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You’ve probably gathered that I’m not a traditional religious sort of person. I’m spiritual –  I might fall into the pagan category, but certainly not in the purest sense of the word. So when I decided to observe Lent, my friends and loved ones said, “Huh? Why would you do something like that? You’re not Catholic.”

As it turns out, Lent is not the exclusive property of Catholicism. Also known as Quadragesima, it  is observed by Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. As you may notice, pagans are not included in this list, but I did go to the Presbyterian church when one of my grandmothers took me to whatever church they could.

Regardless, I decided to observe Lent as a test of my self-discipline, which I have struggled with for some time. I’m not being all crazy about it, but I am giving up something that tempts me – and that something is sweet stuff.

Yes, dessert (and snacky sweets) has gone off into the desert of my past for the 40 days of penitence. I have no real devout aspirations – I just want to see if I can do it. It’s been almost a week tomorrow and I have been tempted sorely by fruit tarts, brownies, home-baked cookies, numerous pies, and luscious chocolate bars.  And I am pleased to say that, while tempted, I have resisted.

The whole thing is good for my diet, good for my teeth, good for my temperament, and good for my spirit. In fact, I’m finding it somewhat of a relief to have this self-imposed moratorium on these things. I know I have a tendency to indulge, and to eat emotionally, and sweets are one of those things that I turn to in times of stress, boredom, and depression. With this personal pledge, I don’t have to worry about it. And it’s helping me be more proactive with healthier eating in general –  for example, today was Meatless Monday.

I think the main thing for me, aside from the health benefits, is proving to myself that I can stick with something I’m not keen on doing for 40 days. I believe this entire experience will go a long way towards furthering my faith in myself, and my ability to meet challenges, even when they’re not fun or easy (if it’s fun and easy, is it really a challenge?) So I guess in many ways, the whole thing is about having faith.

That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?

One of the humorous, questionable advantages of having an older brother is that he always remembers your “classic” moments.  E-Bro loves to recount the tale of how, one summer morning when I was in my early teens, I asked him how to boil water.  I don’t think he’s stopped laughing yet.

But it’s true.  Although I admit that I learned a lot about how to make bacon and eggs that summer, a dish which became my signature breakfast through senior year of high school, I couldn’t cook anything else.  The kitchen was my Mother’s for dinner and my Father’s for baking.  Mother wasn’t a gourmet cook.  Her cooking was basic, normal, pretty good.  Nothing she was particularly proud of – it was a have-to-do, not a want-to-do.  The repertoire included such things as Spam, pot roast, chicken and dumplings, creamed chipped beef on toast, county-style steak, the ubiquitous canned/frozen veggie, and a hunk of iceberg lettuce with carrots, olives, etc. for salad.  When she wanted to drive me out of the house, she would make sauerkraut and sausages, naturally one of E-Bro’s favorites.

The irony of my first job being that of cook in a restaurant was not lost on me.  I worked the grill/deli side of the restaurant, occasionally venturing into the salad station downstairs in the fancy French part when the need was dire.  But as a grill cook, I learned to make a few things well: grilled cheese, pastrami sandwiches, cole slaw, chicken salad – nothing complicated, but enough to survive on.  And I sliced my hand to the bone on my 18th birthday, while demonstrating (most impressively as it turned out) what NOT to do when the meat slicer was running.

Moving onto college, my first important college boyfriend still stands by his accusation that my chicken-in-wine (one of my Mother’s special recipes) gave him food poisoning.  That was the first time I ever tried cooking for a boyfriend.  Come to think of it, I didn’t risk it again for probably six years.  Really.

I still stayed in the restaurant world for work.  After two and a half years in a pizzeria, I can make a mean pie. And I toss a mean dough.  Always a useful skill.  (I also severely burned my arm on the inside top of the pizza oven during one lunch rush.)  I basically survived on pizza, as I had convinced myself that I couldn’t cook.  At my apartment, I managed to boil artichokes, and eat peanuts out of the shell in bed.  That was pretty much how it was when I met Pat. 

Once we moved in together, he tried to help me understand that I COULD cook, I just WASN’T cooking.  He actually taught me a lot about things like not measuring and not following a recipe exactly.  I guess he taught me to relax in the kitchen, and in our pre-kid years, we enjoyed cooking together.  While I did have some notable failures, such as forgetting the baking soda in the banana bread, I reached a point where I felt confident in the kitchen.  (Though never with baking.)

But after Kelsea was born, and I was working so much, the kitchen became Pat’s domain.  In one of those many bizarre power plays that contributed to the downfall of our marriage, I let him convince me that I was an incompetent cook.  Any confidence that I had gained in the kitchen vanished, along with any joy in cooking.  It was just more work to me, and I didn’t like it.  I still experimented sometimes when things were still okay in our marriage, but the worse our marriage got, the less I wanted to be in the kitchen.  Maybe I’ll take that to the Red Couch for analysis sometime.

Then, I moved out.  And in my own little kitchen, with the basic implements that I remember my Mother having, I am pretty clueless.  I still love my cooking magazines and cookbooks – I like the idea of cooking.  I have limited counter space.  I still lack confidence, even though I now have time.  Being on the Atkins Diet (still working well, by the way), limits my culinary options fairly significantly – perhaps simplifies them would be a better term.  But I do try. 

