By Kimberly Wetherell
The name alone mortifies me. American Chop Suey. It’s the name my mother gave to her signature dish, the supper we ate at least twice a week every week for as long as I can remember throughout my formative years. What Julia Child did with beef, bacon, onions and mushrooms, my mother did with elbow macaroni, browned ground chuck, Prego (It’s in there!) spaghetti sauce, and a sprinkling of her “secret blend” of spices; very likely nothing more than dried oregano, parsley, and basil. It’s that sprinkling of the secret spices that made her a chef, she told us. That quip was something I mocked her for to my professional chef friends when describing how pathetic my mother’s cooking was, and how it drove me to learn how to cook properly and eventually become a professional chef myself.
I’m not a professional chef anymore, though. I opened my own restaurant in Brooklyn three and a half years ago, and three years ago tonight (as I write this), I was reviewing my year-end books. I could see that we had been hemorrhaging money and that by the end of February 2015, our doors would be forced to close unless a miracle happened. It didn’t. I was a solo entrepreneur and I had sunk my life savings into the venture, which included leveraging my tony Park Slope brownstone apartment for the business loan, and I lost everything. As soon as I could, I left Brooklyn behind for the warmer climes of St. Petersburg, Florida and I spent two years there in an attempt to recover.
But New Yorkers are New Yorkers are New Yorkers are New Yorkers and I’m back in Brooklyn, but things are different now. The rent is too goddamn high every goddamn where and I can’t afford to live alone right now, let alone ever think about buying an apartment again. Adjusting to life with a roommate for the first time since college at 44-soon-to-be-45 years old has been …interesting. I had to take an office job in Manhattan because I can’t afford to take the lesser paying creative jobs I used to have, like going back to being a pastry cook or making independent films or directing operas. I’m approaching middle age. My LASIK is wearing off and I’m going to need glasses soon. I have bipolar disorder. Menopause is coming. Mama needs good health insurance.
But even with the office job and the roommate, after taxes and the exorbitant cost of living in New York, at the end of the month, there’s little-to-nothing left. So I did the math and made a line budget for myself, but after the first two months, I found I was still in the red at the end of each month. Looking for deeper cuts at the start of the new year, I knew with a little creativity, I could trim some of the fat out of my food line. Could I get from $350.00 per month of Groceries & Household down to $250.00? I was a professional chef, after all. I know all about razor-thin margins and making a little go a long way. I could do this.
I thought back to my favorite recipe from my college days, Penne al Tonno: A simple tuna marina sauce with spinach over penne, dusted with parmesan—grated fresh if you could swing it. Ingredients: Boiled penne, al dente. A can of tuna. A jar of sauce. A bag of frozen spinach. Dried herbs – again, fresh if you’ve got the extra scratch. Recipe: Add tuna and spinach to sauce. Heat. Add salt, pepper, and herbs to taste. Pour sauce over pasta. É bene.
In college, I was a nanny for a family in Lincoln Park, Chicago and I’ll never forget the day I saw the matriarch, Mrs. Carroll—err, Pam (she insisted)—open a can of the fanciest can of Bumblebee Albacore (our people were Chicken of the Sea chunk tuna people) and dump it in with a jar of Newman’s Own Organic. I had never seen such kitchen daring. Were there other meats meant to go into sauce other than browned ground chuck? Wasn’t she ruining that expensive sauce? And then, when she added frozen spinach? I tasted it. The acidic sauce brightened by the sour umami of the fish complemented by the sweetness of the spinach was an entirely new culinary world for me, having come from a strictly meat ‘n’ potatoes household. Also, Mrs. Carroll—err, Pam—didn’t use plain ol’ elbow macaroni, she poured her gourmet sauce over pasta, and the pastas all had gourmet sounding names, like linguini, pappardelle, farfalle. Surely she was the real chef and my mother was a phony, for this was like nothing I had ever eaten before.
Last night, I made Penne al Tonno for my debut retro dinner-on-a-dime, and vowing to make it special despite its simplicity, I plated it beautifully in one of my favorite Chinese blue patterned bowls. I gently poured the red sauce (Trader Joe’s Garlic Marinara, $2.99), thick with a whole can of tuna (Trader Joe’s Skipjack $.99) and a good heaping handful of chopped frozen spinach (I forget the price, but it’s cheap at Trader Joe’s) atop the penne, boiled perfect to the bite. I Instagrammed it with a quip about it being a throwback meal to my college days and went about my evening.
But tonight. Tonight I didn’t give dinner much thought. It was my first day back at the office job after the winter break and I was exhausted. I reheated the extra sauce leftover from the night before and dumped the strained penne into the pot with a floop. I gave the whole thing a quick stir or two and scooped it into my utilitarian white cereal bowl; zero plating, zero ‘gramming. Settling down into the couch for another episode of Black Mirror, I put the first bite into my mouth and tears began to well up in my eyes. Something about the way the food was stirred all together like that, the staleness of the reheated sauce, the slightly cold film that had already started forming on the top due to my futzing around and not eating it while it was hot, and I was immediately transported to my mother’s dining room table.
