Mom’s scalloped potatoes in a creamy grey milky sauce looked like something you’d see coating a Paper Mache monkey, or what I would later realize in an “oh wow” moment, covering the android Ash in “Alien” during his barf and whacking scene (Actually, the scene reminded me of both Mom’s potatoes and spaghetti).

The grey goop sat in a steaming rectangular CorningWare dish with little polka dots of pink spam poking toe-like at every angle. Mom’s cooking was always a sort of building caved in on itself. Splashes of pink in food could have been anything. Anyway, she had cut the spam into brick shapes. Odds and ends. Curves. There was never any real order to her cutting anything. I couldn’t even say her bricks were stackable, which is why they looked like toes.

A big heaping spoonful on my plate meant watching a soupy gooey mess slop off the potatoes, not much unlike flesh caught in a flash fire and falling apart. I figured if potatoes could scream they would. But they didn’t. And neither did I. Not for the first fifteen years of my life anyway.

Seconds, please?

When I think about Stevie Wonder sitting at a grand piano tink-tink-a-tinkling those keys and singing about whatever is on his mind, I imagine he still sees beauty. There’s still a gorgeous world, right? You know, Mary Ingalls, she imagined beauty too while standing at the window in her family’s little house in Walnut Grove, or on a street corner, just gazing, like pretty stars were everywhere (and big angel wings on everyone). It was all beautiful.

I know it’s just TV. But the blind can see beauty. Yes’m.

Then you take something like food. If you’re blind to the nuances of its varied bland tastes practically your whole life (until you’re a teenager) then you’re really messed up. The good thing is, when I was around fifteen, food became epic as the fast-food nation craze in the Eighties saved my ass. And I have to say, thank God my parents’ relationship fell apart in the Eighties. Mom’s cooking disappeared and Carl’s Jr. was the Buddha. And thank God for Asia Market, because as greasy as that little store’s kitchen noodles were, it was my first foray into exotic foods. Moo shoo salvation.

Back to the Seventies.

Sure, those years often revolved around TV dinners. Little foil trays filled with goodies cooked in the oven. There was lots of Swiss steak. Mountains of it. Talk about another soupy gooey mess. Mom made her version of it too. Only, I’m not sure anything covered it but some weird gravy and onions. And the meat was tough and probably ripped right off the cheek of some cow (Pops was always finding a deal, and he carried lots of big knives and a gun).

Come to think of it, Swiss steak was a real delicacy in our house. As plain as it was and as canned as the mashed potatoes were, it was just a fucking treat. I gobbled the shit like it was straight from some old fat European cook dumped right on my plate (I’m a quarter Swedish. Mom was half. So maybe she loved the Swiss! Wa-la! Wasn’t like she was going to get to sleep with one).

And yes, her delicacy smelled a little like dog food. But that could have been because our fat sheltie’s dog dish was always a big splattered mess under the kitchen table. Every dinner smelled a little like Alpo. Or the generic equivalent.

It was great preparation for the years I worked in a dairy.

Now, Mom’s corned beef hash made me gag. I wouldn’t touch the shit. Give me her crummy attempt at chorizo and eggs anytime over that plate of dog crap. I’m half Mexican… Warning: Never let a white Midwesterner from Iowa cook your family’s Mexican food. You will be fucking screwed up for years. Although, why the hell Pops never complained is beyond me. He ate the shit like he was the dog getting a plate of mom’s salty spaghetti. Our dog, Candy? She wouldn’t touch the corned beef hash either. Poor thing. Probably what killed her in her sleep. I loved the little bitch. But I don’t even know what was in the hash mash, and I refuse to describe its texture, so let’s move on.

A real family delicacy down in the south side of Bakersfield where I grew up could really fill the house (and the neighborhood) with a foul smell. You think Mom’s corned beef hash could turn away a starving army? Or that her chorizo was all that could give an entire ghetto of my Mexican cousins the shits? Try a hot steamy cookie sheet filled with hot dogs carefully sliced down the centers (because Mom took care in slicing her wieners) and then heap (I mean fucking heap) mounds of fake mashed potatoes on top. Take that shit and slam it in the oven for an hour, so that no juice is left in those dogs (By this time every particle is in the atmosphere scaring the little cholos back inside their houses). Then, pull those dogs out of the oven and put those bad boys on the dinner table. That’s where we all sat, Pops at the head in his big wooden chair (us on benches). Once in a long while he blessed the food (Don’t remember what he said because I was usually holding my breath). And then chow time.

You’ve never seen such burnt potatoes slide eagerly down so many throats. I mean, we would have eaten that shit raw Mom’s cooking was so bad.

Oh, man, Pops. He sat there in his shorts (never wore a shirt) with his big brown hairy belly smashed against the table, and he would slop on half a bottle of ketchup. Leaning forward, he ate those bitches like they were some kind of fancy French eclairs some fat fucking Frenchman would buy all warm and tasty on the way to the Paris Metro. And there Pops went, eating three helpings, and the dog whining cause she didn’t get any, and me eating my food, trying like hell to crane my neck to see the TV because the “Wonderful World of Disney” was on and this was a bonafide Sunday evening treat.

I can go on. But I just wanted you to know why I boycott spam, or anything that claims having been scalloped, or chorizo from even the best Mexican restaurants, and most skinny noodles (Mom cooked Fideo and it looked like some poor soul’s brains had been cooked with the meninges melting away into a noodle stew).

Ah, the delicacies. I sure hope it’s dinner time for you. Word to your mother.

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NICK BELARDES is illustrator of NYT Best-Selling Novel by Jonathan Evison West of Here (2011), author of Random Obsessions (2009), Lords (2005), and the first literary Twitter novel: Small Places (2010). An author, poet, and screenwriter for Hectic Films, Belardes turned TV/online journalist overnight after blogging his way to success. His articles and essays have appeared on the homepage of CNN.com and other news sites across America. You can find Nick on Facebook and Twitter.