Honestly, it’s a joke with Kelsea and me.  We reached a peak of lowness last weekend, when I attempted to broil pork chops while boiling water for crab legs.  Sounds like two simple and distinct actions, doesn’t it?  Well, the cottage is equipped with high ceilings and a smoke detector as sensitive as a bipolar woman with severe PMS.  Between some kind of grease build up on the broiler unit (from roasting chicken – and don’t tell me to clean the oven, because the last time I did that, I got a chemical burn on a very delicate body part, and so am gun-shy about repeating the process without body armour) and the steam from the crab legs, the smoke detector went off.  Permanently.  We opened the window in the kitchen, with Kelsea fanning the smoke away from the smoke detector with a full-size flag of Ireland.  We also opened the kitchen door, accidentally loosening the Mexican porcelain sculpture suspended from the kitchen ceiling, which fell with a splendid shattering crash to the tile entryway, spewing little pieces into the lawn.  Kelsea’s arms gave out, just as smoke started belching from the burners on the stove, so I turned everything off, and waved my sweater in front of the smoke detector until it stopped.  The pork chops and crab legs were overdone and Kelsea and I were done in.

I’m not ready to figuratively throw in the towel, but clearly my current strategy is not working.  Wait, I don’t even know what my current strategy is.  But tonight, as the chicken is roasting away, I have defeated one nemesis.  I took the battery out of the smoke detector.  Talk about living dangerously.

One of my favorite spontaneous questions to ask is, “You can pick anything, from anywhere in the world – what would your last meal be?”  It takes people aback and it makes them think about the best taste or the best emotion that they have attached to food.  I’ve found that people truly are divided into two camps – the ones who focus on tastes that struck them as orgasmic, and the ones who focus on sentimental foods that their mother made.  Perhaps that’s partly dependent on how good a cook one’s mother was.

(bottom image courtesy of www.jgfreedman.com)

Now, for me, if I were on death row and they had to get me whatever I wanted, they’d need some notice, as they’d have to fly some dishes in.  And I tell you, I’d be an absolute glutton.

My last meal would consist of (as a start):

Fresh Mango

Seared Ahi Tuna appetizer from the Blue Crab Lounge in Chicago

Soft Shell Crab Sandwich from the Crab Pot in Surf City, NC

Seafood Pasta from Foxy’s on Jost van Dyke

Fried Clam Strips from the Breezeway, Topsail Beach, NC

Guacamole and Chips from Zamas in Tulum

My very own Better Than Sex Soup  (they’d have to give me access to a kitchen)

My Mother’s Country Style Steak (though she’d have to be resurrected to make it, since neither I nor E-Bro have quite gotten it to turn out like hers)

Biscuits and Gravy from Dot’s Diner in Boulder

Shrimp and Grits from the Pink House in Savannah

Kentucky Fried Chicken (original recipe)

(Extra) Pepperoni Pizza from Pizza Colore in Boulder

Key Lime Pie from Rhymer’s in Cane Garden Bay, Tortola

Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes from a now-defunct Chicago restaurant whose name escapes me

A Butternut candy bar

Coconut water straight from the coconut

Veuve Clicquot (Orange Label) Champagne

Special Label Mojitos (it’s okay if I get drunk for my last meal, you know)

Apparently, it’s also okay if I go to the chair weighing 300 pounds.  They’ll just need to be sure that Old Sparky is extra-sturdy.

I’m sorry not to have a curry on the list, but I haven’t yet found one worthy.

A few notable last meals received (which, in reality, are not always what was requested):

Dobie Gillis Williams (Louisiana): Twelve candy bars and some ice cream.

James Edward Smith (Texas): requested a lump of dirt (request denied).

Odell Barnes (Texas): Justice, Equality, World Peace (request denied).

Philip Workman (Tennessee): He asked that a large vegetarian pizza be delivered to a homeless person in Nashville, but the prison denied his request.  However, many in the Nashville area fulfilled it.

Ricky Ray Rector (Arkansas): Steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid, and a pecan pie — which he did not eat, because he said he was saving it for later.

Victor Feguer (Iowa): requested a single olive with the pit still in.

If you’re interested in the actual last meals of death row inmates, you can find them here: http://deadmaneating.blogspot.com/.  Morbid, but fascinating.

And for lighter fare, check out My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals by Melanie Dunea and Last Suppers: If The World Ended Tomorrow, What Would Be Your Last Meal? by James Dickerson, both available at www.amazon.com.

But in reality, very few of us get to cherry-pick our last meals.

My paternal grandmother died at age 90.  The last few months of her life, she ate almost nothing.  Except she still loved chocolate.  My parents tried to get her to eat something healthy, but at some point they asked themselves “Why?” and gave up the fight.  She was 90 years old, for heaven’s sake, let her eat what she wants.  And so she did.

I cared for my Mother in her last 10 days or so, and could get her to eat very little, as much as I tried to tempt her.  But during her last few days, it was so difficult for her to swallow, she wanted nothing but Dibs – those little chocolate-covered ice cream nuggets that she could melt in her mouth, and then, finally, on the last two days, nothing but orange sherbet.  She loved it.  When she couldn’t really find the right words, she would just waggle her tongue at me to feed her a spoonful, and then sigh with pleasure.  It’s a nice memory.

I hope my last meal doesn’t come too soon.  There’s a lot of world to eat out there.  But next time you feel the dinner party/first date conversation flagging, try the question – it’ll make everybody think.

June 2021
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