Growing up with my two sisters in a small apartment by the sea in Pacific Grove, CA frozen french toast was considered a special breakfast and for some reason completely beyond me the combination of frozen pizza and french fries was a go-to dinner if my dad stopped by the store on the way home from work. Vegetables were always around but they were almost always frozen and overcooked to an ambiguous green-orange mess since that was the way my dad liked them, having grown up on mushy canned stuff as a kid in Philly. Sometimes my mom would take us on the bus to the Farmers’ Market where we’d treat ourselves to berries in the summer. My mom made most meals, would score us mangoes into “hedgehogs,” would draw or paint elaborate scenes on our brown paper lunch bags, and would never get us Gushers or Fruit Roll-ups like we wanted, but it’s the meals my dad cooked that I remember most.
Typically traditional, my dad cooks three times a year- it used to be four until I took over Thanksgiving in a Food Network-inspired tirade- and occasionally bakes an incredibly elaborate cake. Every year for as long as I can remember he’s cooked a traditional Polish meal for Christmas Eve, roast “beast” (a la The Grinch) for Christmas dinner, and a lasagna or two for New Years. He grew up in a working-class Irish/Polish household and, despite having his Polish grandmother and all her recipes around, would have Mrs. T’s pierogies, kielbasa, Manischewitz latkes, and frozen lima beans- with sour cream, apple sauce, and a wafer from the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Tradition on a budget. And so this is the tradition he wanted to instill in us, and we’ve had it every year of my entire life. If we didn’t, I think the world would end. The meal hasn’t deviated at all, not with a change in family income, not with knowledge or incentive to make these dishes from scratch, not with dietary restrictions (though one year I made vegan latkes for myself, and this year we fried the pierogies in olive oil instead of butter).
My Nana keeps a box of Mrs. T’s pierogies in her fridge year-round, but at my house they’re saved for Christmas Eve and Christmas Eve only. And I still refuse to eat frozen lima beans, and my dad still makes so. many.
I looked forward to the 4 hours drive between Washington D.C. and Raleigh, North Carolina that me and my Dad took when I was a little girl. I had my favorite stops along the way…Waffle House and fast foods we didn’t have in D.C. I would take a small nap, wake up to ask “where are we?” It didn’t matter really because as long as we were just outside of Richmond Va or passing Richmond - I knew that a Waffle House wouldn’t be far! My dad liked to drive fast which was only problematic when he wanted to make time and didn’t want to stop! So, my secret was to have to go to the bathroom - of course near a eating place as opposed to stopping at the rest stops, that never had food. Driving fast was usually alright because the final destination of course was Grandma’s house.The sooner we got there the better. Before leaving our house we would call her and let her know we were getting on the road. That triggered her beginning to cook and timing things just so everything would be ready, when I came running through the screen door! Big hug and kiss for grandma and grandpa - and next “What’s to eat?!”