123 responses to “You Never Know About Bad Cooking”

  1. matildakay says:

    Oh my goodness! I got a stomach ache and almost threw up in my mouth with the descriptions of your Mother’s famous dishes! Reminds me of my piano teacher’s horrid meatloaf that she fixed every time my family ate dinner at her house and is the reason still today that I don’t eat hamburger meat. Of course I found out a few years ago from my mom that the piano teacher’s meatloaf was actually some sausage/hamburger mystery mix but the damage was already done and I just can’t really stomach hamburger still to this day.

    Thank goodness you were introduced to fast food and eventually fine food.

    I grew up on spam too. But I don’t boycott it because my mom didn’t make it mystery meat.

    • hahaha. I almost made you throw up? Cool! You know, when I discovered that meatloaf could actually taste good, I started binging on it at restaurants. I still swear that we must have been so poor at times that mom was taking the generic dog food and drowning it in ketchup. That shit was nasty! Thanks for reading. I wish you liked hamburgers. A real American delicacy.

  2. Jane Hawley says:

    Your writing is so descripitive it made me naseous. And I was just about to eat dinner! Midwestern food is like space food. Marshmallow sauce. Tang. Cheese Whiz. “Party” potatoes. Yuck!

    What inspired you to write this piece?

    • Thanks Jane. A few weeks ago I was talking to Matildakay and for some reason I started talking about my Mom’s shitty cooking. I went into great detail also about her nasty dish of mayonnaise, bananas and peanut butter. I don’t know what the hell she was thinking. Maybe there was just a shitload of Benzhedrine back in Iowa in the 1950s. Could have been all the German moonshine. Don’t know. Those Lutherans are probably getting their corn from Mars. In either case, I started telling Matildakay all these wacky stories. Been meaning to write a lot of stories here for TNB. But life sometimes gets in the way like bad food.

  3. Jane Hawley says:

    Even your comments are literary. It would be great to compile a recipe book of “Food That Tastes Like Shit” (featuring food by the worst cooks in your life). No wonder you don’t like peanut butter–that dish sounds disgusting! I feel bad for razzing your mom, but how did she get to be such an awful cook? Did she even like her own food? Or did she just not care? Your mama also sounds awesome in a way. Reminds me of a quote about Annie Dillard about writing: “Let the grass die. I let almost all of my indoor plants die from neglect while I was writing the book. There are all kinds of ways to live. You can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.” But there’s still something to be said about good food…

    • There’s no telling how mom became an awful cook. Rest her soul I can’t ask her. I’m guessing it had something to do with growing up in communes in Iowa in the 1940s and eating food along the lines of Hooverville delicacies cooked out among the tents, campfires and dusty shared kitchens. No telling, really. My Pops was a cook in college for his fraternity. But he never cooked around the house. Bit too much machismo in his Latino soul to stoop to cooking for a family of mixed blood misfits. I like that Dillard quote. Sounding kind of educated pulling that one out of a hat, Ms. Why-oh-min.

      • Jane Hawley says:

        I love the extra details that we’re getting out of all of these comments: your parents’ childhoods, their relationship, your relationship to them. I’d like to know more about your mom growing up in communes in Iowa during the 1940s and what stories she might have told you about it.

        I like the Dillard quote too. Makes me feel good about never putting away my laundry… I hate that chore. Also–who makes their own cheeseballs anymore? I just recycle them from old Christmas gifts.

        • Mom isn’t here anymore. There’s just a lot I don’t know, and never will, sadly.

          I think people in the Midwest still make cheeseballs. Definitely not a Latino thing. Maybe refriend bean balls.

  4. Sarah Villasenor says:

    Omg, I can totally relate to this story! Are you sure our parents aren’t related?!? I was overjoyed when my dad started working shift work in the early 80’s because we got to eat lots of TV dinners and McDonald’s after that. Your descriptions took me back to my childhood 🙂 Don’t tell my mom I said that! (matildakay, I wonder if we had the same piano teacher?) Great descriptive writing, right before I eat leftovers from last night!

    • Sarah, you know, there’s a stream of Donnie Darko in all us white folks (half of me anyway) where we all trace our lives back to a dark Germanic time loophole in Minnesota, somewhere deep among lakes and Injun ghosts, where the Great Depression caused all the cooks in the great lakey state to throw away their cookbooks and make the best of taters, dogs and condiments.

      Meatloaf piano teachers? That’s a bizarre connection to have with anyone. Sounds like we’ve both eaten more TV dinners than we’d care to admit.

  5. Veronica says:

    You don’t eat chorizo or fideo?! Aw, that makes me sad. If I ever have children, I guess my best bet is to take their chubby butts to McDonald’s.

    • Hahaha. I probably just need some decent Fideo and decent chorizo. I was a bit dramatic in my prose. But spam, hell no. I’m done with it. I will fight the spam gods to the death! To the death!!!

      Chubby children need McDonald’s, this I agree. It teaches them rudimentary junk food eating. So does going to the movies and surrounding them with boxes of candy, popcorn and soda.

      • Veronica says:

        YES you do need some decent chorizo! I LOVE me some chorizo. Had some Sunday morning that my tia made. Nom nom nom. I’ve never had spam, so I’ll take your word for it. Just looks icky and if you will fight the spam gods to their death, then it’s probably pretty bad.

        I can’t really cook myself so if I ever have to feed little humans McDonald’s seems the way to go. Although, I do love Wendy’s. Mmm… Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers. I’m really hungry right now. I’m on day two of my three day cleanse, so everything sounds so yummy, especially candy, popcorn and soda, no wait, an icee. 😛

        • Yes, spam is bad. It’s like something on the inside, meant to be good smelling on the inside, was cursed as soon as it got on the outside, and transformed into a stinking pink mass of stench.


          And yes, I had a Bic Mac yesterday and all was right in my universe. Now, that’s cleansing. Next up? Probably some Chick Fil A. Gotta round out my week.

  6. Veronica says:

    Hey, I have a picture! I don’t even remember doing that.

    • You have a picture of what, Veronica? Your chubby butt? TV dinners? Chorizo? lol.

