Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I cast thee out, Pressure Cooker! I rebuke thee utterly!

This is going to be kind of rough, but the disgusting parts are icky enough to make for entertaining reading.

My mother could have provided an entire career's worth of valuable data for someone specializing in the effects of poverty, abuse, malnutrition and rage over the long term. To describe the woman as having been 'warped' is simply to describe her in part. Her every waking moment was spent in a state of seething hatred and resentment. The entire world was her enemy and her coping strategies were that of a prisoner of war who had given up all thought of escape:

1. Life was shit, was never going to be anything other than shit and was in fact SUPPOSED TO BE shit because you were bad and were being punished.
2. Suck up to the strong
3. Trample the weak.

Yes, it was a barrel of laughs.

Now, despite having been employed in her fathers Greek restaurant for a number of years, and despite having been known as an excellent cook by all their navy friends, the woman I ended up with by the 1960's didn't cook so much as she simply opened cans and boiled the contents to death. Period. It took me years to associate the stories I heard about the dinner parties she used to throw and the food she used to cook with HER personally...it just never computed.

Not one meal-not ONE-ever landed on our table without having been complained about bitterly. 'Slaving over a hot stove' was a phrase she used frequently. So...three meals a day over 18 years is...a fuck of a lot of bitching about how she was nothing but a maid around this place and nobody ever lifted a finger to help because I was nuttin but lazy and boy, I'd sure have another thing coming once I grew up because POW comes the revolution etc etc etc WHATEVER, MOM, OK.

This is not to say that I was welcome in the kitchen (or that my help was even needed; after all, we had an electric can opener.) Neither would it be accurate to say that she ever taught me how to do anything in the kitchen except stay out of the way (I had to learn how to cook off the television from Graham Kerr) but the insinuation was, that were it not for me and my laziness, we would be eating fine cuisine off linen and silver.


The story I heard most often was how she and her brother never had nuttin to eat but oatmeal. How all she can remember was standing on a chair next to the stove stirring the oatmeal. That much is probably 100% true....right up until the point where she went to work in her fathers restaurant, of course. So deprivation doesn't cover it, and lack of skill wasn't the issue.

It was power.

For example, she liked to brag about how, back when they were first married, every time my dad pissed her off, she took a dish that he liked off the menu.

He pissed her off a lot.

Their early marriage, from what I've been given to understand, was pretty much one long drunken slugfest. All that became a way of life. A perpetual grudge match. Nobody quite remembered why it was that way, only that it had to be that way.
I think that, in her mind, food meant love.
You pissed her off, you lost something you liked. Forever. The end. That'll fix ya.

Then I came along, and the grand tradition continued. On top of losing a favorite item off the menu for good, though, you got in trouble for 'wasting food'. Not that it makes any rational sense; when you were just sitting there as this shrieking harpy suddenly jumped up and went screaming around the room brandishing hot bowls and plates and emptying the contents into the trash; you MADE her do that so it was your fault. (And remember,we were Catholic! Wasting food was also a sin, which meant THAT was one more reason you were going to hell! Two for the price of one! What a deal!)

Now, not one-NOT ONE- single specific incident or misdeed or transgression comes to mind. Not one triggering incident or episode. She'd just jump up and start in, apropos of God only knew what, and that was that. Goodbye anything you liked. Spaghetti. Goodbye hamburgers. Goodbye forever. Goodbye Franz bread. Goodbye blueberry jelly. Goodbye cereal. Goodbye.

What happened to the stuff that still remained? I have no earthly idea whatsoever. I've wondered about that for years. Did she sit and gorge on it like an ogre gloating over its hoard while no one was around? I kind of suspect that's exactly what happened. It makes a kind of weird, mythic sense. Heaven knows, everything else that ever came into that house REMAINED unto all eternity, particularly if it was food.

I've written about the hoarding. Huge 10 lb tins of flour absolutely alive with weevils and castings. Sugar turned into solid bricks in the bag, stuck to the shelves. Cans and mixes from 1963 that nobody was allowed to touch. Cases of capers in the basement.

Food was stashed all over the house. Behind books on the shelves. On the top shelf of the linen closet. In the buffet. Ancient candy stolen out of my Easter baskets and Halloween bags. Her purse, her coat pockets, all her sweater pockets were full of old hard rolls, bread sticks and crackers, packets full of every condiment known to civilization, creamers and old fortune cookies. We never left a restaurant without a doggie bag. Doggie never saw it. She even ganked food off other peoples plates once they'd left the table. If we went to a buffet, she brought an extra purse and a scarf. My father and I were press-ganged into going back for more, more, more. When we left the restaurant, that purse was full. There'd be a scarf lying on top of all the greasy napkins full of fried chicken and dinner rolls.

