Do you remember the worst day of your life?
Maybe you do. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet. But I can’t stop remembering mine. It haunts me.
I peeled and jarred tomatoes, hundreds of jars of tomatoes, in the cellar by age four. But I’m not complaining about child labor. It’s simply that I grew up Italian. We went to Nonna’s for Sunday lunch, which was two boxes of pasta and five loaves of bread and endless salad and sometimes chicken cutlets. All this food for exactly five people. Everyone made too much food. Every time. Without fail.
For years, I made fun of my mom on Christmas Eve, saying that three pans of lasagna is probably too much food, on top of the seven fish soup, turkey roast, honey baked ham, and ten pounds of potatoes. I thought she was just being mom-crazy, like how moms worry that your best friend will be able to tell that you didn’t vacuum your room before your sleepover.
Well, I learned the hard way that my mom is not crazy (about this). This is gospel.
Last summer, my aunt and uncle let me live with them in Brooklyn, so I could intern at the Guggenheim. I had the day off and wanted to do something nice for them. I wanted to contribute. Like a real adult. So on my days off, I made dinner.
My nonna lived with us too, but she did her own thing for dinner, usually a bounty of pasta and Italian meats. So, on my intern’s budget, I got the ingredients for chicken stir-fry, rice, and a salad. Three chicken breasts, a few red peppers, some green beans, and zucchini. Some brown rice, and—for a bit more nutrition—a simple spinach salad.
Sounds reasonable for a three person meal. Right?
I did the math. I felt confident. But what I didn’t do is heed my mom’s advice. I didn’t bother to prepare enough food for a small militia, like she’d taught me my entire life.
And unfortunately, that’s where a three person meal went so, so wrong.
With two cousins and their families living in a three-block radius, unexpected visits were normal. I should have seen this coming. I should have made five times more food.
One adorable 2 year-old cousin arrived with her two parents at around 5 P.M., before the grown ups were ready to eat. But the was food ready, and this little Italian baby girl can eat. With a face like that, baby got first dibs on everything, obviously.
So before normal dinner hour, almost a quarter of the food was gone.
A 30 year-old Italian cousin, fresh off a long day’s work, with a soccer game later that evening. Also, he is the man who taught me to wipe my mouth on my shirt collar one Sunday lunch at Nonna’s. My point is that he’s always been an eater and has played a monumental role in my identity as an eater. No one can contain this man.
So when he finished, we were down to less than half of what I made. Here’s the kicker, though. My aunt, uncle, and I—the three people I intended to cook for—had still eaten nothing.
I bugged the fuck out at this point. I knew there wasn’t enough food. I panicked. The fear was visible in my eyes. I made myself a plate of approximately 10 grains of rice, one piece of thinly sliced chicken, three pieces of zucchini, two green beans, and 10 pieces of spinach. Does that sound filling? It wasn’t. I basically didn’t eat. I was too sick to my stomach, too full of my own failure to eat anyway.
A fun fact I learned that day: My uncle doesn’t like green beans. So, we all suffered more, as he picked out the green beans and took extra of everything else. And he didn’t even get salad on the first trip. Did he really think there would be enough for seconds? Come on.
My aunt was up next, God bless her soul. She took mostly salad and a few pieces of chicken, along with the green beans my uncle left behind. She didn’t take much, but she took the last of it. My entire meal was gone and nobody had a full serving.
And there was nothing I could do about it. I had already cooked every bit of groceries I purchased for this meal. There was no extra chicken in the freezer. No extra bag of spinach. I HAD NOTHING, except my enormous failure.
To make this nightmare worse, the baby got hungry again. But, there was no more.
I failed. I fucking failed. And I couldn’t shake it.
Flash forward a few weeks, when I met my cousin for happy hour at a rooftop bar. I downed a few glasses (bottles) of wine and I basically cried, explaining how sorry I was that I didn’t make enough food for my family and her poor 2 year-old daughter.
Apparently I did a good job of hiding my self-hatred that night because she said she didn’t think anything of it. I felt relieved until I asked if that ever happened to her, and of course it hadn’t.
Just me. I’m the failure.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal until it’s your fault that people are hungry. ITALIAN people are hungry.
The best thing I can equate it to is if you were dogsitting for a neighbor and you killed the dog. It’s like if you were riding shotgun and the driver asked you to check their blind spot to see if they could switch lanes and you said yeah go ahead and then a fuckin’ semi crushes the both of you. It’s like you were supposed to pick up your little brother from school and you took a nap and forgot and he ended up kidnapped and dead in the river.
So don’t let this happen to you. Listen to your mom, your aunts, your nonna, and now me.
Running out of food is the worst thing that can happen. The militia is coming. Prepare accordingly.