      • Veronica says:

        Haha, NO! Not my chubby butt. At least I hope there are no pictures of it. I would die. I don’t want to look at it. So glad it’s behind me because I forget about it, then I don’t notice it. lol. I meant, I have a picture in my comment, a little avatar thingy, comment icon, whatever it’s called. Silly! 🙂

        • Oh, yes, TNB uses gravatar. So if you at one time went to gravatar.com and registered and uploaded a photo, well then, there you go. You can change it too.

          Avatars. They make us who we are you know.

  7. Erika Rae says:

    Oh Nick. Come here. You need a hug.

  8. Angela says:

    I LOVE it!! I should have invited you over for dinner a few times when we were in high school. But then again, I didn’t know you until 10th grade.

    • How do you remember when we met? What the heck? That’s crazy. I can hardly remember any of high school. My brain is on lockdown regarding most of those days.

      What would we have had for dinner? Arctic surprise?

      • Angela says:

        Well, I only remember because that’s when I transferred to South High. My Freshman year was spent at Bakersfield High. I was a Driller before I was a Rebel. I assumed you were at South all along, but I actually don’t remember exactly when we met.

      • Angela says:

        Arctic surprise. HA! 🙂 I recently cooked homemade enchiladas for a few friends down at Hut 10 (the little house with the kitchen that we can sign out to use down here). Also made taquitos and mini chimichangas, all with homemade corn and flour tortillas. A good friend of mine had all the makings for tortillas shipped down along with a tortilla press, but he ended up not being able to winter this year, so he gave everything to me and I’ve been teaching myself the fine art of tortilla making. It’s so easy to do, I recommend it. Let me know what you would like for me to cook for you next time I’m in B-field.

        • You have to ask? Dude. Show me the tortilla ropes and let’s whip up some vittles. I’ll bring the salsa and the Coronas and some hungry peeps. You bring the cooking expertise and the tales of Antarctican woe. You know the stories. One-eyed Happy Feet Emperor penguins lost and decimated. Big fish attacked by seamonsters. Living in snowbound huts with unshaven lusty-eyed government workers researching why microbes screw each other on dirty frozen tundra snowballs… And the story of Injun Yeti. I want to know why he carries a spear and haunts the Russian station down the road. Is it for their vodka or hairy women?

        • Angela says:

          Okay! Tentatively plan for October. Unless I end up going to Bermuda, then probably no B-field til January.

        • I will be in Colorado part of October for a writing retreat. I can’t remember the dates as usual. Bermuda? What the heck, is Happy Feet there? Gotta pick up the GPS tracker you stuck up his rear?

  9. Angela says:

    The summer between Junior & Senior year, I got out my mom’s Betty Crocker cookbook and just started trying out baking recipes. I would make one item per week. Mom didn’t bake much, except on special occasions, but one of my favorite things to do with her was to make Toll House cookies. She didn’t let me start cooking for the family until my Senior year in high school. Back when it was just her and I, we had TV dinners and frozen pot pies in reserve for nights that she didn’t feel like cooking a big meal. She would also cook in bulk, so we’d have leftovers, like, a big pot of pinto beans with ham hocks (and cornbread baked in an iron skillet). One of my favorites of those was her chili, because the first night we’d use it for chili dogs (the polish sausage dogs, as she never bought the plain dogs), and the leftovers would go over spaghetti the next night. She always made everything perfectly and I never got sick of her cooking. We were too poor to eat out much, but we weren’t too poor to eat well at home. My favorite thing of all time (that she still cooks for me), is her chicken-fried steak. Mom still has that same skillet that she cooked for me in. I told her I’d like to have it when she’s done with it.

    • Angela, you just made me hungry for home cookin’. Those are some mighty tasty vittles you’re talking about. I kind of feel left out. I could have been scarfing on all kinds of free meals during ye olde South High days and I didn’t even know it. But then, that’s what I get for being a bashful kid who didn’t really say much to girls. If I was smart, I would have had an entire week’s worth of girlfriends so I could have eaten like a kind all through those years.

      But then, I sure would have missed out on my mom’s luxurious meals. You just can’t beat an oven-cooked hot dog with fake taters covered in pepper, lathered in heinz, and washed down with a big glass of Nestle Quik choco milk.

      Ok, I think I just made myself sick. I can’t believe I liked that crap. I want the pot of pinto beans and corn bread.

  10. Nicole Biggs says:

    I quit eating in high school. Just quit. I was tired of boiled hot dogs, with the gray matter that cooks out and floats to the top of the water and sloppy joes. My momma always bragged about learning how to cook from the little Italian lady down the street. (BTW, her lasagna was created by Gods.) Having said that, she never made us anything she learned because we wouldn’t like stuffed eggplant. That was her only other recipe? Yes, I can relate to Swanson TV dinners – earp! Moving on. My great-grandfather was a cook in Her Majesty’s Service (I always thought he cooked for the queen!) but my mom didn’t learn to cook from him because he was retired. Yeah, didn’t make sense to me either. haha! My great-grandmother baked fresh bread daily and all the kids ate it as an after school snack. I don’t think my momma has ever attempted fresh bread. Thank goodness for my dad and his affinity for cooking and grilling or we would have ended up eating fish sticks, meatloaf and mac n’ cheese forever.

    Ah, you brought back all the sweet memories of childhood. Thanks! 🙂

    • Nicole, first off, thanks so much for your comment. I do have wonder, however, if there was something in the water around South High in Bakersfield that infected some of the Mom’s with a sort of false sense of culinary arts. It was as if they were congregating like some kind of Stepford Wives of Wishful Cooking, and in their conspiracy, were simply delusional about some of the bland foods in the supermarket. Were they seeing braised lamb while tossing hot dogs in carts? Or some kind of Mediterranean paella when whipping up sloppy joes from a packet (and still screwing that up)? Could it be the same infection that saw kids mixing three types of Kool-Aid in kitchens and still drinking the stuff? Like grape-black raspberry-lime swamp water surprise? Seen it firsthand. I mean, I saw the effects of bad cooking. It left kids walking in circles, while others (the well-dressed lucky ones), somehow got to eat real corn bread and actual beans. I don’t know. Something was going on. It’s like UFOs were abducting our mothers and we were stuck with these backwards-wired alien chefs who just didn’t get it.