Now, I belong to two online groups dealing with hoarding and having grown up with a hoarder, and I'm still at a crossroads with the issue. They tend to see it as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and for some people it definitely is. But that explanation doesn't cover it all. Not by a long shot. Compulsion does NOT describe what I grew up with. It's my contention that it wasn't OCD at all... it was warfare. SHE won. You LOST. SHE got the food. You didn't. SHE had it, not you. That was her attitude. Nothing was more blatantly obvious. She wasn't stressed or fearful about starving...that old 'child of the Great Depression living in fear of the next market crash' bullshit doesn't wash in her case. She was going to WIN and you were going to LOSE. The way you kept score was by the number of stale fortune cookies in your purse.

I have had nightmares about the sound of a pressure cooker. Remember them? They had a little round thing that went over the steam vent on the top of the pot, and when the steam would reach a certain pressure that metal thing would rattle and hiss and shake. I remember that noise going on for HOURS at a time. Literally.

Anything that came out of that pot was a crime against nature.

Particularly a dish she liked to call "stew".

It started out innocently enough. A cheap cut of beef, potatoes, yellow onions, maybe some cabbage, and carrots...other things that had started out green; and here I'm assuming beans or peas or something along those lines...some salt and pepper.

All of it hacked into fist sized chunks.

All of it sealed up in this iron lung of pressurized horror together where it screamed and cried and beat its little fists bloody against the hard, unyielding walls of its prison to no avail.

And then the heat was turned on, and it was left there.


What came out of that pot was something that I had to wait years to see again, not that I was waiting with bated breath, mind you. The next time I saw it again was when I opened the door to a refrigerator in a house that the tenants had abandoned, where the electricity had been shut off for a month.

The contents were MELTED.

It was like opening a sealed coffin. It was SOUP. The only way it could be identified as food was that some of the wrappers were still recognizable. The food inside had not decomposed in any sense that you'd ordinarily recognize; it had simply turned into a chunky, indescribably foetid, LIQUID.

The same sight greeted you when the lid was finally taken off the pressure cooker, and God help me, something of the same warm, armpitty, bacterially active smell. Now heaven knows there was nothing left alive after that kind of treatment; you could have packed it into an open chest wound and not worried about infection because whatever else it might have been it sure'n the fuck was STERILE.

She would serve it up with a mean, mean grin as the loooooong strands of translucent onion slithered off the spoon like dead angleworms after a hard rain. In fact its that slithery texture, that texture of decomposition and slime that comes back clearly across the years. That, and the SMELL. Oh my God, that smell, like bad, bad breath, like boiled fat, like a sink full of dirty dishes on a hot day.

"Your favorite thing!" she'd chirp, and my father would laugh. Then the screaming would start, and the threats, no television, no going outside, no phone calls, no friends until I stayed there and ate everything on my plate and no getting up until someone gave me permission and I'd have the same thing for breakfast and on and on and on and on. I mean, as the night follows the day. That pot would come to the table along with the grin, and then the yelling and freaking. Meanwhile I'm just sitting there. Counting the days left until I'm 18.

Now there was a period of time when we saw that shit come to the table every single evening. Even my dads pickled taste buds woke up. He was lucky, of course; he had a car and money, so he just started eating dinner before he came home from work in the evening.

But yeah, this was something she started when I was about midway through 4Th grade, and she'd return to this tactic every time she was good and pissed off about something I'd done, which was more often than not. Deliberately destroy a meal and then scream at me to eat it. Over and over and over again. It took me years to figure out what was going on. Wanna know why? You want to know the punchline? The kicker? The really good part?

Started right after I hit puberty.

Happened about once a month.

So yes, there's a reason I've never been worried about where this womans' remains are buried. Just knowing that they ARE BURIED is more than enough.


  1. My grandmother used to roast meat until it was a shrivelled carbonised lump just to make sure it was 'cooked right'.It wasn't done out of spite, it was just what a lot of people did in those days.

    Poor you.

  2. Anonymous11:36 AM

    my grandparents and parents always used food as a reward.

    for such a crazy whacked out mom, you turned out fantastic. there, i said it first. that way i get all the credit.

  3. garfy: my grandmother did the exact same thing for the exact same reason. god bless her, she meant well, she really did. she couldn't help it if she was German!

    pink: eating out at a restaurant was a reward in our house. hell, my mother was usually the first one to suggest it! she knew what the hell she was doing, make no mistake.
    i think the reason i turned out at all is that there was no actual genetic component. THANK GOD. (())!

