Monday, January 23, 2012

Tasty Treats

When I was a girl, my mother's cooking was legendary--as in, she told stories of how bad a cook she was. She relished telling people about the time she tried to boil eggs in a glass Corningware pot; every holiday season she told friends or relatives about the time she burned Christmas cookies, set off our fire alarm and put oven mitts on her face (to protect her eyes from smoke from the oven) and wound up with burns on her eyebrows. She was a self-proclaimed bad cook, and this part really confused me. I didn't know why she seemed to like telling people she was bad at something. Improvement, success, excellence: all these things were a big deal to my mom. I couldn't understand why she seemed to enjoy telling people that she was a bad cook.

The thing those friends and relatives never heard were the times when my mother stood in our kitchen and bemoaned her "weak" culinary skills. "I'm a terrible cook," she would say, standing in front of the stove, stirring, opening something frozen and popping it in the microwave, putting broken muffins on a plate in the center of our kitchen table. I thought my mom was a great cook. She made lasagna with shredded mozzarella cheese, ground beef and Paul Newman's spaghetti sauce (instead of ricotta cheese, fresh basil and bechamel sauce) and it tasted great. She made stuffed peppers with Manwich sauce (remember Manwich? that canned sloppy joe sauce from the 80s? I don't actually know if it was from the 80's but it seemed like the kind of thing that came out of the Reagan-administration-NASA-MTV era) and white rice--I didn't really like the peppers because green peppers were too bitter for me. But I liked the Manwich rice inside the peppers. There were foods she cooked that I didn't like, mostly for my dad, but most of the time I ate whatever she put in front of me and I was happy with it. She often pulled clean plates out from in front of me. All of the feedback she got from me said I loved her food; why she thought she was so terrible was beyond me.
Cooking has been different for me. I love to cook; it's one of the first things I learned to do that gave me a real sense of self-assuredness. My dad and I did a chemistry project about cooking, and little by little I learned how to make Kraft dinner, how to make barbecue chicken, until I was paging through cookbooks and exploring recipes with bewitching pictures. For a time, I even wanted to be a chef. When I put food down in front of my parents they made yummy noises and said they were grateful. Cooking was something I learned to do young, and I did a lot of it growing up to take care of my parents (and myself), and it became a way for me to express affection for others. It's probably also something I do to make sure I'm getting what I need: let me cook or bake my way into your heart. But whether it's a coping mechanism, a way of trying to buy love, an expression of creativity, or all of the above, I'm really comfortable cooking.

Which makes the fact that twice inside two weeks I've set off the fire alarm in my apartment kind of humiliating. Typically, this hasn't really been a big deal. In the normal, shotgun Chicago apartment with the 9-v battery-fire alarm, it beeps for a while and you open a few windows, fan your back door for 30 seconds and everything's fine. In the digs I'm in now, the place me and mine moved to not long ago, well, you're not supposed to disconnect the alarm. The whole building is wired to a big, fancy auto-report fire alarm. The hallway has fire doors that close automatically, and a signal goes off at a firehouse that sends the CFD hook and ladder screaming down the avenue. The first time I was making brunch. Bacon in a skillet, came out beautifully, but also woke my husband--whom I wanted to sleep in--with this horrible shrieking sound. Five minutes later we had three Chicago firefighters in our kitchen, one standing on a stepladder, disconnecting the alarm just like you'd do in a Chicago shotgun apartment. The Lieutenant pushed a couple of buttons and then hooked it back up. By then the apartment was freezing--we'd opened the windows and had every fan in the place running--and we were standing around him ineffectually, watching. I listened as he radioed down to the truck "Yeah, lady on three burned her bacon, I'm just gonna disconnect the alarm, get some air into it. Standby." (For the record, not burned. Cooked just fine, thank you very much. Still, filled the apartment with enough smoke to bring the engine company through my front door.)

Maybe two weeks later he was making dinner and it went off again. This time the doorman was on duty, and he disconnected the smoke alarm for us after it started shrieking, but not before the fire doors shut. Again, we filled the apartment with frigid winter air and heard a fire engine going lights and sirens toward our building. Plus, the woman across the hall came out of her apartment with a crooked look on my face as I went tearing out of my own, looking for the doorman. "Sorry," I whispered to her, wanting her to go back into her own smoky apartment (cigarettes, not food) and leave me alone.

