A Change in the Menu

What to eat: that’s the whole point here (eventually).

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This is the year, by gum, that I stick to my New Year’s intentions. And one of those is to be much more organized.  The first thing I did, on New Year’s Day itself, was to clean out the pantry shelves.

Those cluttered shelves, lodged in a tall, skinny, little closet-type cabinet next to the cellar doorway in the kitchen, have been making me antsy. I always save things like paper bags that can carry a lunch and plastic bags that can hold a loaf of home-made bread. (We don’t bring home as many of the plastic bags these days, as we make most of our bread at home. But there are some weeks where Jim gets a craving for CWB—Cheap White Bread—and we indulge. When that store-bought loaf is gone, I shake out the bag, and stuff it into the second-from-the top pantry shelf, against the day.)

But these are habits from a different life.

Mark comes home, now, almost every day for lunch; he doesn’t need a paper lunch bag. I carry my lunch on teaching days, but I use an insulated carry-all. The ranks of our unused, lunch-sized, paper bags have swelled, swallowing up shelved boxes of aluminum foil and wax paper, rolls of compostable, plant-based garbage bags, and a very long tube of parchment paper.

The plastic bags were doing the same to bottles and jars of sauces and condiments on the shelves below.

I needed to clean, but the shelves are high, and I dislike clambering on a chair to reach the tippy-top, to see to wipe things down, to remove long forgotten treasures, and to decide what to do with the flotsam.

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That reality led me to the thought that one needs the right tools for the job. Jim was thinking along the same lines; he had acquired a lot of books and many DVD’s at Christmas. He has shelves downstairs with his collections organized by genre, and his new stuff mandated that he take things off shelves and reorganize.

Jim likes reorganizing; it’s one of his joys, but even the most joyful reorganizer gets weary.

So he clears off, say, five shelves, towering books on his desk and chairs, and then he works diligently to incorporate the new tomes. He considers and he places, and shelves slowly fill up, and Jim slowly slows down. After an hour or two, he will trudge up the stairs.

“Time for a break,” he will mutter, and go off to, perhaps, play a video game.

Meanwhile, there are still book towers on his desk, hovering over and thwarting his attempts to sit at his desktop and write reviews.

“You need,” I said to him one day in late December, “a rolling cart.”

Jim turned, three books in hand, and his face was illuminated. “Yes!” he said. “Like at the library! Then if I don’t finish, I can just roll the cart out of the way!”

That weekend, I went with the boyos on their regular Saturday excursion. We recycled, and we went to the ReStore and mooched around. (I bought sweet little fancy dishes to hold some wonderful, handmade soaps a wonderful friend sent as a complete surprise.) Then we went to the farm supply store.

James bought a sturdy cart, kind of like a three-tiered red metal wagon, to sort stuff on. I bought a sturdy step-stool, which doubles as a seat in the kitchen.

That weekend, I cleared off the shelf over the microwave and stove—a shelf that is just a pain in the neck to reach on a dining room chair. And then, on New Year’s Day, I cleaned the little pantry. (That little step-stool makes a big, big difference.)

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I cleaned, and I found amazing stuff. I cleared shelves off, putting everything into a big basket, and I sorted the stuff on the counter. I found three boxes of matches; I crossed ‘matches’ off the shopping list. I found boxes of taco shells, rices for risottos, and three bags of egg noodles. Way in the back, I found some Chiavetta’s barbecue sauce (a local delicacy from our childhood hometown) we’d forgotten all about. That was exciting until Mark noticed the use-by date, which was 2014.

Glug, glug, glug.

James, who loves to watch Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, went through an exotic sauce-buying stage a while back. Among the bottles and jars and boxes, I found Tandoori sauce, Shawarma marinade, and Peanut Bangkok sauce. Those sauces were all still healthy, and Jim’s eyes lit up.

I wiped down the shelves and put everything back neatly. Then, Mark and I went through the shelves leading down the stairs to the cellar, and we put all the bottles of sauce in the pantry, and the canned veggies in the cellarway, and stood back and took a look.

The canned goods and other staples were beautifully arranged and easy to grab. That was when I decided I needed to go back to my old, old habit: creating weekly menus.