  4. Sometimes I just want to cast myself down at your feet and weep with envy.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying... that's so sad! but I laughed my ass off.

    You are very brilliant.

  5. Anonymous12:00 PM

    I love happy endings! Especially the buried part.

    I have haunting memories of my grandmother B using a pressure cooker a lot, usually only meat and it was cooked until tender. My mother didn't use pressure cookers precisely because her mother-in-law used one...and that was a good thing. Retro

  6. OH, sorry, but it just brings up visions of her being buried in a pressure cooker and . . . (no, do not go on)

  7. out of interest did you ever get even? Or just out of there??!

  8. fuck!

    yet you survived - go you!

  9. z: oh geeze z. thank you.

    retro: yeah, i like the buried part too! but i like the 'no more pressure cooked anything' best of all.

    joe: nah, karma bit her in the ass but good. by that time i hadn't seen her in over ten years. to tell you the truth i hope theres a good afterlife that she gets to go to because her life on this planet sucked pretty fucking bad. there were REASONS she was the way she was, poor woman.

    ziggi: i GOT OUT. that was even enough. i was SUPPOSED to stay perfectly enmeshed in all the sickness and take all the blame and it just frosted the fuck out of them when i said 'IT'S DONE'...and it STAYED DONE. that was the revenge...walking away without one backward glance.

    qenny: thank you, my darling. i need to go to your place and catch up on all your magical doings, jack!

  10. so, wait. your mother tortured you because you got your period? she went on hideous rants when your special friend was visiting? Did I read that right? I can only surmise that among her power/control issues (of which there were clearly many) was a feeling of being threatened by you when you "became a woman" in her eyes. I've known other mothers that suddenly felt very threatened by their daughters when their daughters reached puberty because suddenly the daughter was competition. But I've definitely never heard of that insecurity being manifested to such an insane degree.

    But then we already knew your (thankfully non-genetically connected) mother was batshit crazy, so i guess it's not a surprise. the only surprising thing is that you survived at all. honestly, you are a living miracle.

  11. cb: yup. thats when everything went into maximum overdrive. oh, i have STORIES. the food was the least of it. btw, i really liked your idea of using the stuffing mix with the spices in...thats one of those genius ideas, lady!

  12. Sounds like a night out at Cafe C.

  13. Greek AND German heritage? Wowsers!

    The whole way through reading that, I felt very sorry for the little girl who got served the slops - and I also wondered what the hell had happened to your mother to make her so upset with the world.

    Now, I don't know you, only through your blog - and I am thankful as anything that you (seem to) have walked on with your life, rather than let that screw you up and down to become an obsessive tormenter of little children.

  14. Anonymous1:38 AM

    Well that post affected me badly and the last line made me burst into tears. You poor darling - that poor little girl..

    It is a kind of eating disorder but cruel and hurtful. I guess to me food and love are close, I am always feeding people and I especially like cooking for my children. Nice things - I am quite a good cook. So to me hurting children again and again with food as a weapon sounds close to the worse thing a parent could do and ..


    off to blub again. sniff

  15. FN you are correct OCD doesn't cover it...it truly is a personality disorder...i know...my mother did much the same and when i studied for my psychology degree i found out i was not crazy, she fucking was! it is enough to make you feel as if YOU are the one who is nuts because they do it so naturally...one night coming home my sisters and brother kept shaking their heads "no" to me...that was one signal (until she figured it out) to say "don't eat this shit it will fucking kill you!" she had made "gravy" and put it over bread for dinner, however, seemed to have forgotten (purposely) the grease to flavor it...so basically she served my siblings hot paste on bread...i do understand my dear friend...i learned to cook while she was in her drunken/drugged stupors and made sure we had food during those times, which got more regular as time went on...thankfully she slept till noon so i was able to get a full breakfast in everyone every day...i don't understand the philosophy behind their thinking but i feel for you...and i understand...

  16. Good lord , its like 'whatever Happened to Baby Jane' with pressure cookers .....
    I had a pressure cooker when I had a one ring stove in my first bedsit in London , I cooked some fab thing with it(but your suposed to cook stuff shorter than you normally would .....longer would be nasty) , I do remeber pulling the weight off while it was still under pressure and it blowing the soup out the hole all over the ceiling

  17. And I saw that MJ , A pot of Ma Beastie special chickpea curry is in the post.....That will teach you


    oh yeah, eaten a shit load of unfinished dinners for breakfast... crazy story well told...

    **marks down three points for nations on invisible clip board**

  19. *not surprised that Beast couldn't wait and blew it early*

  20. My child abuse food was aptly named "1000 mile stew". Started out from old dry leftover roast beef, onion, and mealy potato. I hated that shit and the cast iron pan it was cooked to death in. And my childhood witch is still alive, alone, but alive.

