Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Dinnertime at the Rago-Gardners

“That’s a soaker.” That’s what Tim or I used to declare, early in our marriage, when we faced a frying pan or baking dish with a cooked-on mess. Especially when we were too tired from work to exert the elbow grease required to clean it. After having cleared the table and washed all the dishes by hand in the narrow kitchen in our apartment, one of us would look at that last pot on the stove, sigh, and say, “That’s a soaker.” The other spouse inevitably would respond, “A soaker, for sure.” Once declared a soaker, a pan didn’t have to be washed that night. Rather, we would cover the bottom with hot water and dish soap, and place it on the back burner of the stove to soak overnight -- thereby making the grease and cooked-on blackness easier to remove the following day.

I remember dinnertime fondly in the early days of our marriage. We both would come home relatively late from work. Neither of us were 9 to 5 kind of people. I worked in New York City as a lawyer and Tim worked at Nyack High School as a math teacher. I would work late so as to impress the bosses, put in face time, and bill an exorbitant amount of hours in a day. Tim would work late to create a special program that he would use to teach his math students. Tim worked harder than most teachers and I worked harder than many lawyers.

Still, we believed in having dinner together. Cooking at home, setting the table, and sharing a meal together. Unless it was too late in the night to eat when we finally got home. I took pride in cooking for Tim. He delighted in my meals, claiming that he was so happy he married an Italian who knew how to cook. He would refer to himself as IBM, Italian By Marriage, when he finally knew enough about Italian food to be comfortable with labeling all the different cuts of macaroni. In the early days, my repertoire of meals was new to him and he enjoyed each meal. He even learned to make a few as well as many Italian mothers I know. For instance, his homemade pizza and his spaghetti with clam sauce rival the best.

I developed a rotation of good, healthy, quick meals when we were first married. Getting home late in the evening meant that I couldn’t spend too much time in the kitchen because we would be hungry and needed to eat sooner than later. Often I would start each meal with olive oil and garlic in the frying pan. To this day, I joke that even before I know what I am cooking, I can be sure that olive oil and chopped garlic in the frying pan will turn into something good. Some days I sautéed spinach and collard greens and just served canned salmon and leftover potato salad for dinner. Other days, I used the olive oil and garlic to sauté canned octopus, scallops, and clams with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts to pour over angel hair spaghetti. Or I fried Italian sausage (when we still ate red meat) and peppers and onions and leftover boiled potatoes. Naturally, these meals would leave behind many “soakers.” Whoever got home earliest would tend to washing the soaker.

Things were easy in those early days in many ways. There were just the two of us. And even though we didn’t have a dishwasher, there weren’t that many dishes to wash. We usually divided the work by having me cook and Tim doing most of the clean up. On days when he cooked, I cleaned up. “I cooked, you clean,” was an oft-heard refrain in our home.

Life got more complicated as Tim worked on developing his own business out of the house and I took on more complex cases as a lawyer. While I still enjoyed cooking as much as before, it became harder as my workload got heavier and I gained more responsibility. After the two children came, Tim would cook almost as much as I did. I would tease him that he didn’t consider color in his cooking. He would serve white fish, white rice and white corn on the same night. “Is that your all-white meal?” I’d ask. I had always taken color into consideration when cooking, so that it looked appealing on the plate. Yellow rice, a bright salad and chicken cutlets made for an appealing plate. (I was interested to read in a health magazine that colorful foods have varied beneficial vitamins and anti-oxidants that are good for you.) And I almost always served a green vegetable with a meal. Dinner was not complete unless it had a starch, a protein, and a green vegetable as far as I was concerned.

Cleaning became an issue and, when Michela was two years old, we hired a fulltime housekeeper/nanny. She watched the children after they came home from daycare or school and completed the routine chores around the house, including cleaning the kitchen. I still cooked almost every night, with Tim filling in. But, after clearing the table, we left the rinsed dishes and dirty pots on the kitchen counter and stove. (We now had a dishwasher which meant there was no washing of dishes required, but the dishwasher still had to be loaded and unloaded and we left that to Barbara.)

For more than eight years, we lived a charmed life. We could work as hard as we liked to and still enjoy dinner together and a clean house. We pushed dinnertime back to eight o’clock because that is when I returned home from work and was able to cook. Barbara left each evening at eight o’clock, just as we sat down to eat. We had no opportunity to label a pot or pan “a soaker” because, in effect, they were all soakers – left for Barbara.

Recently, due to the downturn of the economy, we were forced to let Barbara go. Trent is now 12 and getting out in the world on his own more; Barbara’s leaving didn’t affect him much. Her leaving affected Michela, but at age 10, even she didn’t need Barbara as much as she used to. Still, Michela was heartbroken not to come home to Barbara everyday. Barbara had potty trained her and shared in all her secrets for more than eight years. Michela was Barbara’s baby girl, since Barbara only had a son. For Maya, being new to the family and only a baby, Barbara’s leaving had no effect at all. Indeed, she has never mentioned Barbara’s name since she left. For Tim, Barbara’s leaving means that he does the laundry down in the basement while he works.

Barbara’s leaving affected me in several ways. I am now the person who takes care of Maya all day long and cleans the house. I am also the person who does most of the cleaning in the kitchen: floor, dishes, and washing the pots and pans. My cooking hasn’t been affected much. I still start many meals with olive oil and garlic in the frying pan. Tonight, for instance, I started the meal with olive oil and onions and red peppers in two large frying pans. I sautéed the vegetables and placed pork chops over them. While they browned and as I turned them over and over, I made a green salad with Romaine lettuce, plum tomatoes, pitted black olives, dried cranberries, pignoli nuts and, of course, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Leftover potato salad served as the starch. After we finished eating, Tim cleared the table and unloaded the dishwasher, loading it again with the evening dishes. For me to wash, he left behind the salad bowl (I don’t like to put my vintage yellow ware bowl in the dishwasher and he knows that) and the two frying pans. I washed and dried the salad bowl, wiped up the kitchen counters, and the stovetop, and faced the frying pans. Tired from a day in which Maya never napped, I looked at the them wearily. “Soakers, for sure,” I declared.

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