of contention. But, you’re probably not married into a Cuban family. That makes it sound like they’re the mafia. Close enough.
So, if you don’t know what bacalao is, it’s basically codfish. The best way to describe it is going to be offensive. There’s no way around it. If you have small dogs, you’ll understand. If you don’t have their anal glands expressed, the result is what my husband refers to as “fish ass.” That’s what bacalao smells like. When I walk into my mother-in-law’s home on a Friday and that’s what she’s cooking, it’s like getting smacked in the face with a wall of fish ass.
I have politely turned down bacalao numerous times. I love tilapia, salmon and any kind of shellfish, but keep your anal gland, fish-ass bacalao away from me.
If you don’t know Cuban mothers, they don’t take no for an answer, especially when it comes to food.
The last time I turned down bacalao, I heard my mother-in-law “oooh” and “ahhh” over bacalao like it was some kind of aphrodisiac for an hour. She shouts (because when you’re Cuban, it’s all shouting) “Try it! You’ll love it! You don’t know if you don’t try it!”
When the other family members catch wind, it’s the same argument all over again from them. From my kid’s tia, abuelo … even my nephew chimed in recently.
My sister-in-law’s boyfriend made bacalao fritters. All I could think was, ‘Don’t try to hide fish ass inside breading like it’s some kind of crab cake. Don’t insult crab cakes like that!’
I feel compelled to say that my mother-in-law is a phenomenal cook. I’m not just saying this because she might see it, which she will. Her yellow rice, which is actually orange and made with Pabst Blue Ribbon, is one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It’s not far behind the lobster ravioli I had at some fancy schmancy restaurant in New Orleans. Her black beans and rice is only rivaled my husband’s. (He adds more vinegar, which is “white people” for AWESOME)
My kids prefer her to food to mine on any given night. In fact, if it weren’t for my mother-in-law, I am sure my children would literally never consume protein. But, seriously … I have never been so pressured to eat something I have no intention of eating.
I told them, “I’m like a vegetarian, except the only thing I won’t eat is bacalao.”
I just know I’m gonna get hosed. She’s gonna sneak that crap fish into some kind of lasagna, casserole or some other irresistible white people food, damn her! I will spend the rest of my life trying to sniff out fish ass in every single thing I eat at my mother-in-law’s.
If only there was some way to pay her back with some awful white people food.
But, really, what can you do with bologna and mayo that is so awesomely offensive?