  21. Oh dear. My mother was born in Italy. And if she taught me anything, it was that only tomatoes (not even their sauce) came out of a can. We used to jar our own sauce every year. If you want, and you're both probably pretty close in age, but I'd be willing to bet she'd adopt you.

    She's crazy enough to make it work. Plus she lives all of forty minutes away from Disney World. You can make your own damned childhood my dear.

    Also, fuck. That all sucks. Really.

  22. thank fuck:
    a) you are a functional mommy who loves her kids
    b) i was spared parental abuse, most of my friends weren't that lucky
    c) that both my parents learned to cook...even after living with psychos and drunks with dead taste buds.

  23. I was scared of the pressure cooker when I was young too!

  24. MJ: Cafe C is the winner of the fabled Michelin 5TH Star (for ultra wackiness of the cuisinary experience that isn't french with naked guys!!!!!!!) IT is is SOOOOOOPERB! Dis not the Cafe of the C!!! *brandishing ladles in a threatening manner northwards*

    *wonders why it's so breezy*

    *runs into other room, puts on bra, runs back out, picks up REAL ladles, brandishes them northerly*

    jeannie: believe me, what that woman went through as a kid would turn anyone into a monster. it has to be said-there were good reasons why she was the way she was. this is not to say that she had any right or justification to treat a small child the way she did, though. but man, there were REASONS.

    mr. the dog: oh my darling, don't feel sad! i didn't go hungry (remember, i was a night rambler and there was many a feast lit only by the little light that comes on when the fridge door is open!) eating well, in this case, is the best revenge...three times a day for the rest of my life! *fixes a nice italian dinner for mr. the dog)

    daisy: yup, you nailed it. and they do make you feel like its your problem and not theirs, too. you really got nialed, thought, huh? substance abuse too? geeziz shit, lady. good job on surviving!

    beast: i had a radiator in an apartment that would do that every now and then...the steam heat would build and then suddenly orange, superheated water would geyser out of the pressure valve so hard it took the paint off the ceiling. it was almost like 'Old Faithful'.

    voices: that shit lasted until we got an 'insinkerator' garbage disposal, and by the time they figured out i was sneaking past it cramming handfulls of food down the thing, we'd got a dog!!

    gale:see, and people wonder why americans have so many issues related to food and eating. that kind of thing might have been appropriate back when being a picky eater meant starvation, but 1960 was not 1933 by any stretch of the imagination. (())

    christine: I'll send you the money and you can get the paperwork started. an italian momma who lives near Disneyland?? HELL YEAH!!

    SSA: i was never even tempted to do that shit, either. it wasn't even in me. although you did sit in front of a few reincarnations of the scrambled egg...still, there were no pressurized instruments of food torture involved!XX my darling.

    frobi: WHAT WAS IT WITH THE DAMN PRESSURIZED COOKING BULLSHIT? someone must have been a marketing genius because that thing does NOT belong in the kitchen-at least, not the home kitchen. DOWN WITH THE PRESSURE COOKER!!!!

  25. hendrix7:01 AM

    Food=love and you hitting puberty gives her the double whammy of competion and the horror of watching someone who will have a different/better life than she did or made for herself which sends her into meltdown.

    In her mind-you will grow up and leave (abandonment), you are younger/prettier than her (competition), you have the chance to have a better life - ie not hers (resentment and jealousy), if you leave then you don't love her (insecurity) therefore she will get in first by witholding the food you love (control). If you think of it in that way then the inedible food she serves up gives a straight line into her mind (quite apart from the fact that you can't cook well if you're unhappy/angry - it never turns out right) everything is all mushed up, slimy and unpalatable. Being forced to eat everything equates to her as you loving her and the frustration and tantrums when you don't like what she's serving only serves to reinforce to her that you don't love her, that you don't respect her and so the circle turns...

    It might explain her behaviour - it certainly doesn't excuse it (it may also be a completely wrong analysis).

    My nan and grandpa used to hoard food - only tins though and understandable in their case; for my nan (growing up in wartime britain)canned food was still a luxury while grandpa I think never recovered from his time in the concentration camp. I sort of understand my nan's food=love equation now and don't eat for a couple of hours before I go to visit her.

    Have to admit that pressure cookers terrify me too - traumatic memory of my grandma's pressure cooker exploding, it took three can's of paint to cover up the stains of tomato pickle on the ceiling (the dint made by the metal whizzy thing is still there).

    My (almost) mother-in-law gave me a pressure cooker years ago (as a present). I tried not to see it as a subconscious desire on her part to kill me. It lives in my mums attic.