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I sat down on Friday to make a meal plan. I checked through the freezers to be sure I knew what meat was on hand; I looked at the calendar, seeing who would be where when. I flipped through some recipes, made out a shopping list, and I wrote down menus for the next seven days.

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For Friday night dinner, I thought we’d have sloppy joes. But I forgot that Mark was traveling that day to New York State; he’d stay until Sunday and spend his mom’s birthday with her. Jim doesn’t like sloppy joes; it was silly to make them for just me. So Jim and I heated up a frozen pizza; I made a side salad, and we ate and watched Big Bang—a nice little break in the routine.

The next day, Saturday, Jim and I drove to Westerville, where we had the six-buck lunch at Dairy Queen. We mooched around the library and walked around downtown. We were hungry by the time we got home.

The menu read ‘cubed steaks.’ Perfect, I thought; I pulled the package of steak from the freezer. There were six in the package, separated by squares of butcher paper. I only needed three.

I’ll pry them apart, I thought, with a steak knife, and put the other three back in the freezer.

I smacked the meat down on the chopping board and stabbed the knife between the top two steaks. They were bricklike; my stab sent the meat shooting one way and the knife shooting into my finger.

“Bleaaaahhhhh!” I yelled, and ran, dripping blood, to the powder room for band-aids and antiseptic ointment.

“I think,” said Jim, “I’ll just have a ham sandwich.” I re-wrapped the cubed steaks and put them back into the freezer. I crossed the Saturday menu suggestion off the list, too.

On Sunday, I took a chuck roast from the freezer. Beef stew: that was the plan. Mark would be arriving home sometime in the late afternoon; a simmering pot of stew would be ready whenever he was hungry.

But then I felt bad. Jim doesn’t eat stew, and I hadn’t fed him very well that weekend. I’ll switch, I thought, to oven-baked pot roast, roasted with potatoes until they soak up the beefy juices and brown crisply around the edges.

Mark arrived home just before the roast was done, which was perfect.

I crossed ‘Sunday: beef stew’ off the weekly menu, too.

On Monday, Jim excitedly sauced his boneless chicken with Tandoori sauce. I doused two leg quarters with barbecue sauce and baked them for Mark and me. When they were done, we carried our plates to the kitchen table, and Jim went off happily to the family room with his meal.

“Oh muh GUG!” he yelled a moment later. Turns out his Tandoori was hot, hot, hot. He had a ham sandwich instead, and I packed up the rest of his boneless chicken.

On Tuesday, the literacy association was having a fund-raiser at Freddy’s. Support reading? Well, YEAH. Ignoring the menu, we drove to Freddy’s, where we not only had a splendid dinner, we sampled the frozen custard, too.

I just wasn’t feeling it on Wednesday; I crossed that night’s plan from the menu, and we had breakfast for dinner: crisp-edged French toast, sizzling brown sausages.

The way of things was clear. On Thursday I threw the menu away. I took out the Tandoori chicken, rinsed off most of the sauce, and made a big, bubbling pot of chicken tortilla soup. Jim put a Devour meal in the microwave.

The soup, recipe gleaned from a close, close friend, was hot and tangy and delicious. It was even better for lunch the next day. And that night, we ate those cubed steaks, which I had wisely taken out to defrost quite early.

I did not write out a menu for the week to come.

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There was a time, when kids were young, and budgets were tight, and schedules were outlandish, that a menu was the only way to ensure that a hearty dinner made it to the family table each night.

Those days, with all of their action and frustrations and delight, glow far back on the timeline.

THESE days call for a different way of planning things entirely.

It’s not that I’m not organized; it’s that this time of life calls for a different kind of organization. So this week, I’m cleaning out the hall closet and sorting the bed linens, donating the neglected and never-used blankets and sheets to a local homeless shelter. I have my teaching days. I have my days for recycling and for food shopping. I have my appointments on the calendar.

But I don’t have a menu. These days, I have the luxury of rolling ideas around in my head, considering what’s in the refrigerator and what’s in the freezer, and deciding, finally, what to fix that night for supper. Sometimes, we might even opt to eat out or order in.

I love the structure of my week, and I love that dinner isn’t mandated by a menu; instead, it’s a little spot of adventure, a little element of surprise, in otherwise ordered and sedate days.