Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Jacob's Guile and the Pressures of Conformity

We all have comfort foods that we turn to when we need a little extra love. Macaroni and cheese, chicken soup, brownies, risi e bisi. For me, it's Jacob's Guile, also known as mjeddrah. It's basic, it's tasty, it reminds me of being a kid. And it's dirt cheap to make. Some brown lentils, onions sauteed until golden in olive oil and salt, brown rice, all cooked together until just the right consistency. My mom always served it with lettuce and tomatoes on top, with Italian dressing and parmesan cheese from a green can. Granted, the dressing and cheese are probably not terribly authentic middle-eastern cooking, but that's how we had it, that's how I like it. The only changes I've made are an Italian dressing that doesn't contain HFCS and freshly grated parmesan. The kids used to like it.

I remember one time I made it when we were in China (for all the wonderful food there, we longed for comfort food like crazy). I used lentils my mom mailed from California (homesickness trumps carbon footprint any day), parmesan cheese in a green can from the import store, and baby bok choy instead of lettuce. It was terrific. I can still picture sitting around our little table in our equally little apartment, enjoying a taste of home on a very cold winter night.

Fast forward four years, on a not-so-cold winter night, a lovely pot of Jacob's Guile simmering on the stove. Samuel's friend goes home around 5:30. Samuel has homework and clothes still sitting on his chair in his bedroom, clothes I washed, folded, and dutifully carried up two flights of stairs to put in his room. [Long aside coming: All he needs to do is put them in the drawers. This is now nearly impossible for him. Poor boy cannot even close his drawers--they hang out at precarious angles, threatening to drop on toes, clothes spilling over the edges. You see where this is going. The clothes have been on the chair through the weekend, I keep adding new ones to the top, my request for this one chore to be done is actively being revolted against.]

Anyway, the friend goes home and Samuel falls apart, again. Last week it was white bean and kale soup. This week, it's Jacob's Guile, but the story is the same. To summarize the ongoing complaint: We eat yucky food, not good food like (_____); No, I don't want to do chores, they're boring; Why do we never get pizza (more than once a week)?; What about tacos?; What about Subway or Campbell's Chunky Soup or whatever is currently being advertised in Sport's Illustrated; and How come I can't have a bunny???

Life is difficult for Samuel right now and by a logical extension, extremely difficult for all of us. He has gone from spending the majority of his time at home to spending very little time here. He is surrounded by middle-schoolers, that most challenging, hormonal, conformist age group ever, in his first experience with full time school. It has to be spray deoderant, not stick (my objections based on environmental concerns fall on deaf ears) and only jeans, not track pants. It's a lot of change. He's trying to figure out who he is apart from us but unfortunately he has only other 11 and 12 year olds to balance us out. We had a lovely weekend together and then school began again yesterday and all fell apart.

The long and the short of last night was that he refused to put away his clothes (it's these moments when parents start to wonder why in the world they ever asked to have laundry put away in the first place), so he refused to come eat dinner (remember, the lovely comfort food?), refused to do homework which by extension led him to be sure that he'll never get out of this math class which isn't challenging him. Phew. It's a lot for a little big guy. And so my little big guy put in his earplugs, pulled on his beanie hat he insists on sleeping in, and went to sleep. At 7:30.

Remembering so clearly how it felt to be in middle school, feeling ugly and different and decidedly not cool, I sympathize with Samuel's plight. But it's part of growing up to situate oneself in the world, to see what you have at home, what is outside the home, who you really are. Heck, I don't think I figured out who I really am until my late-30s. And that idea of me is still constantly evolving, but at least more on a level of refinement, not radical construction. Part of me wants to give him the tacos, pizza, and spaghetti in daily rotation, give in to the Subway sandwich world. I want it to be easy for him. But I know that what we have here at home is a good, healthy, thriving world. He does belong here and he belongs out in the world, too. The task for him now is to figure out how to reconcile the two so that he's not pulled apart.

I have no doubt that these kinds of situations will continue to arise. It's part and parcel of raising a human being. Not for the faint of heart. As with each new phase, Dave and I are figuring out what Samuel needs, how to respond in an honorable and respectful way, while maintaining our own integrity and self-respect. It's nearly as terrifying as trying to tame a lion in a very small cage. Not that I've tried that. But I haven't helped someone navigate the rocky waters of adolescence either.

So for now, Jacob's Guile is off the menu. I don't want my comfort food to become a bone of contention every time I serve it. As Dave says, we'll save it for later when the two of us can savor and enjoy it, stress-free and in peace.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing about Jacob's Pot of Guile--my favorite cheap eats--and your struggles raising an adolescent. My daughter's just about to turn 22 and I feel as if we have (more or less) made it over the hurdle. Good luck!