[John Thorne and his wife, Matt, live in Northampton MA, where they cook in an apartment kitchen. They are perhaps best known for their irregularly published food newsetter, Simple Cooking , which has been chugging along now for thirty years(!). Their books include Outlaw Cook, Serious Pig, Pot On The Fire, and most recently Mouth Wide Open. It is perhaps worth noting that I idolize Mr. Thorne, have for as long as he and Matt have produced Simple Cooking, and am ecstatic to see his posts on markbittman.com. When you read this piece you’ll see why.– mb]
After my father died, I used to go to Maine twice a year for a week-long visit with my mother, first at the family home in Searsmont and then at a retirement community in Belfast. There, she was required to eat supper at the community dining hall a certain number of days a month. But she didn’t really enjoy that, and not because of the quality of the food (although she complained about that, too). She liked to move through the day at her own rhythm, which meant lunch was often eaten around three in the afternoon, and she wasn’t in the mood to walk down to the dining hall two hours later. She’d much rather eat supper at her own place … around eight in the evening.
This was the case even though by then various frailties had reduced her cooking to preparing some vegetables to accompany the night’s frozen dinner. Of course, I tried to get her to let me cook for her. She did allow this but showed no enthusiasm for my doing so, despite the fact that she often seemed to enjoy what I made. Finally, I got the hint. I gave up, and she and I would settle down in front of the television, each with our own frozen dinner (or, in my case, two frozen dinners — and I usually hedged my bet by having two different kinds).
I found my mother’s lack of interest in my meal-making frustrating but not incomprehensible. For both of us, cooking a meal was a form of whetting anticipation, and neither of us needed any help with that. My mother was proud of my accomplishments as a food writer, but that didn’t mean that she wanted me in her kitchen. Anticipation meant preparing the meal exactly as she wanted it to be.
With kitchen time pared down so severely, she had to lean harder on another aspect of appetite stimulation — her leisurely procession down the supermarket aisles. A grocery shopping trip had always been like a visit to Paris, only more comfortable, with astonishments likely to happen around any corner. Now, in the last few years, she had stumbled across a whole new arrondissement: the frozen dinner collection. She would move slowly from one brand to another, carefully weighing every option before selecting one and adding it to her cart: Lean Cuisine Café Classics Steak Tips Portabella; Marie Callender’s Creamy Chicken and Shrimp Parmesan; Healthy Choice Beef Bourbon Dijon.
Naturally, I was allowed to pick out my own, but my mother was vocally unimpressed with my choices: “Why would you want to eat that?” I thought it tactful not to explain that my sole criterion was the package’s net weight. I was unswayed by the tempting photograph of the dish; to me the words describing its contents resonated with false promise. In my experience, all these dinners were bad; their novelty consisted in what part of them would prove to be surprisingly bad. In some the noodles failed to cook, in others the food scorched, in still others the meat portion seemed more like an afterthought than the dish’s raison d’être, The package weight, though, they couldn’t fudge.
My mother wasn’t oblivious to such failings, but she drew a strict line between the pleasures of anticipation and those of eating. If the first was satisfying enough, any shortcomings in the second could be endured. In fact, the only effective motivating force that could get her to the community dining room was the weekly menu. She would pore over this, dismissing some dishes immediately and spending a long time pondering the others. “No one will show up that night,” she would say, pointing to Monday’s chicken pot pie. “Do you think we should take a chance on this?” she’d go on, indicating Thursday’s “crispy onion crusted” chicken. No mention, naturally, of the entry my own eye had fixed on — the BBQ pork chop with French potato salad. Moreover, I knew from the first that she would inevitably include the most boring item on the list, the pan-seared haddock — “What can they do to that?”
Anticipation, for my mother, was really a package deal — every little bit had its own special weight. I would hardly notice that Thursday’s meal ended with “assorted desserts & pastry”; she, however, could visualize every item on the cart. That was one reason she liked the frozen dinners: the side vegetable, the chosen starch, each played its part in the reckoning — this was what made the enticement complete.
The home dinner ritual always ended with “assorted desserts & pastry” — specifically, different ice cream novelties. There were many of these: I especially remember Nestlé Drumsticks, Snickers ice cream bars, Good Humor’s “chocolate éclairs,” and Turkey Hill’s vanilla-bean ice cream sandwiches. These last did not prove a hit: the same box, minus a single sandwich, was still there, years later when my brother and I cleaned out her freezer.
She preferred these confections to a dish of ice cream partly because the serving size was already worked out. Serving yourself from a container of ice cream meant setting off a wrestling match between the inner health policeman and the ice cream lover, and these things never go well. But ice cream novelties, each in their own way, also had a patented complexity that intensified my mother’s enjoyment.
A Nestlé Drumstick is an ideal example of this, and, besides, it was a treat where my mother and I shared all the same pleasures. If you’ve never had one (where have you been!), a Nestlé Drumstick is an ice cream cone that has been dipped in chocolate and scattered with chopped roasted peanuts.
You have to exercise special care when you tear open the wrapping to keep the loose peanut bits from spilling all over the rug. Once you catch these in your hand and eat them, you carefully bite into the hard chocolate coating, the curve of which keeps you from taking a large bite. You have to gnaw at it, bit by bit, watching for the odd chocolate shard that will otherwise leave an indelible brown stain on your shirt.
This initial appetite-enhancing resistance overcome, the eater sinks into a state of dreamy contentment. The cone is a genuine sugar cone, not a waffle one, crunchy and full of flavor. Furthermore, the ice cream (always vanilla, in my mother’s case) goes right down to the bottom of the cone, which is ingeniously coated inside with a thin layer of chocolate that ended in a solid plug. That is there, I think, to prevent melted ice cream from dripping out of the tip of the cone down your sleeve. However, for the eater — and I’m sure you’ve already realized this yourself — that last bite of chocolate is the dessert’s dessert, a final moment of bliss.
Given what I’ve just written, you might think that my own freezer is full of Nestlé Drumsticks, but the truth is I haven’t bought one for decades — until I set out to write this piece. I don’t have a sweet tooth; for me, a spoonful or two of ice cream is just enough. Furthermore, I live in a place where I can get locally made ice cream served in a truly exemplary sugar cone and dipped in bitter chocolate.
From that perspective, a Nestlé Drumstick is a sorry thing. But sitting next to my mother, watching the History Channel, each of us slowly savoring our confections, I came as close as I ever will to understanding her pleasure in frozen dinners. Individually, none of the parts amount to much — but packaged together just so, they fuse, for the moment, into a little bit of heaven.