In my family we call it “pulling a Haubner:” enjoying one meal while discussing what/when/where we’re going to eat next.
We often started planning the day’s eating adventures at breakfast, our thinking processes juiced up by Bloody Marys. My sister and I loved breakfast out. I would feel guilty having a vodka drink at home at eleven in the morning, but call it brunch and bring on the booze.
The waitress would put our plates down and forks would fly as mom, sis, and I immediately began digging in to each other’s omelet, breakfast burrito, and ricotta pancakes and congratulating ourselves on our astute ordering: we had nailed another trifecta.
Our ideal restaurant seating would have been a big Lazy Susan that we’d keep spinning: food roulette. We always shared. There was no worse sin in our family than two people at the table ordering the same meal. If I see a couple in a restaurant with identical plates in front of them I get gooseflesh: it feels like someone is walking over my mom’s grave.
But this was before mom had her dirt sandwich. She reclaimed her pancakes and asked, “Should I defrost a chicken for dinner?”
My sister and I shot each other looks, mouths too full of cheese and egg to talk. Mom’s freezer was an infamous icy graveyard. Once searching for ice cream that wasn’t completely crystalized, I unearthed a brown paper and string packet encased in frost: it was ancient venison, shot by her second husband who had been dead for a decade. On a visit home from college, my mom poisoned me with frozen crab dip; when I checked the expiration date it was written in cuneiform.
We passed jam and hot sauce and got coffee refills while mom switched to debating the merits of her favorite barbeque restaurant vs. “That place I took you last time for chili rellenos, and there’s the good bakery across the street with the tres leches cake.”
A chili relleno is basically fried cheese loosely tethered to a green pepper and tres leches is cake drowned in whipped cream and sweetened condensed milk. I had been trying to keep my annual trip home down to 2,500 calories a day. I said, “What about that new deli you wanted to try? We could split sandwiches.”
“You guys are pulling a Haubner,” said my sister, and then unable to resist, offered her own suggestion: dining on chicken wings and nachos at the bar of her favorite dive.
Food, for tight-ass Norwegians like us, had become how we expressed love: try that, taste this, look what I made for you. (I tried not to take it personally that my mother could never remember I hated her famous sticky-sweet, tooth-cracking English toffee. On every return home she greeted me with a fresh batch.)
It’s a mystery when or how my family developed our food fixation. Growing up I was that enfant terrible, the picky eater. Eating was a chore I had to do three times a day, like washing the dishes. The smell of eggs, cheese, and fish, particularly the classic school lunch tuna noodle casserole, felt like a WWI gas attack, rendering me hot, clammy, and pukey. I barely made it through Fridays in grade school.
That still left plenty of stolid Midwest food I grudgingly consented to eat, a rotation of steaks, chops, and chicken, all with minimal seasoning. Minnesota hot dish was also acceptable, as long as it didn’t have any weird ingredients, like herbs or spices.
I didn’t see a garlic bulb till I was 20. In 1960s Duluth, garlic came in a salt. Mom bought some, stashed it next to the mysterious Accent, and when she remembered, sprinkled it on spaghetti before serving. The only fresh herb I knew was parsley, something you put on a plate and then threw away.
Family dinners were a vegetable, meat or chicken, rice or potatoes, and mostly devoid of conversation once we had exhausted what happened in school that day. I ate as little and as fast as possible so I could go stimulate my mind with The Beverly Hillbillies or The Munsters, the original Must See TV.
Maybe I am older than Clarence Birdseye, but the vegetables of yesteryear were fresh and seasonal. I violently rejected most of them anyway, causing such awful dinner time scenes that you would think I’d break out in PTSD at the sight of a Brussels sprout.
In the spring we’d eat fresh green peas (my Grandma Haubner, the family gourmet, fancied her peas up with canned pearl onions; Grandma Spellman, the earth mother, grew her own). In the summer we gnawed on cobs of sweet corn so bathed in Land O’Lakes butter that even the little plastic holders stabbed into the sides were slippery. In the fall enormous squashes, the colors of the turning leaves, were baked with brown sugar and cinnamon. I still wouldn’t eat them.
In the winter, vegetables came in cans, with most of the texture and taste removed. I did have an odd fondness for Del Monte canned zucchini, stewed in a thin bland tomato sauce to a consistency one step above baby food.
Going to a restaurant for dinner was an adult activity. Once a week, my parents got spiffed up — mom in Cherries in the Snow lipstick and a towering beehive fresh from the salon, dad in a dark suit, narrow tie, and a splash of Old Spice. We were left with a baby-sitter, Swanson TV dinners, and Saturday Night at the Movies while our parents headed out to meet friends and have highballs and eat a meal that was not disrupted by a child throwing up broccoli.
