Just the Essentials
(by Julie Nunis)
We rarely have food in the house. Not because we cannot afford it, but because I become psychologically paralyzed just stepping foot into a grocery store.
Fluorescent lights, aimless aisles, products that seem to share the same ad agency, all begging for my attention. The packaging is in primary colors—bright reds, blues, yellows—while the fake “healthy” items are always in brown and green. The ill-fitting vests worn by the employees who stock the shelves look uncomfortable. The produce section is a maze. (Is there really no way to avoid circling the onions and bananas in order to get to the greens?) And without fail, I always seem to pick the cart that swerves on its own or announces my arrival before I hit the aisle.
(daughters Sierra, Austin, my mother Anita, and me)
All that, and I am tired of cooking, emotionally spent. I work up so much effort to get my head in the game, only to have my 16-year-old daughter tell me the food tastes weird. She does not mince words, nor is she careful not to hurt Momma’s feelings. My 19-year-old daughter avoids the entire situation and would rather eat lettuce. In her words: “Cooking is too much work, and I don’t like the perfection and patience that a recipe demands.”
So it’s no wonder I only go when we are on the brink of starvation, and my family’s “hangry” mood forces me to relent and block out three hours to go to the store. Anxiety hits with the overwhelming choices: four kinds of kidney beans, ten kinds of peanut butter, new milks popping up every day. I can’t keep up. Then there is the hurdle of finding a good price. I have no idea what the best price is. Now I have to do algebra to figure the price per ounce. What if it doesn’t taste good? What if I choose wrong?
I’m really not a basket case. The grocery store is the only place that brings on serious anxiety issues. And then I received a lime green postcard in the mail, touting wonderful, healthy recipes that could be ready in 20 or 30 minutes with minimal prep time. And to sweeten the deal, somebody in a lime green van would drop the items needed for the meals. To. My. Front. Door. Once a week! Hello, boxed meals. Count me in.
Mealtime became new and fresh. My husband and I cooked together while we watched the news, sipping on cabernet while we read the recipe instructions to each other. The meal-in-a-box transformed our whole family. My daughters have taken it upon themselves to tear open the box and prep or cook an entire meal all by themselves. Their taste buds are introduced to new spices, and their cooking skills now include zesting and sautéing. Chickpeas, Israeli couscous, and smoked paprika are now staples in our pantry.
The only thing the boxes don’t include are what I consider “the essentials.” And that’s okay because these days, that’s all I need to buy. I’m in and out of the store quickly. Oh, glorious day! I am skipping through Von’s wearing a mask mask, and then it’s home to dinner and a movie.
To pass the quarantine time this evening, the girls want to revisit the Harry Potter series. That means it’s popcorn time. My college-age daughter, unexpectedly quarantining at home, searches for the air popper. I finally confess that, since it had seen better days, I retired it. “How does one make popcorn in this house?” she mused. Old-school style, I tell her: Grab a pot, some vegetable oil, and the kernels. She is miffed but curious as to how this is going to get done.
I could do it for her, but I decide to make it a teaching moment and use this time to pass on to her something that was taught to me by my mom. I know that when she sees the kernels begin to pop under the glass lid, the college girl will fade into that four-year-old that only I can still see, and she will squeal with delight at how the kernels become popcorn. She does as I instruct, covering the bottom of the pot with thin layer of oil and just a few kernels to test the popping. Then crank the heat, cover the pot, and start sliding the pan back and forth over the burner. She looks at me like I’m crazy but takes orders well. Sparks begin to fly from the friction of the pan being rubbed on the burner, and just when she’s about to roll her eyes at me because nothing is happening, the first kernel pops. Then another and another and three at a time, and then she starts to squeal and grabs her phone to post a photo. I smile to myself. Just the essentials. That’s all we need.
Julie Nunis is a director of live theatre, including the Sunscreen Film Festival West‘s Filmmaker Mentor Program. She lives in Hermosa Beach, California.
In a large lidded pot, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat, and add a few kernels of popcorn.
Cover pot until you hear the test kernels pop.
Add remaining kernels, cover, and slide pot back and forth over the burner until popping stops.
Place in a bowl, and toss with melted butter and Raisinets.