Tuna Noodle Casserole
It was Friday night, and I smelled tuna noodle casserole. As far back as I could remember, I had smelled tuna cooking every Friday night. When we moved from the hills of Pennsylvania to the southern California coast in 1964, I thought maybe Mom would change
But that was two years ago, and Mom still made tuna noodle casserole every Friday. That was, unless she was going out with Dad. On those nights, she cooked Tim, my younger brother and me chicken pot pies. Mom made pies so she could spend less time in the kitchen, and more time in the bathroom.
She was teaching me and Tim how to make the pies:
The pies were small, one per person. I liked getting my own pie: lots of crust in a little aluminum pan filled with bits of chicken, vegetables, and a goopy, gravy-like filling. Mom had tried TV dinners, but I liked chicken pot pies because there were fewer vegetables.
Tim was 10. He didn’t think learning to bake pot pies was much fun. I thought it was great. But I was older. I was 11 years old.
I sniffed again, heading for the kitchen. I definitely smelled canned tuna (sorry, Charlie). I sat down at the counter between the family room and the kitchen. Mom was making a salad from lettuce and tomatoes. The big head of lettuce made a crunching sound each time she peeled off a leaf. She tore each leaf into bite-sized pieces.
I didn’t like anything green, but I would eat the white leaves of iceburg lettuce, if I could roll them up with sugar. But I wouldn't touch tomatoes, with or without sugar.
“How soon to dinner?” I asked.
“Dinner’s at six,” Mom said. She looked up, smiled, “I always use the clear glass bowl. It shows off the reds and greens.”
I wasn’t sure why she was telling me this. I looked around for something to do. At the end of the counter, I saw the newspaper, the Daily Pilot, folded in half, ready for Dad. He always read the paper when he got home.
Dad would sit on the couch in the family room. “Your father needs his quiet time,“ Mom would tell me. “Leave him be until dinner time.” When I needed quiet time, I was sent to my room.
Mom lifted her head and cocked her ear towards the garage. “You’re dad’s home,” she announced.
I heard the rumble of the garage door opener, the thud as the garage door closed, then the grinding squeak of the sliding glass door.
“I’m home!” Dad yelled.
I ran over and gave him a hug. Tim came running out and each of us sat on a foot, wrapping our arms around his legs. Dad walked over to Mom, his steps heavy and slow.
“You kids are getting too big for this,” he said. He gave Mom a big kiss. I mean a real kiss, not some peck on the cheek.
“Yuck,” I said, unable to watch. Tim was staring up, mouth open, gawking. “Don’t be rude!” I said. Tim didn’t pay any attention so I gave him a punch in the arm.
“Hey!” he said, slapping at me while staring at the kissing. I gave him a charley horse slug to the thigh.
“Owww!” he said, and started swinging at me with both arms.
“Whoa! Settle down, there,” Dad said. He gave Mom one more quick, loud, smacking kiss, then began walking to the family room. He made sure to come down real hard with each step, trying to dislodge us, making us hit the floor pretty hard on our butts. We had to stop fighting and hold on to Dad’s legs. As he passed the paper, he picked it up. By the time we reached the couch, Tim and I were laughing. Before sitting down, Dad lifted each leg and shook until we tumbled off.
“Sammy, I need you to set the table,” Mom said. “Timmy…” But she didn’t have to say anything more. We knew it was time to leave Dad alone. Tim ran down the hallway to our room. Dad opened the paper and disappeared behind the front page.
I liked to read the newspaper, too, but only the comics, and only on Sunday, when the comics were in color. Today, I noticed the word “Pope” on the front page. I had seen the Pope on TV the night before. Dad got home late and Mom was watching the news on TV.
I saw the Pope. He was wearing a funny hat and carried a big stick. He kept raising his hand, kind of like giving the Boy Scout pledge.
“Why’s he waving like that?” I had asked Mom.
“He’s giving his blessing,” she said.
“Why’s he wear that costume?” I asked.
“That’s the Pope’s outfit, his vestments,” she said. When I was still puzzled, she said, “They’re like his uniform.”
I knew about uniforms. My dad wore a uniform in the army. Some kids had to wear uniforms to private schools.
