the way it used to be
By Jason Offutt
mornings, Mom's kitchen glowed like the radiation leaks in comic books. Window
shades pulled up and the room awash in air that moved in waves because the
kitchen was at least 400 degrees hotter than the rest of the house. Every part
of the stove, every Crock-Pot, every electric griddle was on and cooking. Yeah,
it looked like a comic book radiation leak, if radiation leaks were golden brown
and smelled of sage.
She'd have been up for hours when my sisters and I finally rolled into
the kitchen, our eyelashes flecked with sleep, not knowing whether we should
risk a bowl of Coco Puffs on our hungry stomachs, or if we should tough it out
to wait for the once-a-year feast Mom was going to bury us in for the
Thanksgiving dinner. The food's aromas lulled us into that room. A pie, some
years pumpkin, some years pecan, already cooling on the counter, the turkey
still sitting in the speckled black roasting pan on 350 degrees as it would be
for another hour or two, and the strips of raw bacon draped over the green beans
just starting to wrinkle. The potatoes were skinned and in a pot of water, but
they weren't boiling yet. There'd be plenty of time for that. Mom had
Thanksgiving Day down to a mathematical equation. Turkey equals Time. Simple as
that. Everything else could be done while the turkey cooked. Dishes that took
the longest were wrestled with first, everything else followed by order of
preparation and cooking time. All she expected of us kids was to leave her alone
and stay the hell out of the kitchen.
"Get your nose out of the oven," she'd shout just as one of us would
crack open the oven door to catch a scent of the Thanksgiving bird. "You'll
let all the heat out."
My middle sister would always be good for a few olives snitched off the tray Mom
placed on the kitchen table. I think she put it there to keep us from getting
into the really important food. We felt like we'd gotten away with something if
we came away with a green olive, or maybe a sweet pickle before the whistle blew
and we could fill our plates.
Most years a few relatives would show up, my grandparents and whatever out-of-stater
was in town for the holiday. More relatives meant my sister's and I would get
stuck at the card table in the living room instead of sitting at the dining room
table with the grownups. I didn't mind sitting at the kid's table. Nobody was
there to tell me to "quit eating so fast, you look like a farm hand."
Of course, an errant pea airlifted from my plate onto one of my sisters' plates
might get me a punch in the arm, but it was worth it.
Having relatives over also meant dishing up our plates wasn't the
free-for-all it usually was at a normal Offutt meal. The kids would always go
first, followed by the women, then the men, although Mom usually went last –
cook's prerogative. We'd file by the turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy,
loading up on the good stuff before we hit the sweet potatoes and green beans,
although one of us kids would usually fight over the strips of green bean bacon.
My favorite was Mom's stuffing, chunks of it heaped on my plate in uneven piles
like broken masonry. Of course, if I'd known what it was made of, I might not
have liked it. I hated soggy bread. My sandwiches had to have a protective layer
of meat before any mustard or mayonnaise went on for fear of making the bread
mushy. But I didn't know. All I watched out for in Mom's stuffing were the
onions which seemed to find their way into everything she cooked.
I didn't dislike onions. I just had to make sure they were well cooked
before I stuffed a big forkful into my mouth. I hated biting into something
crunchy in a dish that was supposed to be soft. Sometimes when I was playing
outside in the summer, I'd sneak off to the garden and pull up some of the
little green ones, well before they grew into the huge, white tumors Mom stuffed
into old panty hose and hung from the ceiling in our basement.
After dinner, bellies full enough to puke, all the men – boys included,
which usually meant just me – went into the living room to watch the Lions or
the Cowboys play football, most of us dozing off. Meanwhile all the women –
sisters included – cleaned the kitchen, wiped cabinets, and put leftovers in
used margarine containers Mom saved just for this week's worth of leftovers. The
dishes, and I never knew where all the dishes came from there seemed too many to
fit in our kitchen, were all Mom's. She insisted on washing them herself even
though it looked like all the extras from "The Ten Commandments" had
just stopped at our house long enough to make sandwiches and leave.
After everything was cleaned, the grownups headed back in the kitchen to drink
beer and play pitch, usually sneaking another bite or two of turkey. Every
Thanksgiving afternoon, I was sure I wouldn't eat for at least a day,
although I always ended up having supper later that night.
The laughter of grownups, poured from the kitchen into the rest of the house as
someone took a hand, or foot, or whatever it meant to win. I'd go in the kitchen
sometimes just to watch, the sharp, smell of cigarette smoke smothering the last
of the morning's Thanksgiving smells. I knew I'd be a grown up when I got to sit
at the kitchen table and play pitch. But, I didn't mind waiting.
Copyright 2006 by Jason Offutt
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Jason Offutt is an award-winning humor columnist. You can subscribe to Jason's
(more or less) monthly newsletter and buy Jason's e-book "Didn't life Used
to be Easy?" on the World Wide Web at: www.jasonoffutt.com
Jason Offutt has been writing longer than he can
remember. Rumors are there are notes for a column written on his mom's uterine
wall, which he really, really doesn't want to think about.
In his career, Jason has been a newspaper editor, general assignment reporter,
photographer, newspaper consultant, bartender, farm hand and the mayor of a
small Midwestern town. He's been named humor writer of the year by the Missouri
Press Association, humor writer of the month by the Erma Bombeck Workshop of the
University of Dayton, Ohio, and his family thinks he's kind of neat, too.
Jason currently teaches journalism at Central Missouri State University and
works for a magazine in Kansas City, Mo.
His humor column "As I was saying" is published in a couple of
newspapers, but in not nearly enough.
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Funny Columns from Southern Humorists