I am your friend. I am Katie Howard. A little bit sassy, a little bit wise, but not an excessive amount of either. I am the vacuous, smiling Home Life editorial voice. I bring my work home in a way that is unsettling to my husband, Robert. Once, I reviewed vacuum cleaners and came home with a carload of product samples riding tipped over like drunk passengers—one up front, three in the back. There was a vacuum in the trunk, too. Good Housekeeping has a dedicated product research center with robots pushing the vacuums around and mysterious dirt-sensing technology, but we don’t. Of course, Home Life doesn’t offer a seal of approval, either.
Over the next two weeks I used, several times a day, a Hoover, a Halo, a Panasonic, a Eureka, and a Dyson, in order to rate them on five essential criteria: weight, suction, ease of storage, ease of emptying, and maneuverability. I vacuumed manically in the evenings. Because only our living room is carpeted, I eventually had to bring dirt in from outside and sprinkle it around in order to have something to suck up. Robert sat in the recliner watching green blobs swirl eastward on The Weather Channel while I pushed the Halo around him. He winced each time I knocked into a table leg; rolled his eyes when I dumped another pail of fresh dirt the floor. I still have all five vacuums.
I loved to dig holes as a kid. On warm days I’d go to the backyard and start digging in a neglected corner of the garden. I’d spend hours there alone. Once, my mother came outside and crouched next to me in her new Dr. Scholl’s, buckles gleaming.
“Are you digging a hole to China?” she asked.
I did believe it possible to tunnel through the earth and end up on the other side. I thought if I just kept digging, one day, without the aid of a boat or a plane, I would emerge in a rice field and be rewarded for my efforts with a conical sun hat. When I realized the impossibilities of this—the amount of time it would take, the earth’s fiery core, China’s actual placement on the globe—I felt silly.
There is a framed motivational poster on the wall in my office. I did not choose it—it was there when I took the job. It is a picture of the Grand Canyon, and below the picture it says: COMMITMENT.
I still dig holes. Right now there is a large hole in my backyard. Not a gaping hole, not that big. But big. Big enough to make the yard unattractive. Larger than a kiddie pool, smaller than a regular pool, deeper than I am tall.
Hed: One-pot meals for moms
Subhed: From Tater-tots to Crock pots: 5 time-saving dishes you’ll adore
research dish #1
Every busy mom knows how hard it can be to cook healthy meals night after night. Between doing the laundry, dusting the piano, scrubbing the toilet, driving the kids to school, shopping for groceries, digging a hole in the backyard, shaping your eyebrows, feeding the cat—it can be overwhelming.
That hole, especially, takes up a lot of time.
I don’t claim to be a genius, but I do have a stroke of genius every now and then. I, like you, slaved away preparing meals in multiple pots and pans for years. Years! Not anymore. I have perfected the art of the one-pot dish, and I’m going to share my secret with you. True, my husband complained at first. He called it all “hotdish,” the way Minnesotans call casserole. He demanded “individual ingredients, arranged separately on the plate” as though this were God’s law regarding the presentation of food. But what was he going to do? Cook a meal for himself?
In fairness to Robert, that first one was plain. It was tater-tot casserole, and while I do love tater-tot casserole, it probably wasn’t the most convincing one-pot meal to introduce our new, if temporary, supper lifestyle. Robert scowled at the sole white Corningware dish in the center of the table. He scowled at me, and he scowled at the refrigerator, where he thought better food remained. Robert had come to expect sesame-coated chicken breast with sides of asparagus and buttered new potatoes, fresh rolls, things like that, but I just didn’t have the energy anymore for all that culinary coordination. I’d recently noticed a few laugh lines and crow’s feet and a couple gray hairs. My appearance was suffering. Something had to change. So when Robert narrowed his eyes at me, I didn’t flinch. We women must be strong. And besides, I thought the white Corningware looked nice on the table, offset as it was against a dark red cloth.
“Simple,” I said, “is the new complicated.”
Robert ate it, but he didn’t talk to me. I didn’t care. Tater-tot casserole is a breeze. Burying the deepest layer of ground beef under a carefully constructed bed of cream of celery soup and tater-tots provides a protein surprise. Throw it in a two-quart dish and bake for 45 minutes at 375. Or 350. The rules aren’t solid.
That night, after his snoring had settled into a reliable, machine-like rhythm, I tiptoed outside and began digging. It was late spring and unusually warm. Fat rabbits were scattered in the yard, nibbling on errant clover. The neighborhood was silent. Sometimes you can hear factory noise in the distance, but on this night, the tater-tot night, there wasn’t a sound. I strapped on a headlamp, grabbed the good shovel, and went to work.
Robert and I do not have any children.
This summer, think big—really big—with a trip to the Grand Canyon. This quintessential family vacation offers endless opportunities for hiking, education, and, of course, fun! At a mile deep and 18 miles wide, grand might be an understatement, but your holiday shouldn’t be anything less.