“Why’s he wear a hat?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart,” she said, heading into the kitchen. “I’m not Catholic. I was raised Protestant.”
“Is the Pope Catholic?” I asked. Mom laughed, turned, then smiled when she saw I wasn’t laughing.
“I’m sorry, dear. It’s just that the Pope is the leader of the Catholics. Yes, the Pope is Catholic,” she said, turning away, but I saw the smile that crept up her face.
I had more questions, but I saved them for the next day. I talked with my best friend, Greg, at school. He was Catholic.
“We used to eat fish on Fridays. Now the Pope says we can eat meat,” Greg said. “But my mom says we’re not takin’ any chances. We’re still gonna eat fish.”
“Why fish?” I asked.
“I don’t know. That’s church stuff.”
I remembered the time I went to church with Greg. There was lots I didn’t understood.
“Bein’ a Catholic sure is confusing,” I said.
“Yeah,” Greg agreed.
When I got home from school, I asked Mom, “Why do they always serve fish sticks?”
She was cleaning out the ‘fridge. “What do you mean, dear?” she said, pulling out the celery, smelling it, then putting it back.
“For lunch, at school, on Fridays…”
“Oh. Well, Catholics can’t eat meat on Fridays,” Mom answered. She was checking the cheese. We had two kinds of cheese, orange and white. Sometimes we had white cheese with holes.
“Am I Catholic?” I asked.
She checked the orange cheese and put it on the counter. It had some green on it.
“No. But a lot of people are,” she said. She smelled the white cheese, put it back in the fridge. She wiped the glass shelf with a sponge.
In Pennsylvania, we had Catholic neighbors. I knew they were Catholic because they had so many kids. Mom and Dad would talk about our Catholic neighbors.
“Mrs. Grange is pregnant, again. That makes seven,” Mom said. “I wonder if Mrs. McDonald is pregnant.”
The McDonalds already had eight kids. Add their eight children to the Grange’s seven, and our other neighbor, Robby, who was an only child, made 16 neighbor kids.
I didn’t know any big families in Corona del Mar. Greg was Catholic. He had two brothers, but no Dad. Without a Dad, his family wasn’t getting any bigger.
“If we’re not Catholic, why do we eat fish on Friday?” I asked Mom.
She pulled her head out of the refrigerator and looked at me. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Tuna noodle casserole, every Friday,” I said.
“Not every Friday,” Mom answered.
She was right. There were the chicken pot pies.
“But when you and Dad are here, we eat fish on Fridays,” I said.
“I hadn’t really thought of it that way,” she said, looking puzzled. “I make tuna noodle casserole because…” She looked back into the refrigerator. She stared into its depths, as if the answers were hidden behind the milk and margarine. “Because… your father likes it,” she said.
“Honey, will you please tell the kids dinner is ready,” Mom told Dad. He put down his paper and cupped his hands to his mouth. I covered my ears. I saw Mom look up, frown and shake her head.
“D-I-N-N-E-R T-I-M-E!” Dad bellowed. His voice shook the sliding glass doors like a sonic boom.
“I wish you wouldn’t yell like that in the house,” Mom said. “You know how I don’t like it.”
Dad smiled, first at me, then at Mom.
“It’s such a bad example…” she said, turning away from us.
Dad went through the kitchen into the dining room, giving Mom a quick kiss on the way. “Sammy,” he called, “you didn't set the table.”
It was my week to set the table. I’d forgotten. I jumped up, ran to the silverware drawer and tried to scoop up the exact number of forks, knives, and spoons without counting. I did pretty well, except for spoons. I turned and headed for the dining room. “Careful!” Mom said, as I ducked under the hot dish she pulling out of the oven.
In the dining room, I circled the table, setting each place with a fork on the left, a knife and spoon on the right, the sharp side of the knife facing the inside, the spoon to the right of the knife. Dad helped by putting a napkin under each fork. I ran back into the kitchen for plates and glasses.
“Don’t run in the house!” Mom said. I pulled a stack of greenish ceramic dishes out of the cupboard. “Be careful with my Heath dishes!” she went on.
