The other day, I was talking with someone about raising kids. Specifically, we were talking about how to avoid gender pitfalls without overemphasizing gender norms. For example, how to help a little girl believe she is beautiful, without focusing on beauty too much. It reminded me of a story from last year, when I reached a powerful realization about parenting. The realization then led to an even deeper acknowledgement about single parenting. I owe the realization to Pokemon.
This is also, oddly, a story about food. A recipe for a sandwich. A Reuben sandwich. I don’t know the entire history of the Reuben, and it would be annoying anyway for me to try to give it to you, along with some misty photographs with just the right amount of dressing dribbled across the counter, or the perfect number of crumbs falling wistfully from the bread. The point is to talk about other things, while also sharing a sandwich. So, before you get your hopes up about history and tradition, just know that we’ve struck a crooked, delicious balance between what is possible, and what is expected.
Anyway, one winter day, at the early onset of my single parenthood, I picked up my two sons from school and headed home. I remember standing in front of the stove attempting to handle dinner while my oldest son crashed into a gaggle of plants, sending sand and soil flying into the carpet, the windowsills. He looked at me, guilty and sheepish, to find me half tugging on the pants of his younger brother, who was whining at a surprising decibel for his size, and I was half holding a ladle dripping broth onto the floor. I met his gaze, forgiving the chaos, taking a snapshot of my moment and almost laughing with absurd sympathy for myself. Well, here we are, I realized. This is my family. The whole three of us, for Lord only knows how long. After all, who in his right mind could walk into this house, and see this pinball life, and think Gee, this is beautiful, and I want a piece of this?
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. That’s what I remember lamenting.
Last week, I felt moved to make some corned beef. Not sure why. I bought a flat cut beef brisket at the butcher, about 4 lbs., and brined it in this:
2.5 qt distilled water
5 T kosher salt
5 T evaporated cane juice crystals
2 T cure #1
1 T black pepper
1 T allspice
1⁄2 t. garlic
3⁄4 t red pepper flakes
1 t bay leaf, crushed
I think, ultimately, I wanted to make pastrami. I love pastrami, and for those who don’t know the amazing and convenient coincidence of corned beef and pastrami, well, here it is: corned beef and pastrami are really closely related, in that you basically brine beef the same way, but then you boil it for corned beef, or you rub it with some extra seasonings and smoke it for pastrami.
I brined it for three days, turning it every day, amidst a dozen other activities around the New Year. I nearly forgot about it. The day came to boil it, and of course, I had my kids and we needed to get out of the house, so we went to the Arboretum with friends. No time to watch a boiling pot. So, I threw it in the crock-pot, added some water, and set it to low. We went out.
All day, I thought about it, and felt slightly ashamed of myself. Why wasn’t I boiling it, as is traditional? It would most certainly be overcooked in the crock-pot, since I had no idea when I would be getting home, and the crock-pot always cooks a little hotter than you’d like. I wondered what was the use in carefully brining a beef brisket for three days, if you are going to mess up the cooking part anyway. And, I thought, if it were overcooked at this stage, it would not be ideal to further smoke it for pastrami. So. My plans have been a bit waylaid. Whatever.
As dinner wound down, the plant crash cleaned up, the dribbled broth wiped from the floor, the three of us sat together at the table. The volume actually peaceful, I questioned my oldest son about his best friend. I had noticed that they hadn’t been hanging together when I came to pick him up at after school. He thought for a minute.
“We don’t really hang out at school. He has other friends,” my son said.
“Oh, I see,” I said. “How does that make you feel?”
“Well all those boys are older. And all they want to do is talk about Pokemon cards.”
Aha. I had recalled seeing these trading cards floating around. He continued,
“Whenever I try to talk about something else, they always just go back to talking about Pokemon cards. It kind of makes me wish that I just had some Pokemon cards, too.”
“I’m sure it does,” I say. “I remember things like that happening when I was a kid. It’s really hard, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I have some other friends who don’t care about the Pokemon cards. I play with them.”
“That’s good,” I say. “Are the kids with the Pokemon cards nice to you?”
“Well, they’re not mean. But they’re not really nice, either.”
“Right, I understand…do you think your friend should share some cards with you?”
“He does let me hold one or two sometimes, for a day or something. But then he wants them back. Cause if he lets me keep them then he doesn’t have as many to trade with. He has 26. And this older boy has so many. He has like 55.”
This whole conversation has my heart swelling, and I’m working on identifying this cocktail of feelings. Love for this sweet, sensitive boy. Stirring around with anxiety? Anger. Oh.
“Right,” I say. “Have you thought about trying to trade some other stuff for cards? To get your own collection started?”
“Yeah I tried that,” he said. “I had this squishy rat and this sticky spider, but no one wanted them. All they want is the cards.”
This morning, I woke up and pulled the slightly dry corned beef from the refrigerator, having removed it from the crock-pot a bit too late, as I had predicted the previous day. I let it cool on the counter and then wrapped it up and chilled it overnight. I decided I’d make Reuben sandwiches for lunch.