Robert likes things orderly. He’s tidier than I am. Me? I’ll leave dishes soaking in the sink and towels on the bathroom floor. He should have reviewed the vacuum cleaners. So it makes sense that, although he is not a child, he prefers, in most cases, that his food not touch. Partitioned plates at barbecues delight him; he can maintain control over the baked beans and the potato salad in a way that is impossible otherwise.
research dish #2
Robert didn’t want to eat my one-pot dishes, but he did it, which is something. Next up was vegetable stew. The word “stew” was too ugly for him. It made him think of witches cackling around an iron cauldron. “Call it ragout, then,” I said. “It’s French, dear.” For the occasion I fashioned my hair into a French braid and poured two glasses of pinot noir.
The best thing about vegetable stew is its versatility. If you want, you can serve variations on this theme every night. Stew, and again, and again. Stew with eggplant and zucchini, stew with chopped bell peppers and plump, just-picked tomatoes. It’s easy; it just sits there all day in the slow-cooker. Stewing.
Robert admitted he hated this less than the tater-tot casserole, but he still wasn’t convinced. He still harbored an uneasiness toward the one-pot dish, still thought there was something morally wrong with dinner that’s all mixed up.
“I feel like this isn’t enough,” he said. He wiped thick tomato broth from his chin with the cloth napkin I had provided. Some had already dribbled onto his white cuff.
“I know,” I said. “I know.” I told him that everything he required—protein, carbohydrate, vegetable—was in the pot.
“True,” he said. “But it makes me uncomfortable.
Robert works as a business analyst for a medium-sized bank downtown. I don’t pretend to know what he does all day. When we met, he was an archeology major, which has nothing to do with analyzing bank business. I know that he wears a suit and that he has friends at the bank, and that they go to a sports bar after work, in their suits. They probably take off their ties. I never join them. I confess, I liked him better when he dreamed of unearthing important objects from lost cultures. When he dreamed simply of discovering things and reconstructing the past. When he dreamed.
My office at Home Life magazine is near the test kitchen. I can smell new teriyaki recipes and comparative cookie sessions all day long, and it influences both my gustatory desires and my job. If the cookies are near me, I want them.
I first slept with Robert’s brother, Eric, years ago, early on, back when we used to host small parties every weekend. Eric and his wife, Tanya, always came, and sometimes other friends. Our marriage was going well. After dinner, we’d all drink and play games—Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, charades.
It started one night, early on, with Trivial Pursuit.
“What sense is most closely linked to memory?” Eric had asked. His hair was longish then, light brown, and he tucked it behind his ears. I elbowed Robert and smiled.
“Got this one, honey,” I said. “Easy. Smell.”
Eric flipped the card over. “Huh,” he said. “I’d have thought hearing.”
“Nope,” I said.
“We win,” Robert said.
I smiled. “Of course we do.”
“Of course you do,” Tanya said.
Robert stood up and pointed at each of us. “More beer?”
And then Tanya went to the bathroom and Robert to the kitchen, and Eric sat across from me, smiling and staring.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi.” Eric put his feet on the couch and rested his chin on his knee. “You know,” he said, “when I smell vanilla I think of you. Which is tough, because Tanya wears vanilla lotion.”
“Why don’t you think of Tanya, then?”
Eric looked past me, out the window. “I don’t know,” he said.
I have had the same chair since I started here eight years ago, and it is unstable. I am certain it will soon fall apart, and I will end up on the floor. I have asked for a new chair, but it hasn’t appeared. I leave work sore and aching from the constant, subtle movements I must make all day long in order to remain balanced.
“What do you dream of?” I asked him. He was loading the dishwasher. I sat at the breakfast bar pouring salt and tracing designs in it with my finger, like a teenager. Nervous habit. Robert washes the dishes before he puts them in the dishwasher, so when he turned toward me, finally, his hands were soapy.
“Dream?” he asked. “I guess I’ve always wanted a boat.”
“No,” I said. “What do you really want?” I looked at him. Urgently, I think.
Robert filed plates into the dishwasher. When he finished, he looked at me and then stretched out his arms, palms toward the ceiling. “This,” he said, and smiled.
I frowned. “That’s it?”
It might sound unromantic, even heartbreaking, but scientists believe that crazy little thing called love is nothing more than the product of chemicals. It’s a shot of dopamine when you look in his eyes, a rush of endorphins when he holds your hand. Just be careful—the brains natural drugs are addictive!
There is something very therapeutic about digging a hole—it’s a reward in itself—which is why, I suppose, I kept doing it. The morning after the stew, Robert pulled aside the vertical blinds on the patio doors and stared out. He looked lovely, really, standing there in his blue striped cotton pajamas and the early sun, his dark curls springing out of place on his head. I wanted to hug him, contain him. He clutched the gray Home Life Media Group mug I’d swiped from work (his favorite mug, I don’t know why) and surveyed the yard, as he did every morning.