“They’re only seconds,“ I said, repeating part of the story she had told so many times. Mom and Dad had gone north to San Francisco last year. Mom had come back with the matching Heath plates and bowls. She was especially proud she had gotten them on sale as seconds at the factory store. I put the dishes on the counter and began stacking glasses on top of the plates.
“No, not with the glasses…” Mom’s voice was growing frantic, and I was enjoying getting her worked up. Dad appeared at the door to the kitchen.
“Settle down, Sammy,” he said, his voice calm and quiet. “Bring out the plates. Come back for the glasses.”
I finished setting the table just as Tim showed up, as if he‘d waited for me to finish my chore.
“Thanks for the help,” I said, giving Tim a glare.
“Squeet!” Dad said, Midwestern talk for “Let‘s go eat.”
Mom waited for us to sit down, then paraded the tuna noodle casserole into the dining room. She carried the casserole dish protected by flower pattern hot mitts that matched her brightly colored apron. I could see steam bubbling up the sides. I sniffed, trying to catch the smell, my favorite part of the dish.
She carried the offering to a wood trivet near Dad. I was glad Dad had remembered to put it out. In my head, I heard Mom say, “The trivet protects the dark walnut finish of our Danish table and matching sideboard.”
She settled the casserole atop its landing pad as carefully as I’d seen the helicopter land at the Newporter Inn. She handed Dad the serving spoon and sat down at her chair, close to the kitchen. Dad held out his hand towards Mom and waited for her to pass her plate.
“Why is everything Danish?” I asked, as Mom passed her plate.
“What do you mean, Sammy?” Dad asked, giving Mom the first scoop of noodles. Dad bent down and sniffed at the released steam. “Smells good, dear,” he said, passing the plate back.
“We have a Danish table, Danish sideboard, Danish trivet, Danish silverware…” I said, passing my plate to Tim, who was had already passed his plate ahead of mine.
“It’s Danish Design,” Mom said. “It’s a style, a way of making things. I like it because it’s simple and has a clean line.”
“It’s efficient,” Dad proclaimed, plopping a load onto my plate.
“It’s beautiful,” Mom responded, looking at me, but saying it as if Dad didn’t understand.
“Are we Danish?” I asked.
“It’s just a way of making furniture, like Colonial, or Amish,” Mom said, then looking at me, “No, you’re not Danish.” Then, with a smile, “You’re American, with a little bit of everything thrown in for good measure.”
“Don’t forget the Orange Irish!” Dad added.
“Orange?” I asked, hanging my chin over my noodles and feeling the steam rise into my face. I took a deep sniff. I realized it had gotten very quiet. I opened my eyes.
“Smell good?” Dad asked, smiling.
I felt my cheeks get hot. Mom and Dad looked away, but Tim was staring at me with a stupid grin. “What’re YOU starin’ at?” I said, giving him a poke in the side.
Mom picked up a napkin-lined basket of hot dinner rolls, took one, and passed the basket on to me.
“Dinner roll, dear?”
I gave Tim another scowl, then turned to Mom and reached for a roll. She pulled the basket away. “Take the basket, first,” she said. I took the basket, reached under the napkin, and put a roll on my plate.
“What’s orange Irish?” I asked, turning to pass the basket to Tim, who shoved a bowl of green beans at me.
“We’re passing to the right,” I told him, giving his bowl a push with my basket. “To the right,” I repeated, staring him down.
“Give me the beans,” Dad said, making Tim pass to the right. “Orange Irish are the Protestant Irish. Green Irish are Catholic. That’s why you need to wear orange on St. Patrick’s day instead of green.”
“Margarine?” Mom asked, passing me the plate of margarine.
Beans, rolls and margarine were followed by apple sauce, salt, and pepper, all making one lap around the table, then each put back into the middle. When everyone had been served, Dad, Tim, aned I turned our eyes to Mom’s fork. Nobody started eating until Mom lifted her fork.
“I forgot the milk,” she said, standing up and going into the kitchen.
Tim picked at his dinner roll and ate a crumb. “Wait until your mother starts eating,” Dad said, lowing his head towards Tim.
“Here we go,” Mom said, putting the large milk pitcher by Dad. She sat back down, then noticed that nobody was eating. She grabbed her fork, lifted it, and put it down. I loaded my dinner roll with margarine and began eating. Dad didn’t move. He waited for Mom to take her first bite.
