The Tomb of the Strange Feast
Mom never was a good cook, but that night she really outdid herself. Her smile when she brought in dinner didn't convince even Lily, and she's only five.
"Brussels sprout-tofu casserole, with non-fat cheese," Mom announced, all bright and enthusiastic, the way grown-ups sound when they are trying to convince kids of the wonderfulness of something they really don't like it. Totally fake. Mom could pretend, but we all knew she didn't like the food she made any more than we did. She didn't even put crumbled potato chips on top of the stuff, the way Nana does, which at least means there's some part of her “hot dishes” a kid can eat.
Trouble is, Mom's on a health-food kick. Health food and bad cooking are a really awful combination. When my buddy Lianne's mom cooks healthy food, it's things like grilled veggies and chicken breasts. Kind of boring, but you can eat it. Sometimes she gets these veggie-burger things that are really good, especially with plenty of ketchup and mustard. You’d hardly know they were healthy. But my mom makes Brussels sprout-tofu casserole, and tofu "cheesecake" for dessert. Sometimes I think I should run away from home.
So that night Mom put the pan on the table, and we all just sat looking at it. Lily looked like she was about to cry, and Dad swallowed hard. The stuff looked nasty and smelled worse. Mom was still trying to smile, and she served each of us a nice big heaping pile, but she had to work harder and harder to keep smiling as she went on. She knew. That’s the worst part: Mom knows she's a lousy cook. She always has been. Used to be, she just went ahead and made hot dogs and frozen pizza and stuff like that, which was fine. When she was dieting, she’d get those “Lean and Mean” frozen dinners, and I got pretty used to them, too.
But last month she got hold of this book about fat kids and how bad eating and junk food was going to kill us all, and maybe that’s true. But in our family, Mom’s attempts to cook her idea of healthy food are going to kill us all a whole lot sooner. Like this casserole we were all staring at like gawkers at a traffic accident. Horrified and fascinated at the same time.
Dad’s a real hero. He smiled at Mom and picked up his fork. “I’m sure it’s marvelous, Dear,” he said, and plunged his fork into the heart of the steaming pile on his plate. He didn’t take a bite, though. I figure the telephone saved his life, because before he could lift the fork, his phone rang, and he got up to answer it. Mom doesn’t allow our phones at the table, so he had to hunt for it, and when he found the right one, it was Mom’s phone that was ringing after all. I don’t know why they don’t use different ringtones. Maybe they haven’t figured out how.
Anyway, Mom got on the phone and came back a minute later with her purse in her hand. “Poor old Mrs. Carruthers is sick, and she needs me to go pick up her medicines. She uses that discount drug store on the other side of town, so I’ll be a while. Don’t worry about saving dinner for me—I’ll grab something while I wait for her prescription. Just clean up when you finish.”
Mom has a sort of business running errands for the old people in our neighborhood. I’m not sure how many of them pay her, but she does it for all of them, regardless. Mom’s a great person. She just can’t cook.
When the door closed behind her, Dad, Lily and I looked at each other, then at the casserole. Then Dad stood up. “Karla, you get the shovel. I’ll bring this stuff.”
“I’ll get that dessert thing,” Lily said. We’d tasted that before and knew better than to do so again. Of all the things to mess with, dessert is the cruelest.
Dad began scraping plates back into the dish, and I got the shovel from the shed. By the time I’d picked a good place, Dad and Lily were outside, and I held the dish while Dad dug a hole with a few quick stomps on the shovel. We scraped in the mess, shoved the dirt back over it, and sprinkled some leaves over it to make it less obvious. Then we loaded the dishwasher and Dad took us to the Burger Prince and got us burgers and strawberry shakes. They make their shakes with real fruit, so we decided that was close enough to health food for tonight.
That was hours ago. When I looked out my window just now, with the moon lighting up the yard, I swear I could see that fresh pile of dirt and leaves moving.
I really hope we’ve seen the last of that strange feast.