“What’s with the Grocery bill?” Eric’s eyes widened so much, that apparently, he no longer needed his glasses. My husband sort of peeled his glasses off his face, and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his forefinger and thumb.
“It’s December. All of our kids are here.” I said nibbling on a piece of toast that suddenly tasted expensive. Eric has asked the same question every year for the past several years about the December grocery bill. My answer is always the same. “And so what…Are you buying items like truffles and caviar?” Other than slinking into a nearby Safeway and sneaking a Starbucks latte onto our grocery bill, Eric hasn’t really grocery shopped for years.
“I wish.” I said and dabbed every precious toast crumb with my finger. We went over the most recent grocery receipt, that happened to be about two and a half feet long. [I tend to be a very organized shopper. I even put my items on the belt in categories. ]The scroll read from top to bottom: produce items, bakery items, deli items, meats, grains and nuts, coffee and teas, dairy, and toiletries. “hmmm…nothing exciting here.” Eric said as his suspicion that I had secretly been indulging in extravagant high priced delicacies was not confirmed. “Excuse me,” I straightened my spine and puffed out my chest. “but when I put those ingredients together, there is plenty of excitement on our dinner table.” Eric put his glasses back on, smiled, and patted my knee.
About six years ago we moved to this large victorian home on Braddock Mountain. The home painted in bright yellow, with contrasting red and green gingerbread trim, looked like an enchanted home from a children’s fairytale. On our first tour I felt that this house longed to be filled with children, our children. Our large family filled each room, with several kids sharing rooms. We were snug, not crowded in this house, that I believe loves us. Lights glowed in the all the windows, our kids and their friends constantly buzzed through the halls and gathered in the kitchen. When our house was full like that it seemed to hum, or breathe, it just seemed “alive” somehow.
As the kids, one by one, went off to college the house seemed to deflate a little, lose a little of her luster with each goodbye. In six years our bustling house, bursting at the seams, is now an airy and quieter dwelling with just two kids at home. My mothers heart simultaneously ached and rejoiced at the milestone when each of those eager fledglings left our full and (mostly) happy nest. And every December our house (and my heart) brighten as the kids return home on college breaks and work vacations.
It was a chore in the kitchen (more a labour of love for me) and an substantial financial effort to feed our large family as the kids were growing up. Now some are grown, and unbelievably, some 6 foot 2 and 6 foot 7, 22 year olds still seem to be growing. For a few weeks in December Our residents at Braddock grow from four to 10, and sometimes 12 (depending on the kids current relationship statuses). While my house and my heart are happy and full this month, our bank account is quite the opposite. Eric and I created a food budget which included affordable protein items like peanut burrer and tuna.
As we planned our food budget I remembered my simple dinners growing up in the 70”s. mom spent a large portion of her day in the kitchen I remember the gaudy 1970’s decor; gold fleur-de-lis print wallpaper accented by dark cherry stained wooden cabinets and avocado green appliances.
Dad made a moderate income so we ate on a budget in that dreadfully colored kitchen. Dad usually grilled on the weekends which was a treat, but during the week our routine was: meatloaf Monday (ick), taco Tuesday (which I loved), spaghetti Wednesday (wich I could take or leave), leftover Thursday (ugh), and meatless Friday. Meatless Fridays were usually pizza (my favorite),or cream tuna on toast (which I despised), and every once in a while mom would make a savory meal with canned tuna she called California chicken pie.
“I’m going to make a canned tuna dish tonight.” I announced when my mouth watered remembering moms savory budget pie.
Eric scrunched up his face and shook his head. “I’ll pick up a burger on the way home.” He said, probably recalling his own 1970’s traumatic experience with tuna casseroles.
“No you wont! You helped create this food budget. You get to eat it.”
While my mom relied on Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, as a base for just about everything, I decided to recreate her budget tuna meal with real ingredients and a little imagination.
I added to sizzling butter in an iron skillet one large sweet onion, finely diced. When the onion softened I added chopped mushrooms. When browned, I tossed in some chopped celery and carrots, stirred until softened. In a separate pan I made a roux with flour and butter and cooked the mixture over medium high heat until it turned the color of peanut butter and had a nutty fragrance. To the roux I slowly added chicken stock, enough until the consistence was like that of…well, a can of mom’s Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. Did I open three or four cans of tuna? in any case, the drained tuna went into the iron skillet with the vegetables followed by a heavy pinch of cayenne, a heavy dash of white pepper, a lot of black pepper, salt to taste and a sprinkling of celery seed. I mixed the sauce into the vegetables and tuna then added organic frozen corn and peas. into this dense mixture i poured some Heavy whipping cream and stirred until combined. I covered the mixture in the iron skillet with an all butter pie crust brushed with an egg wash.
In a 375 degree oven after about 30 minutes, the pie crust began to brown and the creamy sauce began to bubble up through the slits in the pie. I watched and waited until that sauce began to caramelize on the top of the pie crust making a savory cracker like layer i couldn’t wait to taste.
By 7:00pm my house seemed happy to be filled with the people I’m sure she loves like I do. “Wine and candles for ‘tuna surprise’?” Eric grumbled. I ignored him passed him his plate. The table looked so festive, even on tuna night! The multi colored large christmas tree lights reflected off the sheen of the hard wood floor and lit up the dark window panes. The flame from a candle danced inside my wine glass.
Eric tentatively sniffed his fork full and took a small bite. “Well?” I raised my eyebrows and took a sip of wine. “Its good.” he said with a curious inflection on the word good. I scrunched up my face quizzically. “I knew you couldn’t stick to a tuna budget honey but this crab is really good.” I didn’t bother to tell him.