Find Your Meatballs
A friend recently asked me about how she could bond with her new step-son, who is a preteen with a new step-mom, and so the answer is: it’s impossible so don’t even try. But having made her sit through so many of my coma inducing stories about my kid over the years, she had earned the right to ask how she, too, might make her own stories boring enough to fade the color of the wall paint as she told them.
And so after my internal reaction of “don’t bother,” my answer was “find your meatballs.” She of course thought I was being a wise-ass, which of course I was, but knowing that she was sincerely reaching out, I was being a wise-ass in delivery only and genuine in meaning.
My son and I sometimes make meatballs together. I’m second generation Italian American. Think “The Sopranos,” if they were middle-class and obeyed the law. Actually, think of every Italian American caricature from the Sopranos who wasn’t in the mob. That would be about right.
So, meals, cooking, food in general were a massive percentage of my childhood experience. Grandparents next door, aunts and uncles up the street, cousins everywhere. Mom and aunts in the kitchen all afternoon, their nonstop chatter over the white noise hiss of breaded groceries frying in olive oil. You get the idea.
I live far away now. No cousins down the street for my son, no grandparents next door. I try to give him some sense of this family experience by cooking together whenever we can, which is pretty often. He’s young enough to still want to hang out with his dad, and I do almost all the cooking in my house.
Many years ago, when my wife, then girlfriend, and I moved in together, she asked me if I wanted my pasta ‘al dente,’ or ‘cooked.’ I told her to get out of the kitchen and to never cook for me again as long as she lived. She immediately agreed, and we have been generally happy kitchen-wise ever since. Here I need to say that she’s got a few good meals down, because she does, and because I would like to avoid getting throat punched in my sleep.
Making meatballs with my son is a long process with many steps and it requires him to concentrate, to do as he is told (whilst handling raw meat and such), and to have a thing to do with his dad that he likes. And the pay-off is meatballs, the awesomeness of which should go without saying. And I will risk bragging by saying that our meatballs are better than most (yours). Let me know if you want the recipe. And they are one of the very few high calorie non-crap foods he will eat, which a lot of parents know is a victory of ‘Impossible Dream’ proportions.
We don our aprons, lay out our supplies and ingredients, and we become a professional level duo of meatballers, a Guinea Batman and (half-Guinea) Robin that I’d put up against any surgical staff or Olympic bob sled team for seamless work process.
And thus we make meatballs. Lots of meatballs. At least 50 at a time. They freeze great, and they are the go-to conversation starter at every dinner which features them (“This was a good batch. Not too heavy on the breadcrumbs. Nice browning,” etc.).
My friend told me that her step-son doesn’t like to cook, but that doesn’t matter. My son and I have meatballs. She needed to find whatever they could do together that would hold his attention. It would be even better if on the surface the activity has nothing to do with her – her participation incidental, but her presence necessary.
Some time later, she told me she had actually started making meatballs more often. He enjoys them, which increases the likelihood of a pleasant family dinner experience, and she schedules those dinners on the nights when it’s his turn to clean the kitchen. She stays to help him move things along, which gives them as much as an entire hour in the same room together.
Maybe they talk, maybe they don’t. Maybe they solve a problem, maybe they load the washer and go their separate ways. But he’s doing something, and there she is. He feels her presence in his life. Not pressing to finish homework, or to get off the computer already. No explosive arguments where the kid discovers new ways to be insulting and disrespectful. She’s just there. And during those early teen years, that’s often what a kid needs, and maybe the best a parent can hope for.
I’m sure my kid won’t want to make meatballs with me in a few short years, and I’ll have to just be present and bite my tongue, which won’t happen and we’ll have those explosive fights I just advised my friend on how to avoid. But maybe I can at least threaten my son with meatball deprivation. I’m sure it won’t have the desired effect, but maybe it’ll give me something to write about in a few years. Even when kids are good for nothing, they’re always good for that.