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Apron Anxiety: My Messy Affairs in and Out of the Kitchenby Alyssa Shelasky
Raised by Drake’s
Every morning of my life, my mother has eaten a packaged Devil Dog for breakfast.
She dunks it into milky tea while skimming the New York Times, glancing at Good Morning America, and preparing for a day of real estate domination. Her “Devils” have been her mimosas, her morning stretch, her sun salutations, and her beloved first lick-of-the-lips for nearly sixty years. She brings them everywhere, from early morning meetings to trips around the world, stashed in leather briefcases, burlap bags, and woolly blazers. She buys them in bulk, hides them from the family (as if anyone would steal her dry, wannabe whoopie pies), and writes letters to the CEO of Drake’s when the taste or texture is “not quite right.” She is, after all, a full-blown Virgo.
It’s an endearing, yet deranged, quirk of hers. Especially if you know my mother. She doesn’t drink alcohol, eat fast food, or engage in anything else that would piss off Michael Pollan. She religiously consumes at least five pieces of fruit, along with a small village of raw vegetables (all locally grown, of course), every single day. It’s not unusual to find her walking home from the farmers’ market blissfully biting into a glistening red pepper or a fat head of purple cabbage, the way one would a huge frosted cupcake. Lunch for her involves fresh eggs, nice cheese, crispy toast, or some peasantlike variation of such, and dinner is light and often vegetarian. My mother listens so carefully and respectfully to her body and its needs, she’s never had any issues with her weight or health. If you can get past her dirty little habit, you might even call her a purist.
Being a locavore with a Devil Dog addiction isn’t the only trait that makes my mother, and by extension, my entire family, a bit idiosyncratic. My younger sister, Rachel, and I grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, a bucolic town where do-gooder Irish and wealthy WASP intersect. As funny, touchy-feely, freethinking Jews, we never quite belonged in either category, but we liked our uniqueness and had a lot of friends. It’s not like we were mouth-breathing, worm-collecting weirdos; we were just a little offbeat.
For nursery school, my parents sent me to a New Age program at the Unitarian church, where I ate carob all day and splatter-painted my dreadlocked teacher’s Volkswagen Bug. When I was five years old, my mother took us to a production of Hair, a mirage of music, revolution, and raw penis; we gave it a standing ovation. By third grade, I wrote screenplays, confessionals, and fan letters to reporters at the New York Times. I played Suzuki-method violin and picked up the bassoon because it was so awkward and oafish that I felt bad for it. I acted and danced, atrocious at both, but nonetheless, I was passionate about all my hobbies. I was also wild about shag haircuts, redecorating my room, and winning limbo contests. Naturally, I held several lucrative tag sales, a biannual backyard art installation, and weekly fashion shows of jelly bracelets and bandannas. Everyone loved me or hated me, and so it would go.
But I was prone to trouble, too. At seven years old, I traumatized my parents by disappearing at the mall, only to be found on the lower level, giving an interview about shopping trends to the local TV news. (A few years later, at the same mall, I swiped Chanel No. 5 from Lord & Taylor and got arrested.) At age eight, a rotten friend convinced me to fake my own neighborhood kidnapping . . . which got way out of hand, and I felt bad about it forever. Around fourth grade, a rude boy called some new girl a “fat slut” and I slugged him in the stomach, getting me sent home immediately. Around that time, I practically forced our neighbor’s teenage son to whip it out and then pee in a Coke can, which I couldn’t not tell the world about, branding the poor kid a “sick-perv” to the gossips on the block. And even before I could spell “adolescence,” I was obviously caught in some filthy rounds of the game Doctor.
The thing that kept me on the side of sensible, even as a young kid, was that I required an absurd amount of stimulation, followed by an absurd amount of personal space. A writer from the womb, I kept countless journals about life, death, and dreamy boys—all of equal importance. Some thoughts were so dark that I should have been committed; others were so frivolous that I could have been on The Hills. But there was always that duality: writer with a heavy heart, and wild child with a stethoscope on her crotch.
I definitely didn’t get the badass in my bloodstream from my dad. Edward Shelasky is a gentle, easygoing, law-abiding citizen. He’s a simple Red Sox–rooting, Monopoly-playing, Seinfeld-loving “Masshole,” and the youngest of three children from the lovely and successful couple Milton and Dorothy Shelasky, my grandparents. The Shelaskys had a third-generation uniform business (which my father eventually took over), and they raised him to be quiet, warm, and understanding. In other words, the perfect father to two dramatic daughters. My sister and I may idolize my mom, but we feel as equally blessed to have the world’s most attentive father, who played with us as kids and listens to us as adults. Both Milton and Dorothy passed away before I turned thirteen, but I adored them so, and I can still taste my grandmother’s luscious brisket and my grandfather’s stash of frozen Snickers. They were wonderful grandparents . . . even if they always suspected my mother to be a crazy, hippie, gypsy freak.