For us kids, eating out meant eating in my mom’s car. When my dad skipped family dinner in favor of a Brotherhood of Elks piss-up, my mom hung up her apron and oven mitts and drove us girls to The London Inn for french fries and hamburgers. I always ordered mine CATCHUP ONLY; but sometimes the rocket scientists manning the grill slipped up. I had learned to remove the top bun and carefully examine my burger before taking a bite. An errant pickle was peeled off and tossed out the window; but if I discovered even a dab of mustard the whole shebang was rejected outright, forcing my disgusted mom not only to eat two hamburgers (child of the depression, she never, ever wasted food) but also to shell out another 39 cents.
O happy day when my mom pulled her big green Chrysler up in front of Bridgeman’s and gave us each a dime for ice cream cones. The concept, known in Italy since the Renaissance that you could indulge in two flavors of ice cream, was utterly foreign to the Upper Midwest’s Lutheran sensibilities. It took me longer to pick a flavor than it did to eat the ice cream cone. Perennial contenders were rocky road, because you got chocolate, marshmallow, AND nuts; butter pecan, salty and sweet; only-in-August peach ice cream, frozen summer on my tongue; and mint chocolate chip (which I still adore, although my older son says I might as well go in the bathroom and eat toothpaste).
Pizza, which kept my own children from starving, was unknown to my family, even though Duluth is the proud home of Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, famous for always being served at a temperature rivaling the melting point of steel.
Then Shakey’s Pizza Parlor opened up in the Arrowhead Mall.
Shakey’s Pizza was a mutt of a place and I loved it: supposedly Italian food that you could get Hawaiian-style, with sticky pineapple rings and cubes of pink canned ham (yes, those were the Dark Ages), eaten in an unconvincing replica of an Old West saloon, complete with swinging half doors and a player piano tinkling out “Bicycle Built for Two.” Shakey’s biggest appeal was that Orange Crush and root beer and Coca-Cola came in giant glass pitchers: pop was verboten in my dental-conscious home. My sister and I often came to blows over the last inch of Dad’s left in the pitcher.
All my most memorable childhood meals involved something awful happening. There was the dinner in Tijuana (dental convention) where after half an hour of crooning along to “Cielito Lindo” and “La Paloma” my dad stiffed the mariachi players who then strong-armed him as we left the restaurant, relieving him of all his pesos. The Chinese meal in San Francisco (dental convention) that ended in shouting and tears over us kids being denied a two-buck bag of fortune cookies. (“You’re not even going to eat the cookies!”) And who can forget the Christmas dinner where, like dominoes, one grandkid after another spilled their milk. Grandpa Haubner, already at half-mast, pulled himself upright and yelled, “The next damn kid who spills their damn milk…” accentuating each word with a fist bang on the table until his own glass, filled to the rim with ice cubes and Wild Turkey, tipped over, sending grandpa over the edge and all us kids under the table to hide.
It wasn’t till I went away to school in Minneapolis that I discovered that meals eaten in company can be a source of pleasure and comfort, nourishing stomach and soul. The first weeks of college I was wide-eyed-wowed by my dorm’s cafeteria: two choices for dinner! A salad bar featuring pale iceberg lettuce, slices of unripe tomatoes, shredded carrot mixed with raisins, and macaroni doused in mayonnaise! Best of all, there was a glorious stainless-steel self-serve dispenser of chocolate and vanilla soft ice cream. I served myself a lot of that.
But it didn’t take long for me, my roommate, and two new girlfriends to grow weary of baked chicken, square fish, and greyish beef; even the soft serve lost its glow. A few blocks from our dorm was the famous Mama Rosa’s, a red sauce emporium that used real garlic and other exotic ingredients, like oregano; if the wind blew east towards the Mississippi, it was as if cartoon scent waves of simmering sauce wafted us out of the dorm down to the restaurant.
Mama Rosa’s food was a revelation, as spaghetti in my house was a can of Hunt’s Tomato Sauce mixed with browned hamburger, dumped over flaccid noodles, dusted with what claimed to be Parmesan cheese but more closely resembled sawdust, and occasionally garlic salt.
My freshman year all I had for mad money was what I had saved from my summer waitressing job, so Mama Rosa’s was a big splurge. Three dollars and ninety-nine cents got me a steaming Mount Etna of baked ziti, oozing with melty cheese, and if I went and hid in the ladies’ (since I looked like I was twelve), my friends could usually order a round of fifty cent glasses of vinegary red wine without getting carded.
