My mom came to visit last weekend. Always an adventure. But between the “fun” of having someone in our space constantly and the “why is grandchild getting tired of me” and the off-hand comments on our parenting, I found a few oddities about her choice of food.
I found a few of her choices odd because they align with my in-laws, who we dine with more often. My mom grew up in the suburbs of Southern California, my mother-in-law grew up in the rural foothills of Northern California, and my father-in-law grew up in Vegas, so there shouldn’t necessarily be too many common threads between them, geographically.
Except that they were all firmly entrenched in the Baby Boom era. Which means they grew up in an era where Kool Aid was considered healthy and Wonder Bread was the preferred avenue toward the mandatory carbohydrate input of the day. And the only proper spice to put on any dish is salt. And if that’s not enough, add a little more salt.
So it must just be the children of a certain age that have a couple of tendencies toward what I might call double-wide culinary school.
And, other than a few go-to’s, all three of the eaters in question are prone to the finer things in life. Their tastebuds have definitely progressed beyond their meager beginnings. I wouldn’t necessarily call any of them foodies, but they’re not those “same five dishes we’ve always had” types. Especially the females. My mom won’t bat an eye at a Thai restaurant and my in-laws love to discover new gastropubs in San Francisco (provided they have been well vetted by a known source). My mom and mother-in-law are both very good cooks. Both of them can make Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner for twenty, and are even sometimes willing to tweak one recipe or another. One at a time, of course, but still. My father-in-law watches every single competition show on Food Network and my mom is hellbent on visiting every Bobby Flay restaurant in the world.
And yet… And yet…
I love mustard. I will put mustard on just about anything. I’ll take mustard over mayo on a sandwich any day of the week. I hate when you’re at a conference that’s “providing sandwiches,” because those sandwiches are inevitably half mayonnaise, and the mustard is relegated to tiny packets. So there I’ll be, standing over the trash can, trying to scrape off the mayo and using my teeth to open the five mustard packs it’s going to take to offset the slimy meat and… you know what? Screw it, I’m just going to have a mustard sandwich.
My jaw hit the floor when I saw Alton Brown put mustard (and cracked pepper) on a grilled cheese sandwich. My life has never been the same.
And don’t get me started on In n’ Out’s mustard-grilled patties. They’re a slice of heaven, but I can only get them right about 1/3 of the time. Every other time they assume I want animal style.
“Can I get a double-double, mustard-grilled?”
“Okay, one animal-style double-double.”
“No, just mustard-grilled.”
“Okay, mustard-grilled with pickles.”
“No pickles. Just mustard-grilled.”
“Okay, thousand-island dressing.”
“No, I don’t want fucking animal style. I just want fucking mustard-grilled.”
Blank stare. “Okay, I’ll just write animal style, and I assume the cook will know what to do.”
And there’s I’ll be, scraping shit off of his burger over the trash can.
About a year ago, the in-laws were over for a barbecue. Burgers and hot dogs. Of course, all three of the baby boomers prefer hot dogs over Brats or Polish or Italian or Hawaiian, but whatever. I get out the condiments and…
“Do you have any mustard?” Father-in-law asked.
I hand across the mustard. He looks puzzled, turned the bottle over in his hands, put it down.
“No, I mean mustard.”
See, the problem was that I had given him what I consider mustard. I don’t remember which specific type it was. I can’t imagine it was anything overly spicy. Nothing with horseradish, no Colman’s English, no nuclear-orange sweet and hot. It was probably a generic stone-ground. I probably had some better stuff on hand, but I wouldn’t waste it on my in-laws.
And don’t get me started on the coffee swill I bust out when my mom is visiting.
But no, my father-in-law didn’t consider this particular bottle to be mustard. Of course, we all know what he meant by mustard. He wanted the neon-yellow sourpuss mustard. Good, old-fashioned American brands like… French’s. Or Heinz. What I had handed him was a natural-looking yellow-brown, with a couple of speckles indicating that it did, in fact, come from a plant. Maybe even a mustard plant.
I know the seeds are only for effect. I worked in a homemade ice cream shop in college and can attest that the beans in the vanilla bean don’t add squat to the flavor.
Well, I was a tad bit embarrassed at this barbecue to discover that, although I had three different types of mustard in the fridge, none of them were what he was looking for. I resolved to have some the next time they were over, and he settled for ketchup. I was smart enough to not bust out the malt-vinegar ketchup.
The earlier incident had been lost to the annals of experience. We now keep a bottle of French’s yellow mustard around for the in-laws when they visit. I never thought more of it, and often forget it’s in my refrigerator, even though I see it next to the good shit every time I open the refrigerator.
So while my mom was visiting, I absentmindedly asked her if she could put all the condiments out while I was cooking the burgers. Three guesses which yellow condiment was waiting for me when I got outside.
And look, I’m not opposed to the yellow mustard. It serves its purpose. It gets the job done. It’s cheaper and usually more accessible than the good shit. When I’m scrounging together a mustard sandwich from the Subway spread, chances are it ain’t Grey Poupon I’m slathering on the soggy bread. When I’m at the ballpark, if yellow’s all they’ve got, I’m still getting a hot dog. Whereas, if Coors Light is the only beer they have, I’m getting water.
Although I have noticed that more ballparks are giving good mustard as an option. Just sayin’.
Yellow mustard is a perfectly fine product. But if there’s a yellow mustard right next to a stone-ground horseradish mustard, is it really a question which one you should grab? Well, evidently, it is, because I now have one Baby Boomer who refuses to eat the latter, and one that, I don’t know, doesn’t know it exists? Because what surprises me the most is that my mom opened the refrigerator, saw this, and it never even occurred to her to grab more than one.
