A colleague once commented that people learn a lot about family and themselves by sitting through holiday dinners, and sometimes even by sitting through just routine dinners. I ducked my head to hide a smile, thinking, “The only thing I remember learning by sitting through holiday dinners is that one of us had to learn to cook—the sooner the better. And it isn’t going to be the father, so I guess that leaves me!”

Holidays. Food. Traditions. Food traditions. Last week, my fabulous spouse and I were invited to a friend’s home for a dinner gathering. It was suggested that perhaps guests could bring a favorite food item from childhood. First, I snorted coffee on to the keyboard and everything smelled like hazelnut for the rest of the day.

“Listen to this,” I said, reading the email out loud, once I’d recovered. “Whaddya think? Should I show up with a can of Spaghettios?”

Food traditions are a weird topic for a kid raised by a widowed father from the Depression Era. In his mind, there were two kinds of work—women’s work (cooking and cleaning and babies) and men’s work (everything else that was worthwhile). While the mother was alive, she handled all things kitchen, and if my sister was home, she helped. The father steered clear. He was there mainly for decorative purposes and occasional heavy lifting. Except for the last year that the mother was with us for Thanksgiving, as I talk about in Urban Tidepool:

I had spent Thanksgiving with the father and Michael and the father’s new girlfriend, who had gone to great lengths to cook traditional Italian dishes that my traditional Irish taste buds found revolting.  The only things familiar about Thanksgiving were the canned biscuits, burned until they resembled Michael’s hockey pucks, and the fact that the father was drunk most of the weekend. As soon as dinner ended, I ran to Aunt Connie’s house and tried to describe the fiasco of something that looked like seaweed soup.  The whole Thanksgiving charade ranked up there with the year the father, again inebriated, picked up the turkey by its legs to move it to a serving platter and dropped our dinner on the kitchen floor. He stood there, befuddled, with two drumsticks in his hands.

Just a short time after we picked the turkey up off the floor, my sister opened a can of Reddi-Whip and it exploded all over the new ceiling above the dining room table. While that was enormously entertaining to me as a 7 year old, neither of these seems to be the kind of activity one would like to make into family tradition.

Once we were on our own, food became a rather scary topic. Indiana Jones in the kitchen he was not! The father couldn’t find his way around our 9- foot long kitchen with a pile of maps, a guide dog and a divining rod. Occasionally, he worked up the courage to try something new, like the first time he made a Mrs. Smith’s pumpkin pie. I’ll never forget the cute and endearing way he waved his newspaper at the smoke billowing out of the oven door (he didn’t know to remove the protective plastic sheet on top of the pie), as he muttered, “FerChrissakes, don’t tell your brother…he’ll eat it anyway.”

Mostly, if it didn’t come out of a box or a can, we didn’t eat it. Thankfully, I was a child of the 70s, so convenience foods were everywhere. No one thought anything of it…although I’m sure I saw a number of my Italian friends shiver when I mentioned eating cold Spaghettios out of the can. (Another fun fact learned living with a widowed father—don’t make dishes if you don’t have to!)

For the dinner last week, I ended up taking something my sister-in-law made once in a while during my stays with her and the Major. She never described herself as a great cook, though, and I commented on that in Urban Tidepool as well:

I choked back fear and choked down dinner. They may not have been connected.  Jedda was the first to admit she was not a good cook. We choked down dinner pretty much every night, whether there was Legionnaire’s Disease on the horizon or not.

It’s probably not a big surprise that I eventually wanted to go to culinary school and ended up running a catering business for several years with my fabulous spouse. And there was not a Spaghettio in sight, in or out of their cans!

Just a last word of advice—don’t forget that rascally plastic protector on the top of the pie! In this holiday season, whatever your foods, whatever your traditions, whatever your food traditions, may you be safe and warm and full, and let us not forget the folks who are rarely any of those three.


  1. Reblogged this on Urban Tidepool and commented:

    One of my favorites from last year, just for fun today!

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