  11. Jane Hawley says:

    Food brings up so many memories of family members for me because they all have such different cooking styles–almost to match their personalities. My grandmother who grew up on a Colorado ranch made simple fireside meals and soul food. Gourmet Italian is my grandfather’s speciality and he fancies himself the cultivated world-traveler. I will always associate my father with the same simple meal that he cooked for me when he was a single father: one piece of meat, one vegetable, and rice. No variations. Had a boyfriend from Texas who ate the weirdest shit. Anchovies and saltines. Fried tilapia. SPAM sandwiches. And washed them down with ghettoritas and clamatos.

    • Jane, I think you’re onto the seriousness of the subject. Cultural determinents for our varying food ways. There’s a scene in “Shineland.” It takes place around 1910, though it’s based on my actual life in the 1970s. Me standing next to my Pops and he hands me some white bread and a little tin of sardines. I pull the pin and open my surprise and there are these slimy fish. I slam one onto my bread, eyes staring at me, and I chow the little sucker down like he’s a piece of nommy silver candy. If Pops would have handed me a cracker I would’ve laid my next little fish on his bed and tucked him into my belly for an eternal night.

      Don’t know why I don’t still eat sardines. Something changed with family, food and living life. Could just be my internal calculator got sick of counting up fish eyes. I’d had enough of the tiny things.

      • Jane Hawley says:

        During college I worked in a writing center that was mostly visited by foreign students who wanted help with their essays. One Japanese guy brought in a paper about crock pots for an American Studies course. He was fascinated by them, but he’d never seen one–only read about it in his research. So I invited him over to my apartment to see how a crock pot worked and he analyzed the hell out of the cooking process. I’d never thought about the cultural implications of cooking until that moment and it really opened up a new perspective about food and eating for me.

        • I really want to make a “crack pot” joke right now. But yes, cultural determinants in folkways through food. It’s interesting to think Mom’s ways, her Germanic Midwestern poorhouse ways were cultural determinants, but they were. There’s new ones to be had though. I’ve worked some at expanding my cooking, not enough, but have tried to some degree. And it’s working! My kids can both make a bomb salsa!

  12. I feel very lucky to have been brought up around good (taste- and health-wise) food. Of course, I rebelled when I was old enough and ate a lot of shit, but now that I’m a little wiser I really dig cooking. I even try to grow my own food as much as possible.

    You’ve got me paranoid about my Mexican food now… I’m reading this on a break from cooking dinner for Amy. It’s Mexican, or thereabouts. Mexican-inspired, at least. You have to MacGuyver your food when you live here, unless you know how to cook Chinese style (which I don’t).

    • David, I would be jealous if I didn’t get such a kick out of my bad food past. I enjoy cooking too, and admit I am better than my mom ever was, and can even whip up a mean salsa.

      Hey, MacGuyvered food is what this post is all about. Mom was the quintessential food Macguyver of the Seventies.

      Hope you didn’t get a stomach ache.

  13. Your descriptions of your mother’s cooking are *epic*, Nick! They remind me of Chabon’s descriptions of Ethel Klayman’s cooking in Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

    • Oh man, I haven’t read that book in a long time. Hahaha. Moms, if we are close to them, are epic for many reasons. Still trying to figure out why I liked her soupy spaghetti.

  14. Paula Austin says:

    I enjoyed this piece tremendously. Reminds me a lot of my childhood and the food that my mother had to offer up to her six ravishing young children. I suppose we were like six baby birds huddled around the table anticipating the fare of the day. Sometimes that wasn’t much. Times were hard and food wasn’t cheap. This would require my mom to get rather creative in the ways she would prepare the appalachian vernacular at hand. Spam, yes there was Spam, cheap and tasty. Fried, cubed, baked in macaroni, on sandwiches, lots of variation on this one. How about bologna? I can still smell those fried bologna sandwiches, topped off with mustard and onions on white bread that was purchased from the day old resale bakery for ten cents a loaf. Fried corn bread in gravy left over from supper for breakfast. Those were the store bought delicacies. Most often what was on hand was what was offered from the garden and from the hills. Squirrel, try that one. Did you ever have to help you mom skin a few squirrels, and then watch her cook them up for the supper table. White squirrel gravy and biscuits, yum, yum. I think my stomach just did a flip and luckily land back in its original position.

    So Nick, my take on this is, your mom had a lot of mouths to feed with what ever resources she had at hand. I give her kudos on her creativity and willingness to gather her children to the table and feed them with what her man had provided. And sure your father sat there and eat, and eat gladly, this was his provisions.

    Now we know Nick, where you get your awesome creativity, your ambition, your father skills, your willingness to hang in there and keep hoping for the best, for hope does not disappoint.

    Now the goal, to get those squirrel brains out of my head!

  15. Squirrels? Wow. Now that’s some interesting vittles. Can’t say I ever tried such tiny hairy beasts. Though there were a lot of bologna sandwiches, including the fried variety and a rabbit once.

    Your take is interesting. But alas, it wasn’t that there wasn’t much money for food. And while Pops grew up in a family of around ten, ours was only five. Mom was just a really bad cook. Hands down, the worst I ever knew.

    Mmm… squirrel brains!

  16. Art says:

    Sounds familiar, but my mother was English. I had to re-learn what some foods actually tasted like once I left home.

    But at least we ate, right?

    • Not only did I eat, I ate Mom’s cooking like a ravenous beast for years. There was nothing like her soupy spaghetti, her grey casseroles and her salty stew surprise. Yeah, relearning. Detox. Learning the world had real chefs and culinary arts.

      I sure am glad there was no Food Network when I was a kid. Would have really messed me up. I would have thought Mom’s terrible cooking should have been its own show.

