Short Order by Christy Stillwell
March 15, 2012
Posted By: Shaunescy
Here is the short list of kitchen failures at our house:
fried zucchini medallions
baby back ribs in BBQ sauce
enchiladas with mild sauce and shredded chicken
ditto with shredded, as in a Cuisinart shredded, beef and pork
lasagna with and without meat
mashed sweet potatoes
potatoes of any kind
cooked broccoli with cheese sauce
cooked green beans with olive oil and salt
smoothies: bananas, strawberry, raspberry, and vanilla
macaroni and cheese: organic from Annie's, Kraft, and homemade, the last including rue
made of whole milk and a cup of Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese
hummus: store-bought, homemade, served with carrots, celery, and warm pita wedges
Dipping sauces: ranch, blue cheese, spinach-cream cheese, cheese sauce, artichoke (this
one was a reach, I know)
grilled cheese, both cheddar and mozzarella
Something went wrong in the transition between baby food and real food. Books said this
was going to be so natural. Your baby would start reaching for your dinner and, presto!
You know it's time! Set hummus before him, or cottage cheese, rice balls, even tofu! As
soon as he has teeth, you can try some softened carrot, or peas, maybe even a tiny bit of
This turned out much like the all the weight that was supposed to drop off while nursing.
Never happened. Neither of my kids wanted a thing to do with a vegetable once it had
any shape to it, meaning it no longer came out of a cute can, served with a tiny spoon.
I'm trying too hard. I've heard that. I've also heard that my standards are too high; kids
are picky; they'll outgrow it; don't take it so hard; you'll turn it into a food disorder; just
relax; let them eat hotdogs; and, probably my favorite: Why does this bother you so
Growing up, dinner was not a happy time in our house. Dinner was my mom setting
before us chipped beef on toast and my dad calling it shit-on-a-shingle. Or a pasta toss,
a slightly exotic but not too-far-out dish, and my dad scowling and saying—I'm not
kidding— "Why can't you just stick to meat and potatoes?" The three of us would laugh
nervously, quite aware that it wasn't really funny. Mother was not laughing.
Dinner was excruciating across many tables in the Midwest and beyond. I know that now,
after years of careful excavation. People are not always forthcoming with dinner stories.
You have to get them drunk, or know them for a year, before they will tell the truth about
their youth at the dinner table.
So why does it bother me so much? I realize we have a problem with obesity in this
country. I know there are too many kids who eat way too much and don't do enough. And
one wants to avoid the dreaded eating disorders common in adolescent girls. It shouldn't
bother me. It can't bother me. And yet, it does.
I think I know why. It's because cooking and consumption are part of the love exchange.
Even in America, where so many are obese and unfit, this is still true. In fact, more true.
I'd argue that Americans are obese and unfit because we suffer from an insatiable hunger
for love. But that's another story entirely.
Lydia picking grapes!
My favorite cooking show, Lydia's Italy, recently showed Lydia preparing a classic
Italian red sauce, which simmers for hours. "That smell," said Lydia, "waking up to that
smell, I knew that somebody loved me."
Cooking is intimate. An act of creation, an art, and I believe that art generally has love at
its center. Like any artist, the cook must consider his audience. High art obliterates the
self, sure, but real giving is about the audience. Consider the chef. Even musicians don't
achieve what the kitchen maestro achieves. Every act of food prep, down to the wiping
of the counter, is about making something for somebody else. The final product will
be given to others and then it will no longer exist. Music is practiced and perfected and
presented, and it, too, is absorbed by an audience. But that audience is sitting, usually.
Passive, a lot like the reader.
The chef's audience is quite the opposite. A diner is active in a most vulgar way. He
consumes. He opens his mouth, his nostrils flare, he lifts his fork, salivates, masticates
and finally, he swallows. Food is maybe the ultimate art, blending creation and time in
one perfect moment. Rich, soul filling, and temporary. Watch any cooking show and
you'll see what I'm talking about. The way those people chop, sauté, stir, or bake is like
soft porn. Note, too, how they always take a bite. On camera. We want to see it.
So, what happens when the audience rejects what is placed before it? All that macaroni
and cheese that is left to solidify? The tentative bite, really more a nibble, that is
reluctantly swallowed, the suppressed gag, the head shake, the demur, polite, "not my
favorite." Or the more thinly veiled disgust simply expressed as "NO!" The heart breaks,
that's what happens. It's rejection in its highest form. Crushing. Devastating. Worse than
publishers who write, "No thanks, but good luck!" The rejection of food goes deep. It's
personal. It's cellular. Gagging, for crying out loud!
I would add that all this is made worse because the cook is expected not to mind. A
performer who has been booed is supposed to be upset. We console her. We send her
chocolate. An author whose book is panned is given hugs. But the short order cook? She
is slapped on the back and told to shrug it off. Better luck next time! Often she is asked to
try to make the nutrition invisible. Make vegetables look like a chocolate sundae! Make
muffins and slip in a little invisible zuchinni! It's like asking a flutist to produce a little
Chopin on the recorder.
Yes, I try too hard. I make too much of it. It's too much pressure on the kids. I don't want
them to feel bad. Really. They can give me hugs and homemade cards and read with me,
hold my hand. I can still feel loved.
But at the very least I must demand my right to quiet devastation. If nothing else the
experience has given me a perfect comparison between motherhood and writing, two
largely thankless jobs that involve gobs of rejection. Also this kitchen failure casts a
delicate new light on food. An appreciation. Anything that is set before you, even in
a restaurant where it has been prepared by someone you don't know, who most likely
doesn't love you, has love in it. It has been chopped and stirred, measured and flipped, set
on a plate and handed to you. You owe it to the hands behind every bite to eat it like you
are aware of this fact.
Christy Stillwell is the mother of two, a poet, and a fiction writer. Read more at