Usually, the Reuben sandwich is a combination of rye bread, thousand island dressing, sauerkraut, swiss cheese, and sliced corned beef. Well. I didn’t have swiss cheese, my corned beef was a little dry, and I didn’t have any rye bread. But as I stood in the kitchen thinking about this, I decided to mix up some thousand island, anyway. Like this:
¾ C. mayonnaise
3 T. ketchup
1 hard boiled egg, chopped
1/3 C. bread and butter pickles, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
chili garlic paste, to taste
I remember this inner vial sort of shattering, silently, as I talked to my son about the trading cards and my brain started deciding which sort of real-world system of social inequity to which I could compare this Pokemon card charade. Ugh. It’s like money, I thought. Here I am, mounting some wisdom along the lines of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, kid,” and it’s so awfully clear that such advice applies about as horribly to this dilemma as it does to any other.
“Hmmm,” I say. “That’s tough, buddy,” I say. And then, like a knife-wound, this reality hits me, about the two stories we will tell our children. We’ll tell both the stories, eventually, it’s just a matter of when.
One story is about the way the world should be.
The other story is about the way the world actually is.
Without really deciding, I laid forth the one about how it should be.
“Well, my love. People should be friends with you because of how awesome you are. You’re awesome. You’re loving, and really funny. And sweet. And if you could trade friends for cards, mama would probably have like fourteen decks of those cards right here for you to have. But I don’t.”
He started to suck his thumb, just looking at me. I continued,
“Those boys are gonna figure out what’s really up. You’re lucky you already know,” I said. “And, I happen to know that your best friend loves you. Always has. You know it, too, right? And when you let him down someday, which you will, hopefully you can remember all this.”
His eyes were fixed on me, but I wasn’t sure just how bored he was yet.
“I’ll stop now,” I said, “except to say that I love you. And I think you’re fantastic. I’m so glad you told me.”
“Have you written up a letter to Santa Claus yet?”
“Not yet,” he said.
“Well, maybe you can ask Santa for some Pokemon cards.”
“Yeah. But Christmas is only soon. Not really soon,” he said.
“Well. I think it’s soon enough,” I said.
“What if Santa doesn’t bring me any?”
I thought for a minute, there, with a knot of struggle between my temples.
“If Santa doesn’t get you any,” I said, “then Mama will.”
He nodded, satisfied. “Can I be done now mom?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. He rattled off to play.
We owe a lot of the way we cook to history, and tradition. Many people follow recipes for this simple fact. And many people avoid kitchen projects all together, because it feels intimidating to try and get everything right, like Grandma did. Or in a way that everyone would agree is a job well done.
But this is sort of how cooking is. There is the way it began, and then there are a million other ways that it actually happens, based on what you have on hand, or whether or not you went to the Arboretum. Just like parenting, or life, or the world, there is the way you’d like it to be. And then there is the way it is.
I knew I wanted to write about the Reuben. I sort of hate blogging (there, I said it), but I do it anyway, for a few reasons I haven’t figured out yet, and a few reasons I’m not quite ready to admit. So I figure if I’m gonna do it, I’m not just going to stick up a photo of the Reuben I ate, and pretend I made it with swiss cheese, just because that’s how you’re supposed to do it. And I’m not gonna NOT stick the picture up, just because I did it differently. Instead, I could just do this weird little dance in between, and we could talk about how the Reuben is supposed to be, and then all the ways I rallied to produce the “Reuben” that I ate for lunch.
With the thousand island mixed and chilling on the counter, I cracked open a jar of whole plant garden kraut. I sliced off some mild, not-swiss cheese.
I remember my heart chugged up a few tears, as soon as the little guy left the table. Again, my reality sat silently, about three millimeters from my face. And I felt no sorrow for myself, this time. No lamentations, now. I felt fine about it. I remember thinking that I would not have wanted anyone else to sit at that table with us, and talk about the confusion of belonging, anyway. This, after all, this Pokemon shenanigan, was just the first little worry, in a long line of worries my sons might bring to my ears. I couldn’t think of anyone worthy enough to help us out with that.
This is just how it is, I remember deciding.
The boys abed later, the house somewhat put back in order, and a glass of wine in my fist, I got online and ordered that child a hundred and sixty-two Pokemon trading cards.
As I clicked around on Amazon, I was a little triumphant, a little embarrassed. A little pissed off and a little bit crazed. A little sleepy and a little weepy. One of those moments when, as a parent, you are absolutely certain that you haven’t got the foggiest idea how to do this. As this emotionally-wrought transaction finished, for a grand total of $16.12, I just figured I would tell him the other story when I gave them to him. That’s the story about the way things are.
Somewhere in between the ideal and the real is where most of our life is really lived. My theory is if we can try to give both stories out as we go along, as honestly as possible, and even talk openly about the disparity between them (especially with our kids). then we are doing the best we can do.
So. I assembled my “Reuben” thusly:
1. Melt some butter, brush it on two slices of bread.
2. Line up the cheese on one slice of bread, and place it, cheese side up in a skillet. Toast the other piece of bread, butter-side down, too.
3. In a small cast iron, put some broth and some butter in with thinly sliced corned beef, place a lid on the pot and let it heat through.
3. On the bread without the cheese, spread some thousand island dressing.
4. On the bread with the melted cheese, pile on some kraut.
5. Place the warmed corned beef on top of the kraut, then top the sandwich with the thousand island dressed slice of bread. Slice in half and serve.
...And it was delicious. Even the four-year-old agreed.