So I've set off my fair share of alarms, but it's only a hassle for me; but here, now, it can become a hassle for the entire building. It rouses people above, below and around me. Everyone knows; and the reputation, well-deserved, for being an excellent cook, suddenly begins to look a little less sure. I think about this, about how mortified I was when the fire alarm went off and brought the fire department here, and then I wonder what difference does it make what other people think? I know I'm a great cook, even if the CFD or my neighbors may think otherwise. Then I remember how much joy my mother seemed to get out of telling others how bad a cook she was, but how really she felt insecure about her skills. What other people thought of my mother was really important, so she made the fact that she felt she couldn't cook work for her, rather than just say she was a rotten cook. Maybe it's because she operated in an antiquated idea of what a family, our family, should be, and she felt like she was shirking her responsibility by not being some apron-wearing, turkey-basting, domestic goddess.

So I suppose all the screaming alarms and the brave firefighters crashing around our building just present me with another opportunity to release the idea of caring what others think of me. Let Lieutenant FireStopper tell his people that I've burned my bacon; let Old Lady Smokes-A-Lot next door cluck her tongue at me as I rush down the hall. I know who I am when I step into the kitchen. I know I'm not cooking anymore to get someone to love me. Now I'm cooking because it makes the day slide away, or because that recipe looks really interesting, or because I've really had a taste for it, or because I want to show others that I appreciate them.

When I'm cooking for one, I know I care enough about myself to eat well, not to eat potato chips and frosting for dinner. I know why I cook.

It tastes good.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

beauty instances

I've been writing about the recent change in my life the last couple of weeks, trying to decide if this is just an interesting thing in my life or if it's material. In this world of zillion ways to get your voice out (including this one) it's hard to know sometimes if the amazing chicken sandwich you had for lunch is just your good fortune, or if there's some universal truth hidden in it that the world needs to hear. (Maybe it's not hard to know--maybe a sandwich is just a sandwich and it's nobody else's business. Maybe my lunch menu isn't going to change anyone's life, despite my best intentions.) I've been collecting tidbits of story, some short, some long, around beauty, identity, makeup specifically, and I thought I'd catalogue some of them today.

I am standing in front of my bathroom mirror considering my face. My chest-length locs are pulled back in a messy bun and I have a red bandana tied around my head. I’m wearing a white tank top and black yoga pants that have seen better days; and beside my right hand on the counter is what looks like a torture device.
The box does not say what it should say: eyeball scooper; finger dislocater; at-home speculum; tongue pincers. This one handy device can be used to remove any and all small appendages that offend. Hours of fun and torture sure to follow.
No. The box it came in said Eyelash Curler. It said, Great Lash; lovely; beauty; care .
I’m a 31-year-old black woman and this is the first time in my life I’ve used an eyelash curler.
How did this happen?
You have great legs, my mother would say You ought to wear short skirts more often.
I can’t figure out what I was doing in high school when other girls were learning about makeup. I have this fantasy of teenage girls learning about makeup from their mothers, who had hours of free time to spend with them and were only too pleased to teach their girls about the difference between foundation and setting powder. I think I was studying. Practicing the clarinet and reading, always reading.
I remember having acne as a teenager. It wasn’t incredibly bad, but it was bad, bad enough that I worried that people were staring at my face well into my 20s. I used a bar soap called Cuticura; it was baby blue and it smelled like antiseptic and it tried to control my unruly skin by drying it out. I would wet the bar of soap and a Neutrogena textured scrubbing pad, labeled good for “exfoliation” until they were frothy with suds, and then I’d scrub my brown face until it was red. I was looking for those dusky smears that would indicate I’d gotten all of the dirt and oil that was in my pores out. I’d rinse my face with water as it as I could bear it and then towel it dry. Sure, there was a moisturizer, but as often as not I wouldn’t use it. I believed my skin was oily enough, otherwise I wouldn’t break out the way I did, right?
You feel like your face is dressed, not covered--what one of my best friends said about her relationship to makeup.
At American Apparel, a girl used the phrase, "this season" to me. As in, "Purple is a really popular color this season. Purple and orange." What's in from one season to the next has never been something that helped me decide what to buy or what to wear.
I bought the purple scarf.
This was the least soft-core-like photo of AA stuff I could find. I'd been wondering for a few months now, but my most recent trip confirmed it: I am officially too old to be shopping there. Other retailers I've aged out of include Claire's, Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters. I feel pretty good about it.
Next to being beautiful herself, almost the nicest thing that can happen to a woman is to have a beautiful daughter.-- from an anthology called Beauty edited by John Miller.

