My mother had to look for bargains everywhere, including the grocery store. We clipped coupons until our fingers were calloused, looked for sales and substituted cheaper ingredients than what recipes called for. I was eighteen before I realized you were expected to add hamburger to Hamburger Helper in order to complete the dish.
I packed my lunch bag with cheese ends and bologna ends between slices of expired bread and took a knife with me to cut the worms out of my over-ripe apple. For supper we had unlabeled cans of food and ate whatever was in them; they were cheaper because shoppers had to guess their contents, which was fun for us, imagining what was in them.
The one item we could eat to our heart’s content was cabbage and boy, did we eat a lot of it! Boiled, boiled then fried, boiled then fried with bologna ends, in soups, with a dab of mayonnaise as a salad, grated with a dab of mayo for coleslaw. Our house forever smelled of cabbage.
I’ve always had a bad stomach and I remember how I suffered from “Cabbage Overload” even as a kid. My entrance into a room was usually followed by the question, “What in the world is that smell?” It’s cabbage, Dude.
I stopped eating the stuff when I nabbed my first boyfriend because I didn’t want the house (or me) to stink. My mother was upset but I was anorexic by then so it didn’t really matter what she made—I wasn’t going to eat it. Besides, I had a pretty decent part-time job so I could buy the groceries and watch happily as she chowed down on roast beef and fried chicken with fresh vegetables.
My boyfriend loved fast food and would sometimes bring over bags of McDonald’s hamburgers and French fries and we’d all sit there gorging ourselves. I’d stop eating for two or three days after that to maintain my figure but boy, those binges were awesome! And not a cabbage leaf in sight!
Years later, whenever my Irish husband requested corned beef and cabbage I would make idle promises and then ‘forget’ to make it.
On our fifteenth wedding anniversary we decided to go to a fancy French restaurant to celebrate. The waiters were polished, the background music was romantic, and my husband, who had been taking language lessons from a taped program, ordered from the menu in French.
“Choux farci, s’il vous plait,” he told the waiter. I was impressed.
The wine flowed and we flirted with one another shamelessly until our waiter returned, balancing two cloches. He served Madame first, whisking off the cloche as though unveiling a masterpiece.
My smile faded as I caught a whiff of a familiar smell.
“What is this?” I asked him.
“Choux farci, Madame,” he replied airily. “Stuffed cabbage.”
My husband watched intently as I took my first bite. “Good?” he asked. “I know you don’t like cooking it so I thought it would be fun to have someone else make it for us.”
I had never told him about my cabbaged-laced history and therefore knew he was innocent of any prank. I must admit that the dish was good, the evening was wonderful, and it ended with us dancing to C’est Si Bon sung by Yves Montand, after dinner as it was broadcast by speakers in the parking lot.
Both my husband and my mother are gone, now and occasionally I buy a head of cabbage and cook it up just like my mother used to. The smell is no longer repulsive; it’s nostalgic, part of the store of my fondest memories, along with clipping coupons and thrifty shopping.
And sometimes when I’m grocery shopping I buy a few unlabeled cans, just for the fun of it.