“Honey?” he said, and continued staring out the window. “Was there a storm last night?”
“What, dear?” I asked.
“It’s messy back here. Was there a storm?”
“Oh,” I said, running to the window. “Oh, yes. A storm.” I made whooshing sounds and put both my hands on his back, turning him toward the dining table. “Lots of wind.”
“I didn’t hear it at all,” he said.
“No?” I gently nudged him into a chair. “Well, it kept me up. Thunder, too.” I switched the blinds closed. “Would you like some oatmeal?”
Robert looked at me closely. “You do look tired,” he said.
“I am, dear,” I said. I pulled a pot from the cupboard and ran water for oatmeal.
research dish #3
Robert invited Eric over for dinner on Tuesday, with a warning to his brother that he couldn’t guarantee it would be any good. Tanya had plans with her mother and didn’t come; I was glad. She grated on me. She spent her days watching talk shows and letting dust thicken to stains in the corners while Eric was at work. He was the art director for a junk mail company. (“Direct mail,” he corrects me. “Direct to the garbage can,” I say.)
Dinner was vichyssoise, a cold potato leek soup. Robert chatted with Eric at the table while I poured the creamy soup into simple black bowls. Robert is older and likes baseball. Eric doesn’t, but they talked about baseball. I brought two bowls to the table, and then another. I sat across from Eric, and then looked at Robert.
“Tada,” I said.
“Wonderful,” he said.
“It’s another meal en français, mon petit chou,” I said. “Vichyssoise. Cold soup!”
Robert croaked out a wounded, “Oh, God,” but Eric put his nose over the bowl, closed his eyes, and inhaled. Then he tried it.
“It’s wonderful, Katie,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, and glared at Robert.
After Eric left and Robert had cleaned up the kitchen and gone to bed, I went outside in the dark and sat at the edge of the hole. What if I kept digging and never stopped?
Butter cookies, caramel shortbreads, chocolate chip cookies, gingerbread cookies, lady fingers, macaroons, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, rosettes, Russian tea cakes, snickerdoodles, wafers. If the cookies are near me, I want them.
I’d have to stop eventually, of course. But as I sat there, I realized the hole wasn’t big enough. Not nearly. I could sit at the edge and dangle my feet, dig my toes into the walls, but it wasn’t a proper hole. More like a chute. I wanted a pit. I studied my pink toenails, now dirty and illuminated by the headlamp. Then I jumped up and widened the hole quickly. Furiously. I flung chunks of sod in all directions with each wild swing of the shovel. And then it was just dirt. Dirt, earth, the worms, the ants, the roots of weeds—all of it sent skyward but landing instead on the garage door, the birdbath, the fence, my hair.
By the time the eastern sky gave its cobalt warning of impending daylight, I was in deep. It was a productive night. I scraped at the once-damp soil that had dried to my face and watched the constellations fade.
I could blame the affair with Eric on drink or youth, but the truth is we still get together. I meet Eric during the day sometimes, on our lunch hours. Sometimes he comes over when Robert is at a game with his work friends. It’s almost too easy, because Robert thinks nothing of us spending time together. It’s his kid brother. They look nothing alike, and I wish Eric had my husband’s curly hair. Robert hates it because he can’t control, but that’s exactly why I love it. Robert wishes he had Eric’s hair—lighter, calmer, easier to cut. They have the same dark eyes, though.
More than three-quarters of American adults average fewer than seven hours of sleep per night. No wonder we’re tired! If that sounds like you, then you’re among the growing ranks of the sleep deprived, and you’re putting yourself at risk for heart disease, depression, substance abuse, obesity, and more. All for lack of a few winks.
research dish #4
I baked a soufflé next. Spinach and cheese. This was intimidating, both because I’d never baked soufflé, and because the name makes it sound challenging. The main ingredients, however, are overwhelmingly simple. Eggs, milk, cheese—nothing fancy.
“Soufflé,” I said. I placed the now indispensable two-quart white Corningware dish on the table.
“It’s French,” Robert said. He studied the soufflé, forlorn.
“It is!” I said. Maybe I was overdoing the French.
“Pinot or cabernet?” I asked.
“Katie,” Robert said. “It’s an omelet. You don’t drink wine with an omelet.”
I placed a bottle onto the table. “Cabernet it is,” I said, and poured.
“Katie,” he said again. “Why are you doing this?”
I forced a spatula into the soufflé and looked at Robert. “Because I’m hungry,” I said.
The truth is, I don’t usually cook dinner, except on Tuesdays when Eric comes over, so these one-pot dishes were actually daunting. Robert and I usually go out. If his friends in suits make him late coming home from the bars, I go out by myself. Sometimes I just don’t eat. But I think of the readers of Home Life, and how easily we spell out the troubles of America’s housewives and break them down into solvable bullet points. I want to be the Katie Howard with the answers.
