Monday, July 7, 2008


Today was actually sort of a long day. There aren't many of those at my job, two or three a month. Most days I can't believe how fast the time has flown, and I'm feeling good about all of it. Today I didn't eat lunch until 3:30, and only a bit when I did. Sometimes I revert back to my oldest ways of not being able to organize my thoughts and my projects, and everything takes longer than it should.

It has been a proud accomplishment in my life to have moved almost completely away from my original scatterbrained nature, which I came by honestly, thanks to Dad and Grandma Jansen. It was a conscious decision, an internal effort, to stop being the girl who got an F in Math in fourth grade because she lost her homework every day. Even as recently as college, I got behind on my bills not because I didn't have the money, but because I forgot to mail the payments. I just never really had my stuff together. I had a whole room in our house on the highway that was filled with junk and projects I couldn't manage to make sense of.

At some point during this process of transformation, I also became a control freak. And I'm sensitive about it, enough to the point of making fun of myself but getting my feelings hurt if you make fun for me. I learned that I was good at organizing, particularly events (and spatial dimensions like refrigerators, but that's not my point). I get flustered when I'm in the midst of upheaval, I want to place order to it and take the reins. And, in truth and ego, things mostly turn out better when I do. Things turn out fair and even, or logical and calm. I will ruin a perfectly good chaos by applying systems and sense. Thanks to Mom for this, although she's been comfortably submerged in many a shared maelstrom in these most recent years.

Here's my example that I'm thinking of: cooking at home. This is, of course, a topic that I will happily entertain for hours of every day. I've been a mental and manual collector of recipes almost as long as I remember. I love putting together a menu and making a plan. But I can remember many nights, in my early twenties, of wandering around the grocery store after work, collecting my thoughts and ingredients, and eventually cobbling together a very disorganized meal that wouldn't be ready to eat until 10 pm. And somehow I'd drop $60 on every one of those grocery trips, three or four nights a week, and be mystified by how I was spending so much when I wasn't eating out.

Now I make a meal schedule for the whole week in advance. I spend a few hours on Saturday on the floor of the kitchen with my dozens of cookbooks, making assignments of menus to go along with our weekly social plans. I try to know ahead of time which nights we're eating at home and which nights we're going out, hitting the ballgame, going to a show, or hosting friends. I make a master list of all the ingredients needed for the whole week, and then go through the cupboards and fridge and cross things off the list as I confirm that we already have them. I can't even tell you how much food and money this particular step has saved. How often did I grab a bottle of soy sauce because I couldn't remember for sure if I had any, and then came home to find I already had three half-used bottles? Wasteful.

I do waste one piece of paper every time, rewriting my grocery list from the master with all the items crossed off. I organize the list by aisle at my neighborhood Kroger, so I can start at the top and work my way down without doubling back or losing my focus. I rarely buy anything that isn't on the list, and I'm sure I've saved enough for a year's supply of groceries by doing this. I also hardly ever succumb to the temptation to shop at one of the nicer groceries, and this is a major secret to frugality. If there are fancy cheeses available to me, I will buy them, every time, so I just go to the store that doesn't sell fancy cheeses and I make do.

When I get home from the store and get all the groceries put away, I stack all the week's recipes on the desk and post the master menu on the refrigerator. This item earns more surprised exclamations than anything else in our house, I swear. People see it and laugh, or express their admiration. Everyone acts like it's crazy, to have that list, the whole week, all planned out. But it gives me mental peace of mind, and something to think about during the day, a game plan so that I can walk in the door and start cooking instead of knocking around trying to figure out what I'm doing. I'm really starting to hate feeling rushed in the kitchen, especially in the summer when the heat makes our house feel like a pressure cooker.

Tonight I made poppyseed chicken, the kind your grandma made with canned soup, sour cream, Ritz crackers on top. Served it with rice (perfectly cooked, from my new rice cooker, thank you MCB!) and frozen spinach. The ultimate comfort food for me, and just about my favorite leftover lunches ever. I walked in the door after work and put the pot of water on to boil, and moved efficiently through the meal preparation until the rice, chicken and spinach were all finished at nearly the same time and we sat down to a delicious meal.

I'm not saying that I'm always a well oiled machine. More often I am not, like on Saturday, when I had a ketchup massacre while I was trying to put together the barbecue sauce for the ribs. I pride myself on having a well stocked and supplied kitchen, but I have to admit that too much of my fridge is dedicated to condiments, and I shouldn't have to completely unload my baking cupboard every time I need brown sugar, which I'm sure is the thing I use the most from that shelf. And even though I don't have an entire room for my messy projects like my old house, I do keep a disaster of stacked cooking magazines and ripped out recipes in our living room, and I know it's an eyesore and should be dealt with. Every weekend I plan to tackle that stack and do something about it, but then my thoughts get drawn into baking adventures for Sunday afternoons or perfect side dish pairings for that new salmon recipe I can't wait to try...


Vickie said...

Ah, you are your mother's daughter. That weekly menu list on the fridge (right next to the elaborate chore sheet) should be a major childhood memory for you and your sisters. For me, it all came down to pure survival. And frozen spinach is one of my main comfort foods, too. I love the woman you've become.

Anonymous said...

I love you. Alot. Not sure why this post makes me feel so warm and fuzzy about you but it does.

laura said...

I love the image of you sitting on your floor, surrounded by books and recipes, planning things out.
One of these days we're cooking together...

Casey said...

So true, Mom! I don't actually make a list for the fridge, but you have deinitely passed the legacy of planning a weekly menu down to all three of your girls!

And I'm super excited about trying your modified couscous recipe, Laney. Maybe this week! Yum, yum.