I remember owning a Dr. Peppers Lip Smacker and thinking I was the shit.

I remember rubbing Retinol-A cream on my face until it peeled.

I remember the stress from my job at a beloved non-profit stressed me out so badly that I broke out in horrible, offensive acne, the worst it had ever been, the kind that made you wince just to look at. I avoided mirrors for months that year. The teensI worked with would ask me, What's the matter with your face? and I would say, The stress of dealing with you everyday is breaking me out.

I remember cutting off all of my permed hair until it was super short. I felt sexy as hell.

I remember when I came home with my hair cut short, my mother started to cry. She was sure I'd done it to get back at her.

I remember watching my mother put lipstick and mascara on.

I remember being scared to make risky fashion decisions. I thought people would make fun of me.

I remember wanting to be looked at and wanting to hide at the same time.

I remember railing against women who wore makeup. I thought they were fake and excessive and trying too hard.

I remember learning it was okay to want to look pretty.

I remember my dad calling me Princess, in a pejorative teasing way, like he thought I was weak and afraid to get my hands dirty.

I remember my dad calling me Goose, like he loved me, thought I was sweet little buddy that he wanted to hold close and take care of.

I remember getting a makeover at Bergdorff-Goodman in Manhattan, and getting a business card from a modeling agency rep, and thinking maybe I was pretty, after all.
There is a quality of beauty that happens in secret. She sends her husband to the store around the corner for bread and milk, and her kids out to play, and she sets her hair in pink foam rollers, goops her face up with cream and cucumber, waxes her upper lip, tweezes her eyebrows. By the time everyone gets home, she is washed, powdered, styled, coiffed; it is as if all of that other carrying-on never happened. when her kids tell her how pretty she is, when her husband looks at her in wonder that he managed to score such a looker, she smiles to herself and thinks, Thanks, Clairol/Elizabeth Arden/Ponds/Neutrogena/Sally Henson!
My mother hid her own beauty rituals. She seemed embarrassed by her own body, as if the hair that grew from her own legs were traitorous, the fuzz that sprouted on her upper lip a disgrace. If my father or I ever happened upon her when she was in the middle of her toilette to deal with these obscenities, she would snap at us, her voice a hiss of frustration and humiliation. "Jessica!" she would say. "Steven! I need some privacy!" And she would scurry off to the bathroom, her head lowered to avoid the horror of being discovered. Later she would emerge from the bathroom, a bit subdued but still rankled. "You weren't supposed to see that," she would say, as if one of us had planned to leap out and discover her waxing, peeling, plucking or powdering whatever she'd hidden from us.
I guess you think you're cute now, huh?
Yeah. I do.

So this isn't all of what I've written, but it's some of it. I am interested in the idea of makeup being this enormous industry/polarizing practice/signifier of gender/evolutionary habit/historically significant idea. But I don't know. Maybe the fact that I've started wearing makeup is only interesting to me. Maybe most women have been wearing makeup for years and most men only think women wear it to attract them (ick. I have read my fill of internet troll comments from dudes who are all, (deep, frat boy voice): "why do chicks wear so much makeup? You look better natural, I'd never hit that." Here's a clue, dudes. Makeup has nothing to do with you. Despite what Mommy told you, the sun doesn't rise and set in your pants. Get over it.). I don't really know what I have to say about this, although it's clear I have something to say. Still percolating, I guess.