Oh, and that mayonnaise is also only there for when Baby Boomers are in tow.
I’m a little less understanding about this second culinary foible.
Whenever my wife’s sister is in town, we do breakfast at the in-laws. I usually try to steer us toward a restaurant. We have a wonderful breakfast place that specializes in mimosas. I am usually overruled.
Breakfast at the in-laws is usually a smorgasbord of chaos. Mother-in-law cooks up bacon and then leaves a bunch of options out for us to cook for ourselves. There are eggs, which I usually opt for. And then there’s a giant batch o’ Bisquick.
I could have said “pancake batter,” but I’m striving for accuracy here. And whatever the fuck Bisquick is, it ain’t pancakes.
The name implies it started as a biscuit mixture. That might explain the odd baking soda-esque tinge that remains on my tongue whenever I eat a Bisquick pancake. Maybe if I were to eat the pancake with a big ol’ batch of country gravy on top, it would taste a little better.
Bisquick officially lists itself as “Pancake and Biscuit Mix.” So even they have acceded to the fact that they are usually used for the former. Didn’t bother changing their name to Panquick, though.
Oh hey, they also say you can make waffles with their product. Just… let me see here… well, it’s the same as pancake batter, but with a little oil. Are they aware that waffles are supposed to taste different than pancakes? No? That might explain why I also didn’t know that until I was twenty.
My mom is on the same Bisquick-wagon my in-laws are on. About six months ago, she was excited to make some Mickey Mouse pancakes for my daughter. She had been practicing! Because it’s super hard to make Mickey Mouse pancakes. You have to… make three pancakes… but simultaneous! And connected! I assume it takes up a whole semester at culinary school.
But sure, Mom, knock yourself out.
She goes to our pantry and comes out a few hours later like a bewildered spelunker returning from the Land of the Lost.
“I’m sure I’m just missing it, but I couldn’t find any Bisquick.”
“Oh yeah, I usually make pancakes from scratch.”
“From that standard, in-every-kitchen-in-America, Betty Crocker cookbook right there.”
“The one you gave me twenty years ago when I moved out?”
“Oh. Um. Okay. I just. I don’t think I’ve ever made them that way.”
So for this visit, my wife decided to get a box of Bisquick at the store.
“Oh, thank you. Thank you so much,” my mom said when we showed it to her. I think she was more excited at the Bisquick than she was when I told her a grandchild was on the way.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going all hipster, anti-processed food here. I am perfectly fine with boxed meals. If I could eat Zatarain’s Caribbean Rice fortnightly, I would. I survived a good portion of my bachelor years on Rice-a-Roni, Pasta-Roni, and their ilk. My mom probably had to look behind three boxes of Shake & Bake and a barricade of Mac & Cheese (for the child, naturally…) in her ill-fated search for the Bisquick.
But I’ve got a few problems with Bisquick. First and foremost is the taste. There’s something acrid to it. Something that tastes like they couldn’t figure out if they wanted to taste like biscuits or pancakes (or waffles), so they split the difference and banked on being nondescript enough or ubiquitous enough that nobody would notice. It is not a flavor you would find when you go out for breakfast. Fortunately the IHOP/IHOb rebrand wasn’t alluding to International House of Bisquick. All of these Bisquick-lovers opt for fluffy, flavorful pancakes when we’re out for breakfast, yet don’t bat an eye settling for substantially less when at home.
I suppose I get that a little. I love getting Eggs Benedict when I’m out for breakfast. Because poaching eggs is a pain in the ass. And I can only assume hollandaise sauce would take effort. And I’m guessing the packet hollandaise wouldn’t taste as good.
But there’s a big difference between Eggs Benedict and pancakes, and it’s my biggest problem with the Bisquickers. PANCAKES AREN’T DIFFICULT TO MAKE! Bisquick requires three ingredients: Bisquick, milk, and egg. The Betty Crocker recipe adds four more ingredients: Flour, milk, egg, brown sugar, oil, baking powder, and salt. And I can’t imagine either of the Baby Boomers I know are having issues with brown sugar, oil, baking powder, or salt.
Seriously, I’m shitty at baking because I never measure things correctly. My wife’s the baker and I’m the cook, because I like to toss it in the pan and sample and add a little of this and try to offset a pinch of that. Who does my wife get her baking ability from? Her mother, who loves to bake. My mom makes enough Christmas cookies to feed a battalion. They both make homemade pie crusts and cakes that I would have to buy from the store.
You know what pie crusts and cakes and cookies all have? Oil. And sugar. And probably some baking powder.
Yet neither of them can be bothered to put the extra three minutes and one dirty measuring spoon into a morning meal.
So my mom made a batch of Bisquick pancakes for my daughter. She used the number four mold this time, since my daughter just turned four.
Then she put the rest of the batter in the refrigerator.
Two days later, she busted out the two-day old Bisquick batch. Even my daughter thought that was much. Those refined four year-old taste buds took one bite and said no, thanks.
So my mom made another batch.
Look, I love me some leftovers. But all three of these Baby Boomers are prone to hold on to every morsel of leftover food. A refrigerator becomes a veritable minefield of day-old, week-old, and when-the-fuck-did-we-have-Chinese food. I’m prone to a bit of this, myself.
But Bisquick batter? The whole fucking box cost five bucks. It’ll last twenty years. I may only be a teacher, but I think I can afford a little batter dump.
But then I have to remind myself that our parents grew up during the Great Depression.
Right? Like in “Grease.” The malt-shop, poodle-skirt, Elvis-Presly-pelvis-shaking Great Depression.
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