Laurie Temkin Shelasky, my mom, comes from a struggling, salt-of-the-earth family. True survivors. Her loving father, Lazar Temkin, was a good but complicated man. He died when she and her five siblings were children. Along with my wise, beautiful, ever-resilient grandmother, Dorothy Pava, the Temkin children had many hardships and tragedies, but they survived through endless laughter and fierce loyalty to each other. My aunts, uncles, and cousins are always the first to have my back and are fully responsible for the one thing I know to be true in life—that family is everything. They may not be perfect, but there aren’t better people than the loud, lawless, rambunctious, rough-around-the-edges Temkins.
The Temkins also have a contagious secret language. “P.T.” is shorthand for “poor thing,” like people born without faces, or my shy sister who threw up on every school field trip. “O.D.D.” stands for “odd,” but dangerously so, like the Unabomber or Octomom. “N.G.” is “no good,” like my friend who made me fake the kidnapping. And my favorite is the family motto, borrowed from The Big Lebowski: “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.” This has evolved into any one of us screaming, “I ate the freakin’ bear!” or “Bear Stew!” whenever something goes our way. And for the Temkins, that isn’t every day.
One time, as a kid visiting New York, I was on the bus with my mother when a bloated man in Burberry, complete with croissant in his beard and crust in his eyes, yelled at me for resting my pocketbook on an unused seat. Mind you, the entire bus was empty except us. “Were you raised by wolves, you stupid girl?” he mumbled bitterly. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry until my fearless mother—the same woman who grounded us only if we were rude or remotely unkind to others—came to the rescue with fangs: “Actually, she was raised by me, you fat fuck!” My mom and I laughed so hard we had to exit the bus to contain ourselves.
Accordingly, with the fusion of the elegant Shelaskys and the untamable Temkins, my sister and I turned out somewhere between highbrow and hillbilly. We are Bergdorf Goodman and Bob’s Discount Store; we are Veuve Clicquot and watermelon wine coolers; we are JAPs and townies. We are . . . who we are.
Our family ate almost every breakfast and dinner together, not that any of us helped Mom with the preparations. We were not spoiled financially, but for some reason, we never lifted a finger when it came to getting fed. My mother’s time in the kitchen was her private pleasure. I think that because her childhood was so chaotic, the kitchen gave her a sense of control. She baked before anyone woke up in the morning, or when we were at school, and to be honest, I’m not even sure how or when dinner got done. Even though she’d always rather be near her children than not, we instinctively left her alone when she was at the stove in her apron.
My mother approached ingredients like a European. She’d drive an hour away, toward the Berkshires, for rural, street-side produce stands almost daily. Rarely did she purchase anything canned or processed at the supermarket, and needless to say, she’s never “nuked” a thing in her life. (How to work a microwave is still a mystery to all of us.) Mom baked most of her own breads and all of our family’s desserts from scratch. With her riffs on Moosewood and Silver Palate recipes, she made delicious soups, hearty stews, and simple proteins, experimenting with couscous, quinoa, and other rustic dishes that didn’t really show up in the suburbs during the 1980s and ’90s. When we did have meat, it was nothing fancy, just whatever cut was on sale, proudly served to the family and cooked “extra well done.” Fish was infrequent and also baked to a crisp. My mother didn’t know or care about the secret rules to fine dining, where steaks are bloody and fish is gently seared, and ironically, it’s that disregard for cooking conventions that made her so comfortable in our happy, terra-cotta kitchen. We might have held our utensils in the wrong hand and had inappropriate (yet unthinkably funny) conversations at the dinner table, but we drank sparkling Pellegrino with fresh lemon, sat with excellent posture, and spooned out our sauces and gravies from cherry red ramekins.
We also semi kept kosher—not so stringently, but enough that pig roasts and shrimp cocktail were totally off the menu. And my dad had perilously high cholesterol, so that meant light on the red meat, treif or not. For those reasons and the irrefutable fact that my folks were also a bit frugal, we almost never went to restaurants. When we did, it was always Italian. Mom loved a fresh marinara; Dad loved just being out and about with his girls. And we never ordered in either. Besides once with a babysitter and a Domino’s pizza, I have no recollection of a delivery guy ever coming to our front door.
