A couple weeks ago, Emma, my 6-year-old girl, had a severe, unusual reaction to an antibiotic. This landed her in the hospital overnight. Putting into words the fear, stress and worry of not knowing what was wrong or how to help her is impossible. I could barely breathe.
Emma, however, sums up the experience succinctly: “At least the food was good.”
Yes, I realize what this says about the quality of my cooking.
At first, I thought her love of hospital food was because she was super hungry.
“Do you know I haven’t had any lunch?” she told a nurse a few hours after being admitted.
The nurse explained that the IV in her arm was giving her body “a drink.”
Emma wasn’t satisfied with that. (In fact, getting the IV was the first sign that my spunky girl was on the rebound. A nurse had tried to distract her, asking her a few inane questions. “My name is Emma, but I don’t want to talk about that right now. I want to talk about what you’re doing to my arm!”)
The nurse gave her a stubby pencil and a menu, telling her she could circle whatever she wanted to eat.
“That was the most delicious dinner!” Emma told a doctor the next morning. “I had a hamburger, fruit salad, mashed potatoes with gravy, carrots and celery, ice cream and pretzels. And this morning, I had blueberry pancakes!”
“Mmm … do you think your mom could make you something as good? Because you can go home today,” he said with a grin. Emma shot me an appraising look. Yes, she was excited to go home. But she was going to miss the cafeteria food.
I should count my blessings that my girl isn’t a picky eater. I’ve heard horror stories of kids who only eat chicken nuggets or white foods. Emma will try anything. She adores Japanese food and shovels California rolls into her mouth with chopsticks. She claps with delight when we have black beans for dinner.
There are a lot of things I’m good at. Cooking isn’t one of them.
So I have a bit of a reputation. Seriously, all it takes is two dinner parties featuring pink-in-the-middle chicken and your family restricts you to preparing side dishes forever. I haven’t served undercooked poultry in a decade, but it’s still the family joke.
Jon makes all of our weekend meals, and during the week, I usually keep to Crock-Pot recipes, salads and sandwiches.
Maybe it heralds from the time I baked Jon’s birthday cake. He wanted angel food, and I thought all that talk about it needing special baking dishes was hype. So I baked it in a regular cake pan. Then I filled in the resulting valley with jam. Still not bad. But then the jam got absorbed, so I filled it in with sprinkles. And covered it all up with icing.
The looks of horror among my family as their bites of cake crunched are still a bit haunting.
Maybe it was maternal instincts gone into overdrive from seeing Emma so ill, but during the week she spent resting at home following her discharge, I tried to revamp that bad reputation.
I started small. I made pancakes. They were charred and undercooked, all at once. Jon took over and I took small pride in the homemade batter.
“What do you want for dinner? You can have anything you want at all,” Jon told Emma the day she was discharged. “Daddy’s famous barbecue ribs.” Emphasis on the “Daddy.”
I moved on to a “can’t miss” bread recipe. It looked like a brain and felt like a brick. I served chunks of it alongside Jon’s steamed shrimp when my parents came over for dinner. “The flavor is good, sort of,” Mom said. “But you know you can’t eat this. Not without chipping a tooth.”
Emma held up a piece of perfect store-bought bread. “Can you try to make the bread like this next time?” she asked.
I’m not giving up. So what if my pot roast isn’t up to par with the industrialized cooking served in cafeterias and hospitals. Maybe someday it will be.
I told Emma I’m going to work on my cooking.
“Have you ever heard of tater tots?” she asked sweetly.
Beth Vrabel lives in West Manchester Township with her daughter, Emma, 6, and son, Benny, 3.