Thursday, December 21, 2000
831--tales from the area code
For those of us whose karmic condition involved a happy childhood, the kitchen refrigerator occupied a special niche. And I don''t just mean slightly to the left of the oven. In our house, the refrigerator was a sacred shrine, filled with the relics of martyrs--a central hearth around which we warmed ourselves many times a day. The refrigerator--which at a later cultural moment would become a repository for kitschy magnets--was itself a magnet for our cat Timmy.
Out-of-control, fat and a dim-bulb to boot, Timmy was a one-cat cargo cult, hopeful that if he stared intently at the refrigerator long enough, it would produce food for him. He would sit each morning facing the refrigerator, his furry bulk arranged artfully to appeal to the sleepy human eye. He would then lean forward a half-inch so that his nose made delicate contact with the fridge door. He was capable of remaining in this zonked-out state for hours--or as long as it took. In this way, he made his needs known.
Perhaps Timmy wasn''t such a stupido--his adorable corpulence was quite strategically placed. In order to open the refrigerator door, we had to disturb his devotions. So he received the sacraments he craved.
We all did. This time of year, as I recall my mother''s incredible Christmas cookies, I also start remembering the ghost of refrigerator''s past.
There were always certain food spirits that dwelled in that refrigerator, ones upon which we could count. Ironically, I find myself remembering them in sharp contrast to my parents'' present-day refrigerator, a Spartan playing field utterly devoid of animal fat, real milk, real butter, real eggs. But back in the bad old days, the refrigerator had real character.
Since my folks were California natives, wherever we lived--in Europe or on the East Coast--we had artichokes and orange juice. Lots of orange juice. My father long ago appointed himself beta tester for any product the Birdseye people cared to foist upon the post-war consumer. Our refrigerator was a repository for giant pitchers of orange juice, invariably made from those little cans of frozen concentrate that lived in the equally well-stocked freezer (more about that freezer later, and its contents--contents that exposed the inability of my father to mature past the age of 12).
OK--orange juice, and lots of it, lived permanently on the top left-hand shelf of my mother''s refrigerator. Funny that I think of it as her''s, when I seem to remember my father opening that door more than anyone else. In addition to butter, we kept margarine--my father also loved to pioneer synthetic, space-age foods whenever possible, and, as a Depression kid, he was smitten with the staying power of margarine. Unlike butter, it never seemed to go bad. And that impressed the man who had once been a delivery boy for his father''s grocery store. I can still hear him getting up from the table after a meal, crying with mock urgency, "The perishables! Get the perishables into the refrigerator!" as if the butter were in danger of imminent putrefaction brought on by the end of dinner.
Galaxy of Possibilities
My mother was the queen of leftovers, able to work minor miracles with the ingredients from last night''s meal--or the night before that. Little containers of pot roast were permanently nestled next to cartons of green beans and carrots, vegetables always cooked straight past the al dente point and way beyond. Barbecued chicken breasts waited for some new creative transformation.
And invariably there were Tupperware containers filled with ice water neatly packed with celery and carrot pieces. We would just reach into the refrigerator, grab those crisp little sticks, slather them with peanut butter (another of my father''s passions) and consume them on the spot--next to Timmy, of course--in the middle of the kitchen.
My father was a firm believer not only in all juices, but in all soft drinks as well. So I could bring friends home from school, secure in the knowledge that there would be root beer, ginger ale, 7-Up and Coca Cola in the refrigerator at all times. As soon as the diet versions were on the market, my father stocked up on those, too.
Never a slave to lengthy and complex food preparation, my mother wisely kept all the makings for all-American sandwiches in her refrigerated larder. From peanut butter to tuna salad, bologna and cheese--we had our choice of a galaxy of sandwich possibilities. And that meant we had all the condiments, too--pickle relish (my big favorite), mayonnaise (white gold), mustard (boy stuff) and ketchup (all-purpose spread).
To complete this picture, we need to look further down, into the vegetable crisper. Here my mother ruled as a provider. Tomatoes--in the late ''50s everybody wrongly put tomatoes in the refrigerator--and fat heads of lettuce were always, always ready to be made into salads and sandwiches. To this day, I can walk into my mother''s house, go straight to the vegetable crisper and find iceberg lettuce, scallions, tomatoes, carrots, celery, mushrooms and a bunch of parsley. These days I can also find yogurt, acidophilus, ginseng, echinacea, herbal iced tea, turkey sausage, cranberry juice and chardonnay.
The refrigerator freezer was in many ways the mission control of the entire life-sustaining operation. And, to give you the full picture, it was psychically linked to a giant freezer, a sister vault, that lived downstairs in the hallway leading to the laundry room. Both were fully loaded with turkeys, chicken casseroles, English muffins and peach pies--oh, God, those pies still haunt me.
The pies were the result of too many bushels retrieved from Pennsylvania''s Catoctin Mountain orchards. My mother would spend a day making crusts, my sister and I would peel, slice and complain. And then the pies were assembled. We''d eat peach pie for weeks, until we were sick of it, and the remaining half-dozen treasures would slumber in their frozen crypt until mid-winter, when they emerged to be baked and eaten with great relish.
Also in that downstairs freezer were the sacred shoe boxes filled with Christmas cookies, waiting to be assembled into my mother''s famous gift trays. My sister and I would sneak into those shoe boxes for months before Christmas, copping our favorites--mine were brown sugar brownies--and then trying to rearrange the waxed paper wrapping to erase the evidence of our pilfering.
My mother would just bake more.
Frozen in Time
Upstairs in the holy refrigerator, the freezer contained several objects of extraordinary veneration. Frozen items were my father''s territorial specialty--he was fearless in his sampling of new ice creams, ice milks, fake ice cream, frozen faux dairy products, anything that even remotely suggested that it might taste like the frozen custard of his youth.
Much of the stuff he''d drag home in those tacky half-gallon containers was unfit for human consumption. Much of it, we suspected loudly, was just plain plastic and would outlive even the planet itself. Lots of these sticky frozen products were artificially yellow in color and smelled of carbon chains that God hadn''t intended.
My father didn''t care--he never met a frozen dessert product he didn''t like nor a frozen dessert he couldn''t improve with a topping of Birdseye frozen strawberries that he''d quickly defrost under running hot water. He also never met a carry-out pizza he didn''t like, and he used my mother, sister and me as pliant lab animals in his relentless quest to find the ultimate case of heartburn.
There were always popsicles in our freezer. At least one citrus flavor--orange, lemon, lime--and the holy grail of flavor groups, root beer. We all loved popsicles, consuming them with such reckless abandon that they had to be re-stocked daily, especially in the sweat and simmer of August.
The most fascinating relic in the freezer was my father''s pitcher of martinis. My sister and I would open the freezer door, wait for the swirling mists to clear, and just stare at the antique crystal reliquary with its silver handle and carved silver spout. We couldn''t wait until we were old enough to sample its pungently perfumed contents.
The frozen martini pitcher was all the more mysterious because it rarely left the freezer. My father wasn''t much of a drinker--wine with special occasion dinners was about it--and the martinis only left the sanctuary when male company arrived. Then the equally chilled glassware would materialize, the icy, viscous liquid would flow out in slow motion and the delicate transparent cocktails, with their invisible haloes of white lightening, would be served.
Still the king of chilled liquids, my father now treats himself with splits of Korbel Champagne, which he stocks in today''s refrigerator. And he happily pops open a tiny bottle and pours himself a flute full of bubbles whenever my visit gives him the excuse.
The refrigerator still holds a full stable of popsicles and fake ice cream, too. And the Christmas cookies are being baked as I write.
Some things are eternal.