For school lunches, I brown-bagged it with hits and misses like cold chicken salad made with grapes and cashews on homemade whole-wheat bread, or leftover veal loaf with ketchup on a fluffy onion roll, or the dreaded splatter of chopped liver atop a wedge of crunchy iceberg lettuce (which resulted in a cafeteria-wide gag reflex). Suffice it to say, sugary soft drinks and fake foods like Slim Jims were foreign concepts to me. While other kids had snacks like Cool Ranch Doritos and rainbow Fruit Roll-Ups, our accoutrements were always two pieces of bruised fruit . . . and a note from Mom. Sometimes she would include a poem. She’d quote Thoreau: “Live the life you’ve dreamed.” Or W. C. Fields: “A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money.” And most often, Cora, her hippie shrink: “Balance, form, rhythm, and order.” Other times she just said “Hi.” No matter what, my mother’s words were always signed with “I love you MTLI,” which, in case you don’t have a parent who holds family meetings from the bathtub, means More Than Life Itself.
If I have one small qualm about food and my upbringing, it has something to do with frog legs, in that frog legs . . . and kimchi . . . and baby octopus . . . and drunken goat are examples of foods that we were never exposed to. There was no emphasis placed on adventurous and exotic eating; no expeditions in the name of new food experiences, unless you count apple picking. Compared to the white bread and mayo around us, we thought we were eccentric eaters, of course, with our ratatouille and butternut squash, but we really were not. Farro salads and toasted pine nuts might have been a sign of subtle sophistication back then, but it’s not like Andrew Zimmern would have knocked down our door to tape an episode of Bizarre Foods.
At least we grew up with an inherent love of healthy food and a genuine disinterest in Mc-anything. It’s just a minor shame. Had Mom encouraged us to be as adventurous, exploratory, and outside-the-box in our taste buds as she did in art, travel, literature, and especially love, Rachel and I would have grown to be world-class gourmets. Rather, we approach food the way she does, positively, if somewhat reservedly: eating tons of fruit, raw vegetables, and light, simple meals. Our inherent eating style might not be daring, but it’s nice, moderate, and devoid of most crap. We are in tune with our bodies (which, if we listen carefully enough, always tell us when we need fat, protein, roughage, etc.) and like Mom, we also have our weaknesses, and welcome them without any guilt or inner anguish.
I wouldn’t touch a Devil Dog if it were the last empty calorie on earth, but I sure had my own sugary habits. Growing up, we were technically allowed “one junk per day,” which I interpreted as the consumption of an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch ice cream. For an entire year, I ate one pint a day. I was long, lanky, and always in good health, and no one blinked at my grotesque ice cream intake, not even my quasi–health nut mom. With a spoon in one hand and a pencil in the other, I would close the doors to the den, pour my heart into my tattered journals, and my junk into my bottomless stomach. I went through the same phase with oversize Italian cannolis; “Lynn Papale’s cheesecake,” named after the recipe from one of my mother’s best friends; and gooey banana bread with extra chocolate chips. If the chocolate chip quotient was just right, I’d eat half a loaf per day.
The moment high school started, Ben & Jerry weren’t the only boys in my life anymore. I was totally carefree when it came to my sexuality (though I was actually an inexperienced virgin until senior year). The summer I turned fifteen, I went to sleepaway camp, Camp Ramah, as a skinny little runt and came back as Jessica Rabbit. I gained twenty-five pounds in two months, taking me from a training bra to a double D. It was a fascinating turn of events, and everyone back in Longmeadow was entranced by my new assets, especially me. One sip of beer and I’d take off my top and flash an entire room of horny teenagers. Blame my early exposure to the Age of Aquarius, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it. This became my shtick. I liked a reaction. I’d accept any dare, too. (My friend Andy McArthur swears I once humped an Oreo cookie, but I don’t even know how that would work.) After a few weeks of this kind of behavior, my group of girlfriends anointed my most protective pal, Anzo, to be my “agent.” I could only strip if she supervised and approved. Safety first.
I cherished my girlfriends, who, much like me, were good kids with a splash of the devil inside. Our late-night hangout was the Lil Peach parking lot; Lil Peach being what New Yorkers would call a bodega. There we rolled joints, stole Blow Pops, listened to 10,000 Maniacs, and perfected the art of female bonding. We were obsessed with boys, of course, but no one came before one another. Anzo and my other closest friend, Kates, had colossal appetites. Nothing got them more revved up than a night at Rube’s (Ruby Tuesday). I have never seen such pretty girls who were such glorious pigs. I stuck with the salad bar, simply because I barely knew how to approach things like twice-baked potato skins and blue-cheese buffalo chicken wings.
