3rd Act Gypsy

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Memories of Mushy Meals

My childhood memories of meals are mushy.

Like most of the food my mother served us each night.

No one would accuse her of being a good cook. No one would accuse her of wanting to be a good cook. She did her best, but food wasn’t her thing.

Like most stay-at-home mothers in the sixties, Mom planned our dinners with the rigor of a drill sergeant, each night of the week featuring the same predictable meal. Not because she liked rigor or predictability but because these were the meals she knew how to cook and could afford to put on the table given our limited budget.

The week started with good intentions and a fair amount of effort. Mondays were baked chicken with unintentionally sticky rice and limp heaps of canned spinach.

Tuesdays featured tuna casserole with frozen vegetables – the mixed kind – theoretically providing a wider nutritional count or at least adding color to the otherwise beige mixture.

Wednesdays served up meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and canned beets. The meatloaf was supplemented with mushy bread crumbs. The mashed potatoes were often watery and always lumpy, as if a few more minutes of effort were too much to ask for a smooth experience. The never-well-drained beets plopped onto the thin Corelle plate, the juice making a beeline for the mound of potatoes. Voila! Pink potatoes.

By the time Thursday rolled around, we were into comfort food. Boiled hot dogs, sliced, and mixed into a pot of mac and cheese. I don’t remember a vegetable ever accompanying that dish.

The Catholic church dictated Friday night’s menu. Since it was a sin to eat meat on Fridays, fish was the main feature. The only quandary was that we couldn’t afford fresh fish. I think God knew that, so he invented frozen fish sticks. What he forgot about (probably because he was a man and never did the cooking) was how hot an oven could make our kitchen during the sweltering swamp-cooler evenings in the Arizona desert. Mom hated to leave the oven on for long, so the frozen fish sticks were never thoroughly cooked. Neither were the frozen tater tots that were the natural sidekick. It was quite a culinary feat to produce that delicate balance of still-frozen-on-the-inside while too-hot-to-eat-on-the-outside texture. I think ketchup was the token vegetable on those nights. The Catholic church must not have had a position on that food group.

The one vegetable I remember most was peas. Canned or frozen. Overcooked in the former, undercooked in the latter case. All of which I refused to eat, prompting a standoff between me and my dad.

Sitting at the dining table, I stared at a plate full of mushy peas. Everyone else was done, dishes washed, and firmly planted in front of the TV.

All your peas,” Dad commanded, “there are starving children in Africa.”

“I can box them up and send them to them,” I replied. I was cheeky that way sometimes. He’d huff an unintelligible response and stalk to the living room.

At the commercial breaks, Dad would check on me. No pea had been eaten. I was settled into my chair, determined to outlast this unreasonable demand. Have I mentioned that I get my stubborn streak from him?

Eventually, he would look at Pepsi, our cockapoo, lying in the doorway, her forlorn black eyes peeking out from under shaggy fringed hair. She’d been banished from sitting with me in the dining room after she burped up a pea. Her tail wagged, encouraging Dad to relent. He was a sucker for our dogs. Taking advantage of his weakness, I offered, “I’ll eat five.”

He perused my plate, calculating what it would cost him if he caved into my demands. Maintaining control as the head of the household for someone with a strict German background was important to him at the time. “Twelve.”


“Ten, and you can’t feed any of them to Pepsi.”


I’d eat my ten, by now, ice-cold peas, wash my plate, and wonder what food might taste like if it was ever cooked well. Looking back, I thank those peas for helping me develop negotiating skills that lasted a lifetime.

As an adult, I see those meals through a different lens. Despite the lack of finances, a role model for my mom, or a microwave oven, we were fed and loved.

In the end, the meals didn’t really matter.

Aside from the pea negotiation phase, my memories of our mushy meals are filled with family discussions. From the Vietnam War, civil rights, and women’s liberation to the Beatles craze, the role of women in the Catholic church, and what landing a man on the moon would mean for our world.

During summer vacation, I remember hurrying through dinner so we could continue our running game of gin rummy, keeping a tally between the four of us until Labor Day, when the loser would need to make dinner for all of us.

I remember holiday meals that were just necessary precursors before the main activity of assembling the newest 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle—a time of bonding, laughter, and family teamwork.

Today, as Thanksgiving approaches, the pressure mounts to cook a fantastic meal, delivered to a beautifully set table at the appointed time, all dishes equally hot and ready to consume; I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

I try my best and do okay. I know I’m better than my mom because I have a microwave oven! I’ve learned over the years to give myself grace, viewing holiday meals as a wonderful excuse to be with those I love. What matters most about the meal is the family time together, not the actual food.

I wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving, mushy or not, filled with love, family, and fond memories.


5 Responses

  1. Thank you, Korie. As always, I chuckled most of the way through. And you’re right about the most important point.

  2. My mother worked full-time when I was growing up. There were never milk and cookies waiting for me when I and my brother got home from school.

    We had chores, homework, and assignments about taking something out of the freezer when we got home.

    Thanks for the fun post

  3. Korie, this was touching and funny and filled me with similar memories, although I have to admit that my parents were decent cooks, but never together. “Mushy meals” cracks me up 😄 and family games is touching. I’ll never look at peas the same way again though. I can just see Pepsi burping one up. Thanks for sharing this with us. I so enjoy your writing. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  4. What a great glimpse into a good old 60s family & meal time! Lovely story, lovely writing. Yay for the early negotiation skills training. Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. Korie, I love these memories served with your humor, descriptive detail, and unique voice. And the gift of insight at the end. Thank you for this treat!

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