This is an updated reprint of an article I posted here four years ago. Happy Mother’s Day – Jim
Have you ever been in a long-term relationship, marriage or otherwise, where you know your partner as well as you know yourself?
You know everything about them; their likes, dislikes, childhood friends, what makes them happy, what makes them sad, what pisses them off. You know how they'll react to anything. You've heard their stories a hundred times, but you still listen to them even if they bore you to tears. You know what kind of toothpaste they prefer and how much sugar to put in their coffee.
Yeah, like that.
And then, out of the blue, you learn something entirely new about them?
Like first date new. Like, Wow! Me too! new.
My wife and I are just about as good a fit as two people can be. We were a blind date, and by the end of that date we both had mutually decided that the two of us were going to get married- but, it was, oh, about a week or so before either of us mentioned it to the other. And by then we barely had to, because it was just so obvious that's where we were going. We've been married twenty years now, and I'd say we know each other pretty well indeed - if for no other reason than we've traveled literally tens of thousands of miles, thousands of hours, cooped up in in a car together. A lot of it through places like the Yukon and the Northwest Territories where there are no radio stations - as such, you'd think just about every possible subject of conversation would have come up by now.
We grew up widely separated. I was born and raised in the western part of Michigan's lower peninsula, where people eat oatmeal with margarine and brown sugar for breakfast and speak proper American English. My wife was born in New York, but raised in the panhandle of Florida, where people eat grits with butter and salt for breakfast and speak in an incomprehensible dialect centered around variations of the all-purpose contraction "y’all." Where I grew up, there are two types of regular daily gravy, Brown and Chicken, and two types of holiday gravy, Turkey and Ham. Where my wife grew up, there is only one kind of gravy, White, and you eat it on everything. Where I grew up, about the only fried food was chicken, which came in a cardboard bucket when mom was too tired to cook, and the occasional pan-fried bluegill or perch. In my wife's household, everything was breaded and fried - and covered in white gravy. In the North we didn't barbeque, we "grilled out" in the backyard. In the South, BBQ is a complex art-form utilizing arcane and highly secret methodology involving smoke, pork, liquor, and several pickup trucks full of drunken rednecks. In the South they eat "greens." In the North, we know grass clippings when we see them and we feed that shit to the livestock.
So, food-wise you wouldn't think we have a lot in common.
We both purely detest tomatoes. Loath is not nearly a strong enough word. We can't stand 'em, neither one of us. This hatred is the bond, the glue, that holds us together and gives us strength against a hostile and tomato loving world. It has kept us together for twenty something years and I suspect that we will be buried together at some indeterminate future date far removed from the tomato cultivating regions of the world.
Strangely, I do like ketchup, only the good kind, but my wife won't touch it. And both of us will eat tomato sauce on certain things such as pizza and lasagna, but only if there's not too much of it and it's not too tomatoey (that’s a totally real word, look it up) and under no circumstance can there be any stinking chunks of tomato in the sauce. Ugh.
I know that you will find this distaste strange and incomprehensible. My wife and I do realize that it is entirely possible that we are the only two people on the planet who hate tomatoes, and we're good with that. Hell, even my own mother simply can't believe that I find tomatoes revolting, and I'm sure that both of my parents wonder if the hospital screwed up and gave them the wrong baby.
See, my folks love tomatoes. Absolutely love the goddamned things. They eat tomatoes all of the time, stewed, canned, sliced, diced, pickled, juiced, on a chair with a bear and in a house with a mouse.
Now my mom often made things that I loved - but, at least once a week we'd have something with tomatoes in it and I could barely stand the smell, let alone choke down dinner. God forbid there would be stewed tomatoes - which my dad relishes with great gusto. Retch. The smell alone made me want to vomit. (Dad also loves lima beans. Seriously, who the hell likes lima beans? Maybe the hospital did screw up)
However, the good news is that if the tomatoes were a side dish, like the stewed variety, I was allowed to take a pass.
The bad news, of course, was that if tomatoes were part of the main course, well I was required to eat them. Usually, I could pick around them, or push them to the side, but there was one dish that I feared and hated above all else. One dish that my mother made at least once a month that I dreaded and feared and despised. One dish that I could not avoid or work around. One dish that the mere thought of, forty years later, makes me shudder. I haven't thought about it in years, you might even call it one of those 'repressed memories' shrinks are so fond of. Childhood trauma, long repressed - and, I thought, unique to me because I've never seen or heard of it in any other household. I would, of course, take as little as possible of it. And I would push it around the plate and spread it out as much possible to make it look like I was actually eating it - all the while contemplating thoughts of running away to join the circus where I would eat nothing but corn dogs and cotton candy. My mother, of course, was not fooled by these diversionary tactics. A child of The Great Depression and of frugal Dutch extraction - she'd make damned sure you cleaned your plate no matter how painfully long it took - and it often took forever. Which led, inevitably, to the stern matronly lecture of starving children in Africa and the fact that I should be grateful that I had anything to eat at all. But try as I might, I could never be grateful for that particular meal. Ever.
All of which which brings me to this: The other day I was in the kitchen cooking dinner. As usual, my wife was sitting on a stool behind the island, and we were talking about our day. And for some reason, the subject of our mutual tomato hatred came up. And my wife casually mentioned a certain dish her mother used to make, which my wife hated and despised and was traumatized by and contemplated running away to join the circus to avoid.
It was none other than my own childhood nemesis!
Have you figured it out yet?
Yes, it's that revolting 1960's, lower middle class, blue-collar staple: American Hamburger Goulash.
For those of you not familiar with this dish, it is a horrifying abomination of hamburger, onions, green peppers, elbow macaroni, and stewed tomatoes. I would cheerfully burn Betty Cocker's checkered apron in effigy for perpetuating this putrescent sin against culinary nature. If there is any 'American Comfort Food' more disturbing and less comforting than this repugnant atrocity I don't know what it is, unless it is the 1970's school lunch version commonly called 'schoolash' - a salmonella seasoned mix of grade-B leftover burger patties, macaroni, and tomato soup warmed to the temperature of an hour-dead corpse by a bank of heat lamps and dehydrated to the consistency of old toenails by the hair-netted expertise of sadistic lunch ladies. Often served with 'garlic toast' made from yesterday's hamburger buns and some kind of industrial urinal disinfectant.
I haven't thought about goulash in years and, yeah, it's a small thing. But, more than two decades my wife and I have been married, and I just now discovered that she had almost exactly the same childhood experience as I - and nearly identical comments regarding it. Something new in conversation. Something that tells me she'll always surprise me. And it's just one more thing that tells us how good of a match we are. Her hatred of American Hamburger Goulash is just one more thing that I love about her. One more thing that makes me wonder what else is left to discover about the woman I can't imagine life without.
So, yeah, after all these years I guess I finally am grateful for the damned goulash.
So thanks, Mom, for giving me just one more reason to love your daughter in law.