I’m a child of a broken home. Before they split, my broke-ass parents had a couple nickels to rub together; afterward, a lonesome nickel did little to fill up the pantry in my dad’s house, and he had just enough ignorant confidence in the kitchen to get himself into trouble. The dishes he created were sometimes inedible, but every once in a great while he stumbled upon a real treat. Both the good and the bad were repeated ad nauseam, sometimes literally. If your mail has started to feature the phrases “garnishment of wages” and “final notice” with disturbing frequency, give some of these classics a try. They’re rated in accordance with the Michelin guide, from one to three stars.
Requires no cooking utensils, apart from an oven and a grubby shirt-tail for use as a hot pad. Unwrap a slice of American cheese-type product. Place on a slice of white bread. Cook directly on the rack, under the broiler. Forget about its existence for a few minutes. Remove once smoke begins pouring from the oven. Cheese-type product should be mostly scorched black.
This is actually my father-in-law’s creation. My wife is also the child of a broken home. She says her earliest memory of Cheese Toast is as a flame-broiled creation, like at Burger King, cooked in the lower drawer of a gas oven, the one that scrapes along the floor when you open it. She kneeled before her cheesy, toasty god and worships it still. She’s a successful, grown-ass woman but eats this more often than one should admit in polite company. What’s worse, our precious little daughter requests it several times a week. The preferences of the palate run strong in the genes.
Prepare pancakes from scratch according to your preferred recipe. Add wheat germ for extra gluten. Substitute fresh milk for a carton bearing a sell-by date from last season. Ideal consistency should bring to mind runny cottage cheese. Aroma should coax bile to rise in the back of the throat.
This requires either planning (unlikely) or negligence (very likely). You need milk that has been in your fridge longer than the period of time since you last washed your undershirt. When it’s aged properly, get the kids excited for pancakes. Pancakes, kids! Yay! Let ’em help you measure the flour, sugar, wheat germ, baking powder, and oil. When the milk comes flopping into the mixing bowl and the stench makes them lightheaded, reassure them that the piping-hot griddle will burn off the taste and kill all the bacteria. This is a lie. My father now claims that his mother used to make pancakes with spoiled milk, and they tasted delicious; whatever magic was in her recipe never made it into his. For years, I refused to eat pancakes anywhere. Then one day I relented and ate a bite of normal ones. The scales fell from my eyes.
Prepare ramen noodles according to directions. Combine with a can of tuna. Add many generous splashes of the cheapest brand of Italian dressing.
During my first two years of high school, I walked to my dad’s house for lunch every day. This was the meal I ate each time. The cupboards were bare, except for survivalist-level quantities of ramen and tuna. He was a big fan of both. I added the Italian dressing on a whim one day, just to class things up a bit. I don’t think this daily diet of three times the recommended allowance of sodium hurt me long-term, though I did listen to a lot of U2 back then, so clearly there was some negative effect.
Cook egg noodles according to directions. Warm condensed cream of mushroom soup with a splash of milk before it’s ready for pancake day. Drain the noodles. Add cream of mushroom soup and a can of tuna. Stir away your crushing depression. Can be served with white bread and margarine if you hit your sales quota that day.
Here’s another dish my wife brought to the table. When we first got together, this was on heavy rotation. The fruits of divorce, feeding our young love. Upon reflection, it’s a mark of resiliency that our relationship survived this period. The texture of canned tuna against the sliminess of egg noodle coated in cream is not a sensation soon forgotten.
Slice one can of Treet (imitation Spam) lengthwise. Fry in skillet. Top with canned pineapple. Best served while wearing the Hawaiian shirt your kids’ mom hates so fucking much. Pardon me, Christina, if I enjoy the freedom of island life for one evening!
I still remember the first night we ate this. My brother and I stood close to the Treet as my dad extracted it from its can. Was the container a prison or a Pandora’s Box, protecting all humanity? Who could say for sure? I had never eaten fruit on cooked meat before. It was beyond bourgeoisie as far as I was concerned. A dish to be enjoyed at country clubs and upscale restaurants, like Bob Evans. Many years later, I met a guy who went to college in Hawaii. The first thing I thought was, “That lucky bastard got to eat Hawaiian Delight whenever he wanted.”
Prepare one box of macaroni and cheese. As the noodles cook in the pot, cook no more than four hot dogs in a skillet. Want to put in more? Well, go right ahead, Mr. Rockefeller. When hot dogs are done, cut them into “pennies.” After draining the noodles, add cheese powder, margarine, more of that milk you’re saving for pancakes next month, and the cut-up hot dogs. Mix well with tears.
After watching like an attentive apprentice, I learned to make this meal on my own. It was the first thing I ever cooked. Let me tell you, my little brother appreciated the hell out of it. I felt like a god as he stared in wonder at the steaming bright orange pile of noodles and sliced tube steak. Before that day, only my father had been able to make terrible food for us. Now I had the power. My brother is married and in his early thirties, but he can’t stop chasing this dragon. When he boasted that he still eats Hot Dogaroni and Cheese regularly, I could see in my mind’s eye the little boy he once was, jumping up and down in a grubby kitchen in a drab apartment complex whose aesthetic value was only improved when it burned down.
Buy one rotisserie chicken. Add a side of coleslaw and a generous amount of potato wedges, known as jo-jos where I come from. Serve the kids a few slices of breast meat. Leave the remainder of the chicken in its plastic container and place in the sink. Consume standing up, with your bare hands, while grunting in pleasure and staring directly out the window. Suck fingers clean.
This one is rarer than Thanksgiving. It only appears when your numbers come in on the Pick 3. You can’t bank the winnings—garnishment of wages!—but you can reward the kids with a nice hot meal, cooked by someone else for a change. Just two weeks ago, I found myself chasing a dragon of my own. Having served the kids their rotisserie chicken cut into little pieces, I reached into the remains, tearing the legs and thighs from the body. I placed them on a plate and glanced back at the carcass. Still had a lot of meat on it. Shame to let it go to waste. I carried it to the sink and stared out the window as the kids chattered in the background. Soon there was nothing left but bones and cartilage. Then I turned to my plate of dark meat. My wife was working late. There were no leftovers.
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He’s on Twitter.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
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