The Great Consolidator

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“Mary, You’re gonna go broke saving money.”  That’s what my Grandpa used to say to my Nana, riding her for the gallon jug of Breck shampoo overwhelming the corner of the shower stall.  I seem to recall though, that he was the one responsible for the cases of undrinkable, saccharine-sweetened No-Cal chocolate soda in the bottom of the coat closet. And now this is what my own mom says to me, thrusting an oversized jar of thyme in confrontation: “Maria, you’re gonna go broke saving money.  You know, spices lose their flavor if you hold onto them too long.”

The quart jar of thyme leaves is still ¾ full. So is the mustard powder.  Mustard powder, unlike prepared mustard, is sinus-clearing hot. I use it sparingly. I bought this jar six years ago at my favorite Pakistani deli. It has indeed lost flavor, but it’s still hot as hell.

The family has decided to divide and conquer for MLK weekend: Granddad and my older son to Texas to shoot at quail, husband and my younger son to Georgia to pick pecans from the cousins’ tree, and Mom has come to stay with me.

Three days together, what will we do?  You don’t get your nails done with mom. She doesn’t have nails; she works too hard. She is the least vain person I know.  It took great cajoling to get her to join me for a pedicure last summer, and for God’s sake, she has a swimming pool. She’s barefoot from May to October.  We think about the period rooms on the 4th floor of the Brooklyn Museum, but with her arthritic spine it’s hard for mom to get around the art museums and antique shops these days. It’s turning cold too. We stay close to home, and do home projects.

I have learned that it’s good domestic policy to line up projects for mom’s visits. Clearly my household invites organizational aggression and if, in my defense, I fail to pile up structured tasks like sandbags before tsunamis, mom will soon invade territories off-limits.  She will plunder my catch-all drawer, purging corks and medicine dispensers, twisty ties and duck sauce.  Admittedly, all this for my own good, but she will also, without asking, toss scraps of paper with essential numbers and talk me into recycling my rusting tea kettle, a move I will regret even before the next tea time.  Worst of all, she will bleach my coffee mug.

So I’ve been collecting unmatched socks for months, and now I dump the basket on the dining room table before her.  In mom’s mind, people and socks should all find mates.  Within ten minutes, the pile is reduced by half.  Now she’s stuck and turns on me: “You must have a lot of money to waste.” “No mom, why?” She waves a lone cashmere knee-hi.  “Some of these are expensive socks. You better look under the beds and find the mates.”  So she’s got me looking under mattresses and running half-loads of stray socks, just to generate a few more matches. 

Taming a riotous mob of argyles and tucking them paired, deep into drawers, is deeply satisfying, but Mom’s real theatre of war is the pantry.  She is boots on the ground in the snack shelf:  granola and fig bars squeezed into the same box, graham crackers and Rye Krisps strong-armed side by side in a vintage Saltines tin.  To conquer the spice rack, she has me bring up baby food jars from the basement and mashes cumin, Krazy Salt, paprika, clove, and yes, the mustard powder into a delicioso Mexican pork rub.

I was a teen when I dubbed her “the Great Consolidator.”  Her effects were first felt in the pantry, where she secretly combined half boxes of Total and Special K, Corn Flakes and whatever. You never knew what you were getting when you shook that box of cereal: woven pillows of wheat, balls of corn, puffs of rice. It was mom’s own Chex Party Mix in every bowl.  She graduated to syrups and dried fruits. You’d reach for a handful of raisins and get Craisins and instead of maple syrup, a maple/honey/Karo pancake blend.  

 Nothing was as it appeared in the icebox either.  True fat content was rarely reflected on the milk carton; a glass of skim would taste more like 2%.  Mom thought nothing of combining quarts of skim, low-fat and whole, much to the annoyance of waistline-watching Dad.  

Today, deployed in a corner of my kitchen, a fortress of Barilla boxes before her, I wonder “What does she get out of this?”  To be of joyful service to her children has always been her aim. Her crippled hands can’t open cans or peel potatoes anymore, but they can still top off the Aunt Jemima mix with a scant cup of Bisquik, they can reduce clutter, simplify my life  -- and that is something.

But the food frontier inspires more than a raid and subjugation of my shelves. Suddenly, Mom’s eyes sparkle: “Let’s make soup.” She turns in her armor for an artist’s smock.  The Great Consolidator is morphing into the Kandinski of the Kitchen, the Seurat of the Stovetop. The fact is, it’s a supremely creative act to throw wide the cupboard doors and make a meal from what you find… and mom is, above all, a supremely creative person.  Cooking from the pantry. It’s a game with only one rule: you’re not allowed to run out and buy a missing ingredient.  Substitutions, however, are welcome and encouraged. Not only a colossus of consolidation, Mom is the world’s best at making do: powdered milk for fresh, green onions for red, til everything is used up. That’s how to win at this game: use it all up.  “You’ve got a lot of black beans,” she observes. Black bean soup it is.   Fifteen minutes later the stock pot is bubbling and mom is adjusting to taste.  Again, her caramel eyes flash:  “Got any open salsa in the fridge?” I rifle through the door compartments of my Amana. I do! A good 1/3 of a jar of Ortega, medium heat salsa. She dumps it in.  What else?”  I pull out a styrofoam clamshell of leftover basmati rice from the Gyro King. In it goes.

Tomorrow, after breakfast, I will set her up in front of her Sunday morning political shows and hop in the shower. She will grow restless with the roundtable on “Meet the Press” and when I return, I will find my kitchen sink full of brown banana leaves. She will have pruned all my houseplants.

For now though, I stand behind her, our tummies tight with black beans, rubbing her neck while she plays solitaire. “Stop playing cards mom, and just enjoy this.” “We were very productive today, weren’t we?”  “Yes Mom, we were.” “Good enough to keep the board of health away anyway.  And wait til we hit that refrigerator tomorrow…”

Discover the Great Consolidator's recipes for black bean soup and granola.