  17. Paula Austin says:

    Awwh Nick, thank you for not massacring my take on your story. I do understand it is a piece on the short falls of your mothers cooking. Sounds like rightly so. You accomplished the spectacular endeavor to relate your readers to your experience at the family table with the culinary taste bud. Being a mother and the soul that I am, and my many shortfalls as a mother, I couldn’t help but feel compassion for her in her undertaking to give her best effort and still be a flop. I guess I relate to that myself, as a mother that is. My only solace is, I tried. I gave it my best effort, and sounds like your mother did too.

    Oh, the many ways the reader relates to the story, so varied and unpredictable. The challenge is to create that capacity. You do it well! Thank you for allowing me that freedom.

    Mmm…yes, squirrel brains!

    • Short falls? More like Niagara Falls (Sorry Mom). But yeah, Mom did her best. And for years I loved her cooking. I’m glad I can now make fun of it. Means I’m thinking about Mom. And she deserves to be thought of. She wasn’t a flop. Oh wait, all parents are flops. Man, it’s a hard profession, isn’t it?

      I want me some squirrel brains!

      • Paula Austin says:

        “I want me some squirrel brains!” Noooo…Nick, you do not want you some squirrel brains. First off the brains are cooked in the skull. Which happens to float around in the gravy. Have you ever seen a squirrel skull? Not a pleasant experience. Just take my advice, it’s a no go there experience. You take a big soup spoon and dip this little apparatus out of the gravy, all the while it’s staring up at you. Place it on your plate, and slug the begizzers out of it with the spoon. This is called cracking the skull, which reveals the most morbid material known to my viewing senses…brain. Gray brain. A perfect anatomy picture of a brain. You lift it out with a fork and swallow it down. Horrid, most horrid experience, that I am not eager to admit that I participated in. I think I was to young to actually know what I was doing. Anyway that’s what I shall tell myself.

        Gray seems to be the color of the day. I love gray, just not in the culinary scheme of colors. After reading your story this morning, I have been left with scary pictures in my head of gray food. Not a good thought. Let’s see, grey squirrel, grey brain matter, gray milky sauce, gray gravy. How about some gray slugs…. sliding down the throat…yup! Gray, definitely not a color that appeals to the sensory taste buds…although it’s the gray matter of the brain that contributes to our sensory perceptions (seeing, hearing, memory, emotions, speech) now that’s a thought. Must be why mine is on overload, being that I eat all that gray brain matter. I’m just trying to make light of the subject.

        So Nick, if after all this…you still would like some of them squirrel brains. Come on over to Kentucky and I’ll cook you up some. I am an excellent cook. I’m sure I could prepare you up a worthy meal of some good vittles, and I’ll try to stay away from the gray. Food coloring works wonders.

        Still trying to get those brains out of my head, squirrel brains that is!

        • I think that you just wrote a TNB post, Paula. What an amazing story. I didn’t even know such a bizarre little rodent morsel was edible. It’s very horrifying to consider: squirrel brains. Wow. You are an amazing person, regardless of your past menu items. I read your comment to two different people and almost read it to my writing class tonight. You gave me shivers.

  18. Dana says:

    Grey casserole. Eek. Poor Nick. What wonderful descriptions though! I almost hurled.

    Mayo, bananas and peanut butter? Do you think perhaps she just got the ingredients of an Elvis sandwich mixed up? I can picture those not-found-in-nature-pink hot dogs, stuffed with fake potatoes. Yum mo. Did you get a lot of jello too?

    But don’t go disparaging mid-western white ladies, cuz my mom is one and she’s one helluva wonderful cook, as was her mom and most of her siblings.

    • Dana, I’m coming over for dinner. Is mama ready for my appetite? Seriously, what does she cook? Are you of Germanic-Scandinavian descent like my mother? Just curious…

      Oh God, how did I brain block Jell-o. Oh, the ways…

      • Dana says:

        I just found out that I’m descended of Irish royalty on my dad’s side, but as far as I know it’s English, French, Irish and a wee bit of German on Mom’s.

        She’s a wonderful baker – breads, cookies, PIES, stollen, biscotti. Chicken and dumplings, homemade chicken pot pie, pot roast, fried fresh fish, typical americana – but she’d branch out with lasagne, quiche, lots of homemade soups with fresh bread. And her plates were always a feast for the eyes. She’d never serve a meal that didn’t look good and feature a protein, a starch and two veggies. Hence no spam. 🙂 Although there was a can in the pantry. I guess that was in case of nuclear war?

        Many years ago I was inspired by Gary Larson and made a spamalope centerpiece. It was the only time that I’ve ever purchased 1.) spam and 2.) pipe cleaners. My cat LOVED it.

        • Royalty? Holy guacamole, princess!

          Now, why did you capitalize “pies”? To torment me? Oh man, I was begging a friend to make me an apple pie just yesterday.

          I really want to learn how to make soups. Does your mom share recipes?

          I love your spamalope centerpiece mention and that one can in the pantry in case of nuclear disaster. Classic!

  19. JLO says:

    Mmmm. Your words certainly don’t leave a bad taste in my mouth… They are all mixed up on a plate in my head… As my mind devours them… Bad cooking? No such thing! I’ve never met a food I didn’t like (or any food stuff that couldn’t be spiced up with hot sauce or washed down with wine)… Really. I like everything! It’s true. However, I must say that I have been blessed with a variety of culinary influences in my family that have lead me towards my expressing my own creativity in the kitchen. Now drunk cooking fiascos? That’s another topic, I’m sure. Life’s too short to eat bad fare. I’ll cook for you anytime!

    • I’m holding you to it. But can we just start with deep frying donuts and slathering them with an inch of chocolate. Or baking a cake (chocolate) or a pie (chocolate). Can there be chocolate??

      I love your positive outlook. I could have used it when I was around fifteen. And my kids when they were picky eaters too. Ha. Thanks JLO!