“Would you please pour me a glass of milk,” Mom asked. She passed her glass to Dad.
“Then why do we eat fish on Fridays?” I asked.
“What?” Dad asked, as he took Mom’s glass and poured the bluish colored powdered skim milk from the heavy plastic pitcher.
Dad passed the glass to Tim, who passed it to me. I put down the roll I was eating and passed the full glass to Mom.
“Don’t put your fingers near the top,” Mom corrected.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“Don't talk with food in your mouth,” she added.
“Anybody else want milk?” Dad asked, and we passed our glasses.
“If we’re Orange Irish, then why do we eat fish on Fridays?” I asked, again. Dad, who hadn’t gotten to eat anything, yet, opened his mouth to answer, but Mom interrupted.
“Let your father eat,” Mom said.
“It’s all right, dear,” he said. He looked at me, started to say something, but then looked down at his plate, then looked up at Mom. He turned to me and said, “Because your mother likes it.” He took a forkful of noodles and gave me a big closed-mouth smile. Unsatisfied, I opened my mouth to ask another question, but was cut off my Mom.
“How is the tuna noodle casserole?” she asked, watching Dad take his first bite.
Dad chewed, swallowed, then said, “It’s very good.” He took another bite and smiled at Mom.
“I did something different,” Mom continued.
I looked up and saws Dad had stopped in mid-chew. He began chewing, more slowly this time. We all watched as he nodded his head, and raised his eyebrows. He swallowed, then said, “It’s very good.” When Mom didn't say anything, he asked, “What did you do?”
I looked at the pile of noodles on my plate. I didn’t see anything different.
“I used a can of cream of celery soup instead of cream of mushroom,” Mom said, her face beaming.
Dad took another bite, chewed it deliberately, and gave his approval. “Mmmm…,” he said.
I looked at my plate again. Sure enough, the little brown cubes of mushroom had been replaced by little green cubes of celery. “Yuk,” I said, as I started to pick the infection off my noodles.
“Sammy…,” Dad said, his voice low.
“I don’t like vegetables, brown or green.”
“Sammy…” This time Dad’s voice rose at the end, not a question, but a warning.
I kept picking, building a pile of little green bricks.
“Don’t pick at your food,” Mom said. She shook her head. “You need to eat your vegetables,” she said, but half-hearted, like a worn-out record.
“Sammy…” Dad said slowly, now in an even tone. I knew what came next, even before he said it. “No desert until you eat your vegetables,” he said.
No desert… I often ended up sitting at the table after dinner, refusing to eat my vegetables. There were nights when I sat for 30 minutes or more. My parents hadn't given up trying to teach me to like vegetables. But over the years, I had reached a compromise. Instead of eating my vegetables, I found creative ways of making my vegetables disappear.
I checked the paper napkin in my lap. I could fold this green stuff in my napkin just as well as the brown stuff. I continued to separate the celery from the noodles.
“What’s for desert,” Tim asked, as if he was going to decide to eat his vegetables depending on what we were having for desert. I knew it was all a smoke screen. He had learned the napkin trick from me, after Mom caught him feeding the dog under the table. I’d even shown him how to stuff food into the simple clean lines of the table’s hollow aluminum legs.
“Ice cream!” Mom announced.
Dad, who ate ice cream every night, whether it was served for desert or not, got a big smile on his face. I didn’t share their enthusiasm. I had been in the freezer this afternoon, looking for a snack after school. Desert was a half-gallon of Safeway’s Artificial Vanilla Imitation Ice Milk. And since Mom bought it on sale last winter, it had been sitting in the garage freezer for months. The carton was filled with more ice than milk.
I looked at my father, who gave me a nod of encouragement. I looked at the pile of celery growing on my plate. I looked down at my napkin.
“Mom, may I please have another napkin,” I said, careful to use the words “may,” and “please,” and ending with a smile.
“Yes, dear,” Mom said, smiling back and handing me another napkin, which I put carefully on my lap for after dinner loading.
“Me, too,” Tim chimed in. But Mom didn‘t move, until he added, “Please.”