That four-way friendship was founded over red and white checked tablecloths, eating and drinking and swapping tales of virginity lost to boyfriends current or ex, drunken escapades we miraculously managed to survive, of warding off handsy male high school (in my case, junior high) teachers. A second glass of wine found us revealing glimpses of family skeletons and confessing secret dreams and goals and sorrows, conversations that would have been impossible in our dorm’s florescent-bulbed cafeteria.
Reluctant to go back to barely cracked textbooks and indecipherable lab notes, we lingered over the crimson dregs in our glasses until Mama herself came and slammed the bill on our table. Stuffed and tipsy and reveling in the bliss of a friendship that was brand new but felt eternal, the four of us waddled down the cold dark street back to our dorm.
Also close to my freshman dorm was a mediocre hamburger joint, Embers. A fellow impoverished student, the first guy who ever asked me out to dinner (my high school boyfriend and I just got high and had sex), took me there. He looked at the menu, then at me, and said, “I’ll just have the grilled cheese. What would you just have?”
I get it. During my own lean years I let any guy who asked buy me a steak, most of which came home in a doggie bag to be portioned up as that week’s dinners. I was so broke I was often tempted to ask, “If I don’t order the shrimp cocktail can I have the $12.95?”
Besides providing meals for the week, a restaurant date was a great way to decide who I’d never go out with again. The man who wouldn’t give me a taste of his fettuccine alfredo? My mother taught me to not trust people who don’t share their food. Then there was the guy who drowned his side salad in bright orange French dressing. And you think you’re going to kiss me with that mouth?
Some guys passed the cut. Twice I fell in love over restaurant dinners. The first time I was courted with Chateau Lafite Rothschild and steak Diane. (If you want to start a flame in my heart, just bring me a plate of food, souse it with brandy, and light a match.) The second time I was treated to cheap fiery vindaloo and giant bottles of Kingfisher beer. As my spiritual teacher Marilyn said in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: “It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one.”
When and if the magical world of restaurants comes back, what will be the new rules? Will lovers be social pariahs if they swap spit between courses, risking more than a broken heart? Can I stick my fork in my dining partner’s plate without feeling like Typhoid Mary? Was the guy hording his fettuccine right?
While preparing home-cooked meal Number 224 (probably chicken), I tumble into restaurant memories. My mind doesn’t turn to my one and only dinners at La Coupole in Paris, The Four Seasons in New York, or the Pump Room in Chicago. I don’t long for those big birthday meals, with cake and too many candles and singing waiters. I reach back to recall the most ordinary of meals with friends when we had nothing to celebrate but each other.
I would pay a lot more than $3.99 to have one more baked ziti dinner with my three old college pals, to see their big smiles revealing teeth stained with cheap wine, their pretty eyes catching the glow of a candle stuck in a Chianti bottle.
I’d also pay beaucoup bucks to sit down to dinner with my best friend of forty years, a former restaurant critic who commandeers the ordering so we always eat very, very well. Tables for two are our copy desks for breaking news of marriages made and broken, children (hopefully one day all four of our kids will be happy at the same time), job hirings and firings, moves out of state and to foreign lands. The two of us have developed the ability to swap news by talking and listening simultaneously: it saves time so we can get down to the serious work of drinking and making each other laugh.
Yeah, given the choice, I’d take a well-lubricated restaurant meal with good friends over a romantic dinner for two.
I’m terrified that a dinner out, with family or friends or a new love, has been relegated to quaint nostalgia, like a taffy pull or box social. “Hey kids, did I ever tell you about how grampa and I used to eat at places called restaurants where strangers cooked and brought you food?”
A whole religion is based on dining out. What is Christianity but communion, a recreation of the Last Supper, a meal obviously eaten in a restaurant. You can’t tell me that St. Peter was topping up everyone’s glass while Judas checked to see if the roast lamb was done. Nope. There were handmaidens waiting on tables who missed out being in the Leonardo painting; a former serving wench myself, I bet they were huddled in the courtyard, smoking, counting up drachmas, and debating which Apostle was the cutest.
The place the Last Supper occurred, The Room, even sounds like a restaurant. And Jesus passed around the bread and wine, giving us a new commandment: “Thou shalt share thy grub.”
My own Last Supper was this past winter, in a lovely restaurant in a strip mall in Scottsdale, eaten with one of those old college buddies and her late-in-life soulmate; she was wearing the goofy, dumbstruck look of love I hadn’t seen since we were young and all things were bright and beautiful. I had lamb ragù, my pal had quail, and her charming husband (who picked up the bill, I like that in a man), had the fish. And yes, we shared everything.
Featured image: Endless Buta / Shutterstock
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