When I wasn’t busy with Rube’s or my boobs, I was writing for the Springfield Union-News (now the Springfield Republican). After a few dozen submissions to their youth-oriented section, “Unlisted,” they assigned me a weekly column about honest, if clichéd, high-school issues like the temptation to drink and drive, and getting asked to the prom by the last person you’d want to go with. Unsurprisingly, I found it easy to be so open. In real life or in print, there was nothing I was uncomfortable talking about. All my aunts, uncles, and friends’ parents clipped my articles and pinned them up on their fridges. They all told me that I would be a famous writer. My mom, dad, and sister were my trusted editors. It all felt so good, and confirmed what I had known my whole life: I would go to college in New York City and become a professional journalist.
Whether I was writing about it or living it, our kitchen table was the headquarters of boy problems and girl talk. It was the estrogen center of Western Massachusetts as far as my clique was concerned. My less-than-prude core posse, Anzo, Kates, Court, and Jean, loved confiding in my open-minded mother—who was half Joan Baez, half Jewish intellectual—over good cries and comfort food. During our hours and hours of deep thoughts and confessions, my good-natured dad kept himself fake-busy in the yard, and my sister would hide in her room because my funny, filthy friends freaked her out. The girls were fixated on a pasta dish my mother made that we called the Pasta. It’s light and clean, with thick spaghetti, fresh tomatoes, a touch of garlic, and a sprinkle of cheese; we would inhale it like wildebeests. At school, the girls pleaded for it through our rampant note-passing, which, among other much more vulgar topics, always included, “Tell Laur to make the Pasta tonight.”
Our absolute favorite place to hang, however, was Jean’s big, antique house in the center of town. Jean Rogér was the most popular girl at Longmeadow High School. She was the star of the swim team who could out-party anyone, a straight-A student who skipped most of her classes, and a beautiful girl who was way beyond appearances. Every day before the first bell rang, she would perch alone in the cafeteria, with her long legs and short hair, breezily slicing her bagel and buttering it in the same circular motion morning after morning. Jeanie and her bagel were like clockwork. She’d quietly read the paper or pleasantly engage with anyone who excitedly walked her way. Even the teachers were drawn to her dazzling yet totally disarming energy. “Jeanie has it all,” my mother would always say.
What made Jean even cooler was her mom. Punky Rogér was (and still is) a cig-smoking, golf-playing country clubber with a good marriage and a vibrant social life. Our teenage hearts would sing when she stayed home to hang around with us, in her clunky, rose-gold jewels that dangled over her tanned, slender frame. Around the holidays, Punky always made these round, chocolate-covered peanut butter balls called Buckeyes, and when we weren’t stealing her Barclay 100’s, playing her Jimmy Buffet records, or learning to drive stick on her old BMW, we were pounding dozens of them.
While Jean’s family and their social circle, which included most of my other friends’ parents, were “old-money chic”—cocktails, nicotine, and khakis—my family was the absolute opposite. My father drinks two beers a year, if that, and my mother never touches the stuff. My friends’ families summered in beach houses in places like Hilton Head and Nantucket; we visited old tombstones in New York City. They skied and sailed; we played Scrabble and saw off-Broadway plays.
Needless to say, there wasn’t much intermingling between my parents and the Rogérs’ crowd, but there was a mutual fondness. My mother was Annie Hall to their Ann Taylor. She never cared one bit about fitting in. It was almost like she was empowered by being an outsider. The strong women who were my friends’ mothers truly respected that Mom, the only one who had never been to “the club” for gossip, gin ’n’ tonics, or golf lessons, marched to her own beat in such a quietly rebellious way. Of course, they also knew how much she adored their daughters.
Five years after graduating from high school, with all of us girls scattered around the East Coast and enjoying our twenties, the events of September 11 happened. My mother called just as I saw the first black suit jacket flapping through the sky, not too many blocks down. Trying to process what the hell was going on and praying that everyone I knew who worked in lower Manhattan was okay, I just couldn’t pick up the phone at that moment. It didn’t occur to me to worry about anyone not living in the city. Until Mom called again, and I heard her voice.
She could barely say the words: “Jeanie was on that plane.”
She loved that girl.
Following Jean’s death, my friends from Longmeadow, including their siblings and parents, became cemented as the most important people in my life, outside my own family. We pulled together that year and have remained tightly interlocked ever since. There is no friendship like the one born in youth and forged in tragedy.
I think back to my childhood all the time, and as most people would say, the memories always take me to the kitchen table—telling secrets to my mother, sipping cauliflower soup with my dad and sister, or scarfing down the Pasta with my lifelong best friends. And sometimes, the memories bring me back to a buttered bagel, too.
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