  20. Samantha KnJoi says:

    Holy shizzle nuts!!! And I thought MY mom was a bad cook!!! We didn’t start eating good in my house until I started cooking!! My mom would get so offended when I’d talk about how good her friends could cook. I remember a particular failed attempt at a chicken and dumplings dish that reminded me of that spam concoction you talked about. Made you wanna spontaneously poop and vomit at the same time. Except for no pink, only greyish brown chicken threads and bones peaking out of white, greasy mush fluff! Needless to say, I went to be hungry that night…

    • Do you think our mothers got together and shared recipes? I mean, it could have happened. I think your comment just took the cake (pun intended) for the grossest concoction. Boy are our mothers smiling down on us today! hahaha. Love ya, Samantha!

      • Samantha KnJoi says:

        Anything is possible! But I agree that they’re havin’ a good laugh and calling us little fuckers all that the same time!! HAHAHA! Love you too, Nicky doodle!!

  21. Jane Hawley says:

    I’m jealous that you’re getting so many offers from people to cook for you! I wonder if this would work if you wrote a post how you’ve been deprived of other things…? Just kidding. I have sort of a reverse jealousy about being a good cook. Everyone in my family is pretty awesome at it and I’m still learning (not bad, just not amazing) so I get riled up when razz me about messing up more complex procedures like reductions. Your post made me realize I totally have a cooking complex. Haha.

    • Offers and realities could be two different things. I couldn’t tell you the last time someone actually cooked for me. No, wait. It was at the Wonderly house months ago. No, wait. It was at this French photographer’s house who made this great dish, but this super hard bread that I could have hammered in nails with. We had sugar-covered strawberries for dessert. And his main dish? Was an incredible… dish. Crud. I can’t remember. Going blank. I remember I ate it so fast and wanted more. Funny how memory works.

      Reduction? Of what? Do tell what you were cooking.

      • matildakay says:

        I’m protesting this comment! I cook for you at least once a week, sometimes twice and if you’re lucky…

        I’m not a French photographer/chef or a Wonderly, but I don’t hear you complaining and I never make you eat spam.

        • Oh shit. I just so put my foot in my mouth. Damn. I guess I’m buying dinner after writing class tonight.

          BTW, Matildakay, you make the best apple pies in the universe (seriously) (seriously groveling for one).

        • matildakay says:

          Maybe if you’re extra nice to me I’ll make you an apple pie and yes you are buying dinner after class tonight!

        • I’m surprised you didn’t ask for dessert or a triple chicken sandwich. Thanks for coming to class tonight and for slapping me in the ass.

  22. Justin Bell says:

    Why are you being so mean to your mom?

  23. James D. Irwin says:

    I’ve been dying to comment on this since I read it this morning, because it was, and remains, awesome.

    I’m lucky in that both my parents are fantastically good cooks who enjoy it, so I didn’t grow up with any sort of gastronomic horror stories.

    For the last year or so I’ve been living off junk food and frozen ready meals until I got fed up and started cooking decent food for myself again. I’m a good improviser, which I get from my dad. We both have a technique which involves loud rock music, drinking whiskey, and using whatever food we’ve got like it’s some sort of rock and roll cooking game show.

    I just made a stir fry. I’m glad I read this in the morning and had time to block out some of the beautifully horrible descriptions of what you were eating before I sat down…

    Spam is horrible, but apparently a delicacy in Hawaii…

    • James, your parents are good cooks? What would they make for me if I were to visit?

      Yes, Hawaiians and Filipinos love spam. Don’t ask me why I know. And yes, she talked in her sleep. Dude, stir fry sounds good. Food party at your casa, mi amigo! Orale!

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Great piece. I’d forgotten about Swiss steak, completely. Lucky me.


        Here ya go.


        • Hahaha. Don, you made me laugh, bro. A dated an Asian gal for years who swore by spam musubi. Blah. haha.

        • Don Mitchell says:

          Spam-musubi.org is my site, actually. I never quite got around to posting the other 33 views of spam musubi.

          I really love that you did the anti-Mom’s Home Cooking.

        • Oh, hahaha. It’s a great photo. Let me know when you post the rest of the photos. I’d gaze at them all and remember my last horrid relationship. Just kidding. Great photo. Is there another photo site?

          Thanks for your kind words about my mama’s crazy cookin’. BTW, my sister posted on my Facebook today that she still eats those hot dog concoctions. She just added cheese. Eeaggh.

      • James D. Irwin says:

        Hmmm… my mum’s best dish is arguably chicken peanuty satay… my dad is the main cook. That would be a tough call… he usually does curry to impress people, but I’d recommend the roast dinners. They’re pretty much the only thing I really miss about home…

        Food party sounds good… better start thinking about what I’m going to whip up tonight…

        • Oh man I can’t eat peanuts. I can’t eat lots of wonderful foods. Too many food allergies. Just last night, Matildakay (here on comments) brought a melon bouquet to the Random Writers Workshop. I couldn’t eat a bite. Melons do wacky things to me. Painful wacky things.

          I’d take a plate of your Pop’s curry!

          Oh man, food party without me, again. Drag.

        • Jane Hawley says:

          I think maybe a TNB post about your food allergies is in order (since they’re so crazy and you have so many). If I were to want to read anything about food allergies it would be because it was written like this piece. So descriptive. Even if it does make me a little sick.

        • Too personal. Weird, huh? Some topics are off limits for me.

  24. WesOxford says:

    This makes me so thankful that my mom was a good cook. She taught me how to cook, and hopefully that saves my kids from ever having to write an article similar to this.

    While my mom isn’t a culinary superstar, she does a good job with what she knows how to make.

    Staples in my house were tacos, spaghetti, meatloaf(which she still makes occasionally, and I die every time, I love it so much). She even has a wonderful recipe for enchiladas, while it might not stand up to its Mexican made counterpart, it’s still always a wonderful treat.

    Even when we were dirt poor, we still had mountains of potatoes, that could be made into a variety of dishes, and my dad makes the best pot of beans I’ve ever had.

