My daughter Tracy is in my house with me for 24 hours every week, give or take a movie that runs late or a longer-than-usual trip to the mall. She is moderately mentally retarded and she lives in a group home during the week, with another 24 hours at her father's house.
When Tracy was younger, I used to take her out to almost every meal. I was younger too, and I had more money, and I wanted to make every minute of our time together "special," because I felt guilty that she wasn't living at my house.
(FYI, she moved into the group home when she was 11 and age-appropriate to learn about communal living, which is probably the way she will always live, semi-independently but within a community. She'll also work, hang out, have friends and maybe even a life partner if she wants one. It's not a sad story).
We'd go to Friendly's for breakfast, Ruby Tuesday's for lunch, Red Lobster for dinner. We'd look at each other over the table. She drank an awful lot of fat-free chocolate milk, which, in restaurants like these, is the vin ordinaire for youngsters.
Then I went back to school and had a lot less money, and we had to eat and hang out at home.
Tracy was much, much happier. I hadn't realized that she wanted to be with me more than she wanted constant treats. Big duh, you might say, but when I was a kid I rarely wanted to be around my parents, and I blessed the silence when they were gone.
I made her breakfast, usually scrambled eggs (living in a group home means you get a lot of cold cereal). For lunch, we gradually dragged ourselves away from the food court (since we were no longer spending full days at the mall) and concentrated on salads and soups (Tracy is not big on sandwiches).
Dinners always had a pasta feature, because she loves pasta, but I learned to make dishes in which the starch was just an element, not the whole reason for being.
I also ramped down my own expectations of cooking. No longer did I gaze at Gourmet and Sauveur and wonder why my every meal did not have fifteen ingredients.
I figured out how best to do the things Tracy and I liked. It took a lot of work, but Tracy was aways happy to eat the remains of the experiments. (Except for one time when my spaghettini carbonate became all too carbonized. She has never let me forget that.)
Today when I pick Tracy up on Saturday afternoon she says, "Are we having a snack tonight??" Because she had already had her dinner.
"Yes," I say. "Chicken noodle soup."
"From the soup we made last week?"
She makes a nigh-pitched noise which I associate with Too Happy for Words. "And then breakfast tomorrow?"
"Yes. Scrambled eggs with cheese."
"Something light. Salad with shrimps.?"
"Good! And...chicken parmigiana for dinner?"
"I need to buy breadcrumbs. Okay."
She's my sous-chef, although she can't handle knives or be near heat. She does a lot of garbage and clean-up work. And loading the dishwasher.
It's not magic. She's a kid and she's got a cast-iron palate and an eight-speed metabolism. She has a few roadblocks to fine dining--she dislikes any kind of protein except shrimp and hot dogs, she will pick pasta and sauce on any menu with which she's presented, she refuses to accept any salad dressing which does not have blue cheese in it. But that's not bad for seventeen. It's a little weird that she doesn't like chocolate.
Last week when I picked her up she said, "You know what I want, Mom?"
"Nothing much. Just breakfast, lunch and dinner!"
Tracy's Scrambled Eggs
2 small hen's eggs or 1 duck's egg
1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tbsp grated grana podana cheese
Place butter in small cold frying pan and set over high heat.
Beat up eggs or egg in a rimmed soup plate or small bowl.
When butter foams, you'd better be ready to throw the eggs into the pan and beat them. This will only take about thirty seconds because the pan is so hot. When eggs are still loose, take pan off heat and keeps scrambling. Then put the eggs back in the bowl and shake cheese over them. Mix well.
Salt to taste. Don't bother to bring them to the table; Tracy's probably standing right there, waiting to take them from you.