You have changed the way I cook.
See, cooking is not exactly my specialty, but I have five kids who love to eat and I need to be able to make dinner fast because otherwise they start to bug me for snacks and stuff.
Making dinner fast means I do not chop. Or dice. Or puree.
I do not spaghetti-squash, or parboil, or reduce. Rarely do I sear.
Now, with your videos, I can scroll through my Facebook feed, watch for thirty seconds, and decide if I have the time, energy, and ingredients for one of the recipes.
I love your cheesy broccoli chicken, your upside-down apple cake, and your easy pork tenderloin. Your roasted garlic potatoes were pretty good too but I think I overcooked them. They were a little mushy.
(For an embarrassingly short time, I failed to notice the “save full recipe” feature and was actually using my phone to rewind and re-watch the videos while I stood at my stove. There has got to be a better way! I thought to myself. What’s wrong with the people at Tasty?
Then my 13-year old son walked by, did a double take, and showed me how to save the recipe so I could reference it without all the rewinding. Apparently, there was a better way.)
Anyway, thank you. I thought I’d share a little bit of our story.
Today, I made your Layered Ham and Cheese Potato Bake for dinner.
It was a long day of arguments, and negotiations, and screaming. My son Jack was in a miserable mood and everything was bothering him and our other kids were all getting annoyed and basically everyone was unhappy.
Jack is twelve.
He wears glasses that have neon green frames.
If you said hello to him he probably wouldn’t answer you. He jumps around all the time, and he bites his cuticles, and sometimes he shouts out swear words when he’s really, really mad or he feels like no one is listening to him.
He has autism.
Jack had a terrible spring—a long, weary season of depression and rage and loneliness. In the fall he started a new school and things have been better, but every once in a while he disappears on us again and we can’t see through the fog and find him.
This makes me frantic.
When I was in elementary school, we used to play a game where we would all gather around a huge rainbow-colored parachute, and we would hold the slippery nylon fabric in our hands while kids ducked underneath and darted out the other side.
On days like this, I think about the parachute. I think about how I gripped it so tight that my knuckles turned white, so desperate was I to not let go.
Autism is slippery.
It is colorful.
And every so often, Jack ducks beneath it and he can’t hear me and I can’t see him and we can’t find each other.
I don’t want it to win. I am desperate not to let autism win. Yet some days—like today—I’m not even sure what or who I am fighting.
It all started because of pancakes. Or, to be exact, pancake mix.
We ran out of the kind of pancake mix Jack likes and I couldn’t convince him to have some cinnamon toast or cereal instead. I tried to tell him we could make real pancakes with flour and sugar and eggs, but he wasn’t having it.
No. The mix. In the blue box.
We’re out, Jack. You’ll have to make something else.
No no no no NO NO NO.
This is his autism.
Like a diver at the end of a long board, he stands at the edge of his anger, contemplating. And then he jumps straight into the cold, harsh, troubled water. Once he’s down there, he scarcely comes up for air.
My life. Is awful. This family is awful blue pancake mix I want it I want to be like everyone else I will never be like anyone else I hate it all.
You see, Jack can be a little, uh, rigid, when it comes to food.
He doesn’t like anything that’s wet, or sticky, or all mixed up together.
(Chocolate-chip cookie dough ice cream seems to be the apparent exception to the wet, sticky, mixed-up rule.)
But he hates yogurt.
And mandarin oranges.
Casseroles, lasagna, pie, sandwiches, stir-fry.
His favorite foods are crackers, waffles, buttered rolls, bagels, and carrot sticks. And pancakes.
Also, rotisserie chicken, sirloin steak, kale chips, chicken fingers, cheeseburgers, and French fries.
He loves going to restaurants.
He eats ice cream every single night after dinner.
He has never eaten a peach in his entire life, not even once.
And when it comes to his pancakes, he really likes the mix in the bright blue box.
We’re no strangers to this kind of thing. When he was five months old, he couldn’t figure out how to move his tongue so the rice cereal mashed-up bananas moved from the front of his mouth to the back, and down the hatch. It made him furious.
When he was a toddler, mealtimes were a disaster. He threw food on the floor. He screamed. He kicked. He cried.
We had a plastic bowl with a little blue rhinoceros on the bottom that stuck to the table with a suction cup, and one day he ripped it off with both hands and slammed it so hard it broke in half.
He wouldn’t sit still for longer than two minutes at a time, so we set timers. We chased him around the kitchen and planted him back in his chair for what seemed like a hundred times a night.
It was exhausting and annoying and it made dinnertime feel like a war zone.
We’ve made some strides, of course. Now he sits for meals and orders in restaurants and for the most part, eats a lot of what we cook.
Yet every once in a while, there is a curveball.
I want the blue the blue the blue I want to be normal I need it blue I want to be like everyone else.
When he does this—when he goes off the deep end of the diving board and swims round and round in circles, I think things like this in my head: I want him to be like everyone else but he isn’t like everyone else and maybe I should run to the store and get the pancake mix but then he’ll never learn how to be flexible but so what no he needs to learn I wish this day was over already.
I didn’t get the pancake mix. I don’t even know what he ate for breakfast because after about forty-three minutes, I left the kitchen. I was tired of him. I was tired of autism.
By mid-afternoon he was still going strong, and my parachute was stretched so thin you could probably see right through it. Yet still he ducked and dodged—in and out and behind and under the hot, brilliant nylon colors.
I hate it all I need pancakes this family is the worst.
I decided I felt like cooking. Cooking would make me feel better—something nice and warm and comforting. I looked online and I realized I had all the ingredients to make your Layered Ham and Cheese Potato Bake. I stood in the kitchen with my head in the refrigerator, counting how many potatoes I had because the recipe said I needed five.
While I was counting my potatoes, this is what I was thinking in my head: He’ll never eat this so what the other kids will like it but it will mean he’ll scream through dinner I can’t even take anymore screaming but I am kind of in the mood for potatoes.
I made it. He didn’t scream. In fact, he was oddly quiet through dinner, like a battery that had run out of power.
I guess I’ll never win against autism, because it’s not a contest, or a competition, or some weird tournament with a winner and a loser.
It’s a dance.
It is a long, complicated dance that has very little rhythm except for one precious moment when there is the smallest glimpse of rhythm and in that moment, I remember what it felt like to stand in the elementary school gym and use both hands to lift the parachute high above my head. It was weightless. It was beautiful.
This is our story.
It may look like nothing but broken rhinoceros bowls and ringing timers and tantrums about pancakes, but underneath there is a smaller, quieter story. In fact, this story is so quiet that it’s easy to miss. It tip-toes lightly. It whispers softly.
It is the story of a mom and a dad who want nothing more than to give their son a seat at the table.
Look. For my plate. The potato. I liked it. I ate it.