    Im so happy to say that the worst food I’ve ever had, is the cafeteria slop they fed us throughout school… and even that wasnt as bad as we made it seem… I still think about the Turkey Gravy they would serve, it was the best of the worst.

    • I’m jealous of this line: “…meatloaf (which she still makes occasionally, and I die every time, I love it so much).” O man.

      I agree. Cafeteria slop is nasty. And your explanation of Turkey Gravy as the best of the worst is spot on…

  25. Patty Wonderly says:

    This reminds me of a poem by David Greenburg called “Slugs’. “Swallow a slug by its tail or its snout, Feel it slide in, watch it climb out…” Been nauseous all day anyway. Thanks for reminding me of all the bad camp food I’ve ever eaten.

  26. Nicole Biggs says:

    Patty, your comment about poems and camp food reminded me of the Chocolate Chip Cookie song: “Oh, chocolate chip cookies, you gotta have more, you can bake ’em in the oven or buy ’em at the store. But, whatever you do, have ’em waitin’ at the door and I’ll love ya ’til I die.” 🙂

    I loved Girl Scout camp! The food in the beginning wasn’t so great, but by the end of the week, when you’re starving half to death, it all tasted so, so good! One thing that I brought away from there was the recipe for Pooh Snacks. Vanilla frosting spread onto graham crackers. They are the best when you are huddled in a hall with your sleeping bag listening to tales about Winnie the Pooh.

  27. Kat Sanborn says:

    My mom was a reasonable cook far as I can tell. Two cooking horrors I remember – meat loaf, squishy and covered in burnt ketchup. And I hated her fried eggs, greasy with that nasty crispy edge and rubbery white.

    • I love this line, Kat: “My mom was a reasonable cook far as I can tell.” Perspective is everything, isn’t it? For years I thought Mom’s cooking was more than reasonable. Looking forward to the day I see her in the afterlife when she looks at me and says, “About that post on TNB…”

  28. Elizabeth says:

    Like everyone else, I’m now nauseous, but in the best possible way. Your writing, as always, is neon vivid. “Mom’s cooking was always a sort of building caved in on itself.” If I had my way, this would be the first sentence of a Nick Belardes novel.

    • Elizabeth, will you write the rest of my next novel, please? You’re already on it anyway and you make me sound uber cool. I know this is off track, but I enjoyed your article about Facebook. I have talked about it with a couple of people already.

      Sorry about the nausea, though I admit it’s funny. Did you read in the comments about the lady who had to eat squirrel brains??

  29. dwoz says:

    At least you didn’t mention ambrosia salad.

    One of the Founding Fathers of my Family once said, “if she takes the time to put a meal on the table, I don’t care if it’s moose shit pie, I’m going to eat a helping of moose shit pie with a smile on my face.”

    Of course, I must also say that all the ancestral women in my family were competent cooks. So the saying was allegorical at best.

    • Dude, I think I’d eat moose shit pie if Mom would have cooked it. Of course “how” my Pops would have found moose shit at a swap meet would have been half the story.

      Oh yes, on my ex-wife’s side there were huge radioactive mounds of pink ambrosia. At least I think that’s what it was. These were sweet Texans who came to Bakersfield in the ’40s, rest their soul. I liked their BBQ ribs way better than the pink stuff.

      • dwoz says:

        where would you draw the line?


        • If you scroll way down to the end you will see a gross list that Jane Hawley posted. I draw the line with any of those (one included hawked up spit on M&Ms crushed with feet). MmmMMmph. And I definitely draw the line on Paula Austin’s comment where she reminisces about eating actual squirrel brains (No lie). Nasty. And haggis. No, I won’t touch it. Nope. Man, I am going to pass out.

  30. Joe Daly says:

    Nick, this was a good time from beginning to end. Brought back vivid memories of a culinarily bland childhood. My mother’s go to dishes were beef stroganoff and some sort of weird chicken curry dish that was so far from curry that I told people I had never tried Indian food until I was 25.

    You and I share many similarities in this department. Which made this such an enjoyable read.

    • Joe, oh man, there’s another block: beef stroganoff. I forgot about that one. Looked like the insides of an alien. And don’t get me started on Thanksgiving dinner. That was usually a trainwreck of canned foods. The turkey wasn’t canned of course. But it was never moist. I love Mom, but she would have made a terrible cavewoman.

  31. OMG!!! Seriously LOL! That was the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. I’m so glad I added you on facebook and Twitter. Can I get another helping of your “spam free” writing please? Blessings -Rob Lovegreen (artist, writer, music composer/producer)

    • Thanks for commenting, Rob. You’ll get more spam-free writing soon as I don’t think I could stomach this topic too often. Adventures in bad food are dangerous memories.

  32. Jane Hawley says:

    Your post has also brought up a lot of bad food memories–most of them having to do with meat. I’m seriously considering vegetarianism again. I had to stop eating Pulgogi (Korean BBQ) because of a bout of stomach flu and don’t even get me started on Viennese sausages (ack!). On that note: I’ve taken up a lot of disgusting food-related dares. I’m sure you’re going to think less of me when I tell you what they are, but for your comment thread’s sake here goes.f

    1. SpamMayoMustardPizzaMilkShake (at least 8 oz.)–couldn’t stomach that one.
    2. Sheep Eyeballs dunked in Fish Sauce
    3. An entire can of raw SPAM (I can’t even look at SPAM now)
    4. A bunch of girls (!) crunched M&Ms with their feet (that’s all we had), put it into a cup, then hocked loogies into the cup. God I’d forgotten about that one. I’m horrible.
    5. Gerbers Pastrami Baby Food

    Oh what the teenage Jane used to do just not to lose Truth or Dare…

    • Jane: what the hell? How did you survive? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t even be able to get to No. 1, let alone down to No. 4. That’s insane! I am going to go eat a leaf now.

