My Most Memorable Meal

30 Oct

What’s your most memorable meal? I asked myself that question today as I was making homemade chili for lunch. I put too much red pepper in the sauce and I was trying to think of a way to dilute it without opening up another can of tomato sauce. Then I spied some packages of Heinz Ketchup, the kind you get with take-out burgers, in the butter compartment of my refrigerator.

“Okay,” I thought, “I’ll just plop a couple of these in the chili pan—the pepper will disguise the ketchup-ey taste.”

I tried it, and it worked. It brought me back to the days when I was a very young single mother in the early 1980s, just a year or two out of the Academy of Art in San Francisco, from which I had graduated with a degree in commercial illustration.

I was living in Concord, California and working as a part-time file clerk at a medical doctor’s practice in downtown Berkeley. I had chosen part-time work, because the rest of the time I wanted to devote to “finishing my portfolio” of sample illustration pieces–which I never seemed to complete because each sample I produced didn’t seem nearly good enough to sell to a client.

The truth was, I knew in my heart, even as I worked diligently on that long-ago portfolio of sample illustration pieces, that I would never be able to earn a living as a commercial illustrator. I didn’t have the temperament for producing slick art on demand, and I didn’t have the ability to sell myself to potential clients. I was too panicky to deal with the deadlines, and too shy and lacking in self-confidence to pound the pavement and glad-hand strangers in order to get work.

My rent was about 3/4s of my income; everything else, including my student loan payment, came out of the 1/4 that was left. Rent was a fixed cost; transportation fare to my part-time job was a fixed cost; my student loan payment was a fixed cost. The only variables in my budget were things like food and utilities, so there was where I had to skimp. I skimped a lot.

In winter and early spring, I turned off the furnace every night before going to bed; in fact, I was 34 years old before I ever slept in a house where the furnace stayed on all night. I bought a lot of Top Ramen, which in those days was something like 25 cents a package. My little son was just about six or seven years old, but I was too proud to apply for the free lunch program at his public school, so I made him PB&J sandwiches every day for his Disney lunchbox. We survived for several years like that, although rather haphazardly.

One evening I was settling in at home with my little son, after the long commuter train trip from Berkeley and then the bus trip and walk to my apartment in Concord. My paycheck cycle was in the far backstretch, and I realized that I had no real food in the house with which to make dinner. I had a few dollars and quarters in my purse, enough for something cheap like a couple of Swanson’s meat pies, but I had no car, and the local Safeway was several blocks away. Walking there and back with a tired, hungry six-year-old in tow was not an attractive prospect.

I canvassed my empty refrigerator for ideas. Then I spied it: a half-eaten, cooked hamburger, left over from a couple of nights before. I took the still-edible meat patty out of the mummified buns, and chopped it into small pieces. There was also a still-fresh half-onion in the refrigerator; I chopped that up as well. Then I threw everything in a saucepan with a large helping of ketchup and some warm tap water to thin it out a bit. I had dry spaghetti in a cupboard, so I boiled it up. You can probably guess where this is going from there.

Yup, My Most Memorable Meal was Ketchup Spaghetti, Heinz Al Dente.  But the ketchup was not really what made it memorable; that came about because of the comments from my son when he wandered into the kitchen and saw the pan of spaghetti “sauce” simmering on the stove.

“Wow, we’re having spaghetti for dinner?” he exclaimed. “I thought we weren’t going to have anything to eat tonight at all!”

Well, of course, those innocent words from my child pierced my heart to the quick, and they still make me cringe some thirty years later. I look back to those years and try to remember why I didn’t apply for food stamps or free school meals, or why I didn’t get a full-time clerical job to improve my income.

It all came down to–not just pride–but fear: fear of being trapped by the welfare system and never getting out; fear of being trapped in the pink clerical ghetto and never getting out. I and my little son both went hungry and cold at times because of those twin fears.

My career path eventually took a much different course from what I had ever expected all those years ago, and I eventually achieved some success in a series of corporate jobs that depended on my writing skills, rather than my art skills. I did not get trapped forever in either the pink clerical ghetto, or in the welfare dependency cycle, like so many other single parents.

Was it all worth those hungry and cold nights, those packages of Top Ramen, those times when I had to make a desperate jerry-rigged dinner like the Ketchup Spaghetti?

I don’t know.

I just know that I did it my way, and it all worked out in the end.

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