Each summer my husband and I flee to the Pacific Northwest and escape the swampy Savannah heat. We spend those three months living with my in-laws. So I decide I’ll do something nice in return for my mother-in-law.
Before you award me the Medal of Honor (which I deserve), you have to know that I adore my in-laws. And I’m not just saying that because they might read this (they think a megabyte is when you use the big spoon). What could be better than a mother-in-law who insists that my husband buy me jewelry for every holiday and considers green Jell-O a salad? But there is a learning curve; one I’m still learning to negotiate, especially when it comes to food and Christmas.
It’s only July and my mother-in-law is already spray-painting ornaments for her seashell-themed Christmas tree. It will be complete—and up—by Labor Day. One Christmas I painstakingly wrapped presents in a tapestry of fun-loving paper—Elmo for my daughter and Batman for my husband—and proudly placed them under her tree. A few hours later I discovered that they had been replaced by gifts elegantly wrapped in gold paper and silver ribbon to match the tree.
“Where are the presents I wrapped?”
“Oh, I just rearranged things a bit,” she replied, sweetly.
I went in for a closer look.
“They’re all stuffed in the back,” I said.
“They are?” she singsongs.
“Under the tree skirt.”
It’s the same with cooking. My mother-in-law eats cookies only if they’re burnt around the edges, hamburger once it’s been transformed into a hockey puck, and a baked chicken if it’s cooked long enough that the chest cavity has sunken in and the legs have fallen off entirely. Canned green beans must boil on the stove for an hour. Needless to say, she likes her food her way—in all its mummified glory.
Surely after 15 years I’ve learned enough to shrivel a pork loin to my mother-in-law’s liking. And when I come across Paula’s Tomato Pie recipe, I think I’ve hit gold. I’ve never heard of the stuff but my mother-in-law loves tomatoes. And she loves pie. It’s a win-win scenario.
The recipe seems altogether foolproof, with one exception: peeling the tomatoes. I begin with a vegetable peeler and end up with a scene right out of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” I’m surrounded by tomato carnage. There’s nothing of substance left to slice. So I do what any good Gen-Xer would do: I Google it. Which brings me to this thing called “blanching.” Before now, the only “blanch” I knew was that saucy minx from “The Golden Girls.” But armed with my Wiki-wisdom (and four new tomatoes), I’m peeling as fast as fruit leather at a daycare.
When my mother-in-law comes home from work to discover that I’ve made dinner, she is surprised—and a little bit frightened. She would never admit to her fear, but I’ve learned to read between her passive-aggressive lines. So when she asks, “How long has it been cooking?” I know she’s insinuating it’s raw. And “Can I see the recipe?” means she thinks I’m poisoning her.
I steer her to the table and present my tomato pie. It looks—brace yourself—pretty darn good.
After the first bite, I realize that tomato pie might be like fried okra: you like it if you grew up eating it. That, and I didn’t cook it long enough. The grated cheese floats around all lumpy-like in the mayo that’s still on the cool side. My mother-in-law flicks her slice around the plate and then announces, “I really like the crust.”
“Yes, the pre-made crust that I didn’t make is quite good.”
A lesser daughter-in-law would take this as another passive-aggressive stab. But not me. I just consider her comment an attempt to find the little proverbial diamond in the undercooked pie, and I think of the real diamond she’ll instruct my husband to buy for my upcoming birthday.