For two years, I lived in a basement apartment about the size and shape of a phone booth resting on its side. At one end was a twin bed, and at the other end was a love seat. Next to the bed was a tall, wooden crate with a single shelf inside. I kept my alarm clock on that shelf and my TV -- an appliance my landlord had loaned to me out of pity -- balanced on top. At the foot of the bed was a closet so shallow that the corners of the hangers knocked against the door when it was closed.
The area between the bed and the love seat was the kitchen...or what I called the kitchen. A white enamel countertop followed the wall for about five feet before bending into an "L" and extending for another two. In the center was a sink about the size of a large dictionary and next to that the stovetop, which was really two electric burners -- a glorified hot plate.
Beneath the stove, just before the "L," was a small refrigerator that may have been designed by Fischer-Price. Inside was a freezer about the size of a shoebox that sealed itself closed with ice every seven to ten days. Typically, people place things into a freezer for long-term storage. If I failed to eat my TV dinners and ice cream right away, I had to use my hammer to bust them out.
My landlord ran her catering business from the house above my basement, where she lived with her daughter and their cat, an overweight tabby who liked to visit me, sit in front of the love seat and lick himself for long periods of time. I had no phone (I used a pay phone in town) and no car.
What I did have was food.
This was the first time I was completely responsible for what I ate each day. In college I went to the cafeteria, even when I lived off campus. Before that, I lived at home. Free to develop my explore skills (or starve to death), I started cooking. Each weekend, I'd grab my backpack, climb onto my bike and ride to the small grocery store about a mile away. With my haul strapped down with bungie cord, I'd ride home.
At first, I prepared the simple foods I enjoy; chili, hot wings, fried chicken. The chili gave me food poisoning and the smell of greasy fried chicken was in the air for a week.
Elaborate cooking was difficult (with only two seven-inch electric burners, almost everything qualified as "elaborate"), but I still held dinner parties for my non-claustrophobic friends. One particular summer evening my girlfriend, her friend and my sister visited to eat lobsters. I bought several sticks of butter for dipping and a large bag of oyster crackers. I was very proud of the huge lobster pot I had bought just for the occasion and filled it 3/4 full of water, set it on a burner and turned up the heat.
Half an hour later, small bubbles had just started to form at the bottom of the pot, we had eaten all of the crackers (after dipping them in the melted butter) and my girlfriend suggested that we ask my landlord the caterer if we could use her "normal" stove to boil the lobsters, who had begun to show signs of hope and relief on their little faces.
Eventually, I returned to the foods I enjoyed on cozy Pennsylvania evenings: soft string beans in steaming cream of mushroom soup, topped with crunchy, fried onions; dry toast dipped in hot coffee for breakfast; elbow macaroni with butter and grated cheese. With each plate I remembered not only how to prepare these dishes, but why. My mother made green bean casserole because her mother did, and maybe even her mother before her. The ingredients were inexpensive and could feed a hungry family. That's what they had, and that's what they used.
Today, we eat these dishes because we ought to. To know where we came from, to acknowledge the sacrifices that our parents and our parents' parents made to feed their children, their spouses, their friends. We dip our bread into simmering pots of pasta sauce to taste our family culture. We eat meatloaf sandwiches to remember the simple meals that nourished our forebearers. We sit at the table to honor our grandparents, our parents, ourselves and our children.
Gracie stars at me from across the table, a steaming plate of Chicken with Mushroom Sauce before her. "Why do I have to eat this?" she whines, crinkling her nose into a knot.
"Because that's what we do," I say.