Worry, guilt, and anger can muddle our minds as surely as a desk full of papers slows down our work. Learn how to let go, and you’ll be on the path to self-forgiveness and a more fulfilling life in no time.
The fifth and final dish was shepherd’s pie. This can be complicated, but if you use frozen veggies and refrigerated biscuits, it only takes minutes to prepare. Pour everything into a pie pan and top with the biscuits. I made a double batch, so I used the two-quart casserole.
Robert strolled into the kitchen with his nose in a Newsweek as I was getting dinner out of the oven. “Dinner’s ready,” I said. He looked up from his magazine and then slowly set it down on the counter. I put the dish on the stove and looked at him.
“No,” he said.
I pulled my oven mitts off and placed them on his magazine.
“No?” I asked. Robert reached for the dish, and I slapped his hand. “You’ll burn yourself.” He picked it up anyway, but he couldn’t hold it, and he dropped it on the floor. The Corningware broke in two, and my shepherd’s pie oozed through the cracks; a steaming mass of potatoes and carrots and gravy slowly spread across the ceramic tile.
I meant to clean up the mess on the floor, but instead I just picked up the broken dish and carried it outside. I ran upstairs and found the tee-shirt I got on our honeymoon in Mexico. A dress Robert bought me. I ran through the house gathering objects for the box. Important things. His mother’s china, a photograph from Halloween three years ago, a pressed flower, lingerie I’ve never worn, a movie ticket, the Home Life mug. I threw it all in and dragged the clanging box outside. It had been raining, and the hole was filling up. I didn’t care. I dumped the contents of the box into the hole and watched to see what would float and what would sink. I threw it in the hole. It was raining, and the hole was quickly filling, turning into a shallow pool. I sat at the edge of the hole, my toes wet, watching a broken crescent of Corningware bob and float. I wondered if Robert would come back.
I went back into the house muddy and dripping. I tracked dirt all over—through the dining room, through the living room. I walked in a circle making footprints until my feet dried and didn’t leave a mark. I sat in the recliner. I sat on the couch. I waited for Robert.
I sat for five minutes, maybe, and then walked to the linen closet, where we kept the games. I pulled out Trivial Pursuit, with it’s faded cover, and wondered how many pieces of pie were still in the box. I took that, and the empty bottle of wine from dinner, and a vanilla candle, and I plucked our wedding picture off the wall, and I carried it all outside. I dropped the bottle of wine in the grass, so I dumped the candle and the picture and the game in the hole and went back for bottle and tossed that in. I went back inside, muddy again.
A poor diet, lack of sunlight, and the financial stress can leave you feeling low. You’re not going crazy. Make mental health your New Year’s resolution by eating your veggies, stocking up on vitamin D, and revising your budget.
Robert returned just before bedtime. He walked in and looked at me like he didn’t know who I was. He looked at the mud everywhere.
“Katie,” he said, and sighed. I held up the bottle.
“Wine?” I asked.
“What?” he asked. “No.”
“Are you sure?”
He leaned his head against the wall and looked at the ceiling. His hands were in his pockets. Then he looked at me, and I looked at him. I walked over to him, because I wanted a closer look. I put my hands on his shoulders and he didn’t try to get away. I stared at him, his eyes.
“What,” he said. I kept staring. “What is wrong with you?” he asked. Then he went up to bed.
When I think of it now, it sounds like a teenager burning pictures of her ex-boyfriend. That’s not what it was at all. I was not trying to destroy these things, although that is what happened. I wanted to create a living scrapbook. I wanted our history to be gone, and yet not gone. I wanted it to be found. And I wanted Robert to make this discovery on his own, to stumble upon the archive of our life and brush the dirt off every hurt and every memory we called ours. But sometimes people need a nudge in the right direction.
“Robert,” I whispered. “Wake up.”
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Get up. I want to show you something.”
“Right now?” he asked.
“Yes. Right now.”
I led him down the stairs, and out the patio door, and barefoot across the damp grass. The rain had stopped, and the clouds drifted away, and the moon was fat and bright. The hole was now a small pond, a pool, perfectly round and neatly framed with grass. A broken crescent of white Corningware bobbed and floated in the pond. My tee-shirt clung to the wall of the pit. Robert walked closer, and then sat along the edge, silent. I handed him the forehead flashlight.
“Go on,” I said. “Look.”
He looked, and I looked. We looked together. I kissed his cheek and slipped my arm around his waist, and then I leaned into his soft, black tee-shirt. I closed my eyes then, and inhaled, breathing in Robert, and the dirt, and the damp grass, because I wanted to remember. Raindrops on curls, excitement.
So I did.
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