      • Jane Hawley says:

        Haha. I can’t eat any of those things anymore (with the exception of M&Ms, but I’m pretty sure that’s because I’d forgotten about that dare until now). Also, I used to have a boss who was obsessed with SPAM related memorablia. In the summertime she wore SPAM flip-flops everyday and I had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving one year so she invited me over to her apartment and it was covered in SPAM stuff. SPAM calendars, magnets, posters, stuffed “dolls”, dishes, etc. Thank God she didn’t serve a SPAMURKEY for Thanksgiving dinner…

        • I really don’t even like talking about spam. It’s stupid. What a waste of good flesh. I don’t want to talk about spam, think about spam, or have stupid spam memorabilia. That’s like collecting shit. Wow, there’s so many different kinds and colors, so why not collect it all! Stupid.

        • dwoz says:

          I think we need to make a distinction.

          There’s stuff like haggis, which is a Crime Against Man…

          …and there’s stuff like spam-and-instant-potato dried-out shepherd’s pie, or ambrosia salad, which is a Crime Against Nature.

        • I’m in total agreement. Food crimes against man and against nature, I love it. The makes of spam must be branded “Guilty!”

      • Paula Austin says:

        …please, please, please post a picture of YOU eating that leaf… I can only imagine?

        • Like a wide-eyed bunny.

        • Paula Austin says:

          …sure glad you didn’t say a wide eyed squirrel.

        • Brain eater.

          Ok, I’m joking. Had to say it. Gotta be able to laugh about it, right?

        • Paula Austin says:

          …laugh I did, and I did love the bunny part, no less from you Nick…the creative one!

        • Paula Austin says:

          …hey I missed the “brain eater” line…now that’s a low blow. You know how to hit a girl where it hurts. There is a song, “The Brain Eater” Hey hey hey Brains for dinner Brains for lunch Brains for breakfast Brains for brunch.. Brains at every single meal Why can’t we have some …..
          (got you there) huh! and also Nick, I am so glad there is no photo up so these nice folks can identify me as the “brain eater” that I really am…oh did I say brain eater, I meant maneater! “watch out boy she’ll chew you up”

        • Paula, you could be a cult hero if you wanted to be. Zombie brain eating monsters are huge in pop culture. Everyone wants to be one, yet so few are brave enough to eat a brain of any kind. Simply said, you are in an elite class. Doesn’t matter they were squirrels. You are on top of the world.

        • Paula Austin says:

          ….Wow, the elite class of the Zombie brain eaters. Now that’s a thought I might grab on to. Ummm cult hero of the elite class of the Zombie brain eaters. I like. I wonder if a Zombie super cape would be appropriate. I could hide my angel wings underneath and fly off the top of the world like a flying squirrel. All the while I am really one alias Super Elite Zombie brain eater.

          I love monsters, ghosts, zombies, even the brain eating type. Always been a fan, a big part of my life… fascinated with the whole scheme. Ask my girls, we had lots of fun times with my shenanigans related to the prototype of said ghoulies. So Nick, even if I want to reek at the thought of the days I consumed one said squirrel brains, what the heck…makes for some interesting conversation. I never even got to tell you about the varied ways brains can be served up. How about in scrambled eggs with red hot sauce. Talk about teasing the Zombie taste buds…

        • Dude, that’s like “squirrel brains con tapitio.” Sounds like something I’d serve up in my post-apocalyptic Mescan restaurante! MMmm, with a margarita.

  33. Lisa S says:

    As one who has personally sampled said concoctions long ago, I found myself as I read this cringing, feeling old, grossing out– but most of all, smiling. That lady had a heart of gold.

    • Absolutely love this phrase: “…cringing, feeling old, grossing out– but most of all, smiling.” I was out eating a bowl of albondigas soup thinking of my Pops when I read this. Brought back a lot of great thoughts about my Mom’s big golden heart, which I agree, she had. It’s so nice that someone who knew her would comment.

      • Lisa S says:

        And I’m sure that if she were to read this piece from up there in Heaven she’d be totally cracking up right now!

        • She would say, “You little shit,” and we would all have a big laugh. Did I ever tell you about the time when I lived in Vegas and my roommate thought Mom’s ashes was a container holding candy? I watched in silly horror for a moment as he tried to pry off the cemented lid. Then I roared in laughter. Because his reaction was sheer horror after I told him what was in the jar. To me it was most funny because I actually thought Mom would have laughed her ass off.

  34. Paula Austin says:

    …ahhh, love it…. Zombie Mescan Restaurante with foul & fancy post-apocalyptic Zombie menu. How about…Tapatio En Salsa Ranchera tapatio in ranchero red sauce served w/ 3 eggs & brain slices… one Brain Surgery salad & two Bloody Mary margarita’s coming up…

    I suppose the Zombie menu combinations are relentless…and the advantages, even a mom who cooks like a ghoul could never mess up….

  35. jmblaine says:

    Sanford & Son/Salisbury Steak

    once my mother made
    green eggs & ham

  36. angela says:

    I feel slightly ill now.

    My mother is a phenomenal Chinese cook (she’s even been on an internet cooking show!) but her American food actually left a lot to be desired. Cut up hot dogs in scrambled eggs (which I admit I still eat today, but with chicken sausage), incredibly dry Thanksgiving turkey, mashed potatoes from the box. Several years ago we switched from American Thanksgiving to our own version – Mongolian hotpot. So the better.

  37. My mum’s not a bad cook. Workmanlike, not adventurous, and just the same now as when I was a kid. When I go up to my folks’ house and look in the larder under the stairs, everything looks very familiar.

    I found a ceramic jar of curry paste in there, with a little bit still left. The price was printed on the outside:


    That’s one shilling and sixpence. That’s pre-decimal money. Decimal (one pound=100 pence) was introduced, like me, in 1971.

    The curry paste was a bit bland.

  38. pixy says:

    the first thought that popped into my mind and stayed with me through reading this is the moving green sludge that john cusak’s mom serves up in “better off dead”.
    in my house we had to fend for ourselves for food – there was even a period of about 7 years there where we didn’t even have a dining table. most food when i was a kid came from a box or a can or was peanut butter and jelly. mixed together. eaten with saltines. delicacy.

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