My throat seized.
American Chop Suey.
I had made a variation on motherfucking American Chop Suey. All this time. The staple of my childhood. The feast my father would declare: “Even better the second night, kids! Yum-yum-yum!” while performing his jolly food dance ‘round the kitchen, patting his pregnant beer belly. “Extra delicious because the secret spices have had time to set overnight!” my mother would chime in as she’d pull out the tired Rubbermaid—stained orange on the inside from the years of holding tomato sauce—from our mustard yellow refrigerator. The butt of every joke told about my mother’s kitchen prowess, or lack thereof, boiled down to this singular dish.
Here I was, all this time, thinking my Penne al Tonno was so special, so unique, so different from my mother’s. I was being rebellious! By using tuna! And spinach! It was gourmet, no?
It was cheap. Cheaper than using browned ground chuck, even. So much for me thinking that the Carrolls were so much better than us, just because they lived in a three-story townhouse in Chicago. When we were kids in Clearwater, Florida, my father was a traveling salesman and my mother worked whatever job she could. I babysat for money to buy my own records and worked at The Limited so I could get a discount on clothes. While I was taught that money was not anything that parents and children ever talk about, as a family, we were probably scraping by at best. My mother was doing the best that she could with what she had, and for my entire life, I had been making fun of her signature dish behind her back. She hid the shame of cooking on a budget by giving her dish a fancy-sounding name like “American Chop Suey” because she wanted to dress it up and make us all feel good.
I called mine Penne al Tonno because I wanted to disassociate myself from her.
I was an asshole.
My parents and I are now estranged. The specifics aren’t important, but it has to do with that thing that parents and children don’t ever talk about: Money.
The last time we communicated verbally was in early September of 2016, and it was a screaming match on a public street in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The only communication since has been via email, and it’s been terse and only when absolutely necessary to complete our unfinished business transactions. I have not wished either of them a Happy Birthday, nor a Happy Anniversary (they last celebrated their 49th), nor Merry Christmas, nor have they done the same for me (although in all fairness to them, I requested that they stop to establish some much-needed boundaries) and it kills me. I have always been the good girl, the perfect daughter, The One Who Calls. It’s my younger brother who neglects birthdays and anniversaries, not me.
I’ve wanted to divorce myself from them in one way or another since I was twelve, citing irreconcilable differences. A self-declared “Black Sheep,” I’ve fought against them on religious beliefs, political leanings, human rights, and more. At the same time, I’ve lived, desperately, for them to be proud of me, of the things I’ve accomplished. I’ve always sought their acceptance before all others, even though we disagree fundamentally on so much. I’ve wanted them to acknowledge me for who I am and say, “You’re right” just once. Even if they don’t mean it.
I’m sure they want the same from me.
Our rifts before have always been intangible, emotional, a battle of wills, differences of opinions. Which is better: browned ground chuck or tuna? Now they are concrete and potentially irreparable. I believe we are all in pain. We’re coming up on two years since The Thing That Happened and I’m still so angry and hurt and broken over it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust or respect my parents again. And as good as my therapists are, there’s no balm like being able to call your mom and hear the words: “Everything’s going to be okay.”
Money is, inherently, a dumb thing to be fighting over. I’m pretty sure the Buddha said something like that somewhere. But on the other hand, the Buddha doesn’t live in Cobble Hill. I’m going to be living on this budget for a good, long while and I’m going to have to learn how to live within it and still find creature comforts where I can. For now, they will have to be found in simpler and less expensive things. My library card. Time spent playing with my dog. Netflix. People-watching on the Brooklyn Promenade. Brunches with friends (significantly less pricey than dinner.) Grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s.
And when I need familial comfort, I can always turn to the tried and true staple of my mother’s cooking. It might be nothing more than a jar of spaghetti sauce, some meat, and noodles, but as I look back, I think her “secret blend” of spices may not have been sprinklings of dried oregano, basil, and parsley after all, but instead, heaping scoops of love. And without that, mine, no matter what I do to it or what I call it, will always be inferior.
Kimberly M. Wetherell is a filmmaker, stage director, and writer living in Brooklyn. She’s a contributing editor for the creative nonfiction website The Nervous Breakdown and her writing has been published by Rizzoli, CRAFT Magazine, SMITH Magazine, and The Mighty, among others. She busies herself by working on multiple projects at once; currently: a memoir, several screenplays, and a documentary about female film editors.
*feature photo via the spruce.com
On Being Human
Join Jen in Western Massachusetts at Kripalu
March 2 @ 7:30 pm – March 4 @ 11:00 am
For women and non-gender conforming humans.
Get ready to become more free as you tell the truth about who you are and listen fiercely to others doing the same. Get ready to create what it is you truly want for yourself. This program is an excavation of the self, a deep and fun journey into questions such as: If I wasn’t afraid, what would I do? Who would I be if no one told me who I was?
Go beyond your comfort zone to explore what it means to be creative, human, and free—through writing, asana, and maybe a dance party or two! Jennifer’s focus is less on yoga postures and more on diving into life in all its unpredictable, messy beauty.