Dinner With a Working Dad by
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Prompted By Mealtime

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Jeffrey makes pizza

My dad co-owned a car dealership during the early years of my life. He worked six days and two nights a week, so wasn’t home to eat dinner with the family a few nights a week. My mother had a housekeeper who cooked meals in those early years. Those women cycled through, staying a few years at a time. They were all pretty good cooks, something my mother was not. My mother learned some basic recipes from her sister’s housekeeper: roast beef, meatloaf, spaghetti sauce, brisket, some form of chicken, Swiss steak. I hated Swiss steak.

My brother and I were well-behaved kids. We didn’t horse around too much, had good table manners, did what we were told to do. We weren’t perfect. I was a fussy eater. I had to have the crust cut off sandwiches and then the sandwich had to be cut a certain way. But tuna and PB and J were reliable favorites for lunch. On Sundays, we either went out for, or brought in deli from one of two favorite restaurants in Detroit. I loved mushroom barley soup and made a whole meal out of a bowl of it. I still relish it when I can find it.

When Dad wasn’t around, Rick would try to provoke some reaction from me. He would kick me under the table. The best was to get me laughing until milk came out of my nose. Then he had really accomplished something! That would drive our mother to distraction. She didn’t know how to handle such unruliness. By and large, she didn’t have to. We were good kids. We always ate in the breakfast room unless there was company over, or a birthday party. Then the dining room was set with Mother’s fine china, good linens, silverware and crystal. I have it all now, but never use it, not even when I am serving a holiday meal. I don’t have cleaning help to do all the polishing and ironing.

7th birthday party in dining room of Detroit house

We moved out of Detroit to Huntington Woods (2 1/2 miles west) in 1963. As best I can remember (such things were not discussed with the kids), Dad’s partner wanted out of the business in 1965; Dad didn’t finish paying for the buy-out until the first semester of my senior in college; ten years later, but before then, for various reasons, the business was underwater and he sold it back to Chrysler at a loss in 1967. He went to work for his cousin, who owned a Buick dealership. The housekeeper was gone. Mom cooked all the meals. Rick was gone, meals were very quiet.

My mother barely knew how to cook. She didn’t teach me. She said having me in the kitchen made her nervous. So I was an unskilled bride when I married in 1974. I learned the same basic recipes as my mother, with a few new variations. I worked each day; Dan went to grad school, either came to the office or came home after class and I cooked a meal for us. We ate on the card table; a wedding gift from my parents’ best friends. On Saturday nights, we went to Tony’s Italian Villa on Rt 9 in Newton for homestyle Italian cooking and on Sundays we joined the rest of the Pfau family at my mother-in-law’s table until they moved to New Orleans in 1977.  Then we were on our own. By that time, we had bought our first condo and moved to Acton, very far west of the city. Dan was out of grad school and working in Cambridge. Soon, I would leave for my first sales job in Chicago. Life turned upside down.

In Chicago, I either traveled, so ate in my hotel, or ate modestly in my apartment. I cooked one meal during my 16 months there. On Thanksgiving, I invited a friend over for meatloaf. Other than that, it was lots of “boiled meals in a bag” (before microwaves) or tuna melt on an English muffin. Christie and I frequently got together for dinner and a movie. She and her family made me and ex officio family member. Dan and I visited about every two or three weekends. Those were like little honeymoons and we really enjoyed ourselves, always going out for fun meals (often with friends) when we got together.

When I returned from Chicago, we lived in the Back Bay, both traveled a lot and from then until I had David in 1985, we ate out almost every night. Why not? We were DINKs – “dual income, no kids” and lived in the city. We enjoyed ourselves. In our last condo – 412 Beacon Street – we had several good friends in the building (with the great luxury of a garage in the rear). If I cooked, everyone had to walk past our unit on the way to the elevator. It was like a big frat house – could they come for dinner? Why not? Lots of fun in that building. We all entertained the others frequently.

We moved to our current home in Newton in 1986, when David was 15 1/2 months old. I hadn’t worked since he was born and stayed home a few months longer. As a management consultant, Dan traveled several nights a week. I went back to work when David was 18 months old and I hired a live-in nanny who would often feed David. She was a better cook than I. She taught me how to roast a chicken and made David hand-cut french fries. Once I became pregnant with Jeffrey, I stayed home for good.

Dan traveled 3-4 nights a week, so I did lots of breakfast-for-dinner with the kids. Jeffrey grew into a very fussy eater (part of sensory integration issues along the autism spectrum), so lots of French toast, pancakes, or (much to their liking), McDonald’s. I tried not to do that too often. But Sunday night, I always cooked and we had a nice family meal around the table.

Jeffrey loved pizza, particularly from a chain called Bertucci’s. We noticed they had all the makings in a case by the take-out counter. He begged me to buy the dough and the rest of the fixings so that we could make our own. I even bought a pizza stone for him to cook it in our oven. I helped him spread some flour on the counter top and roll out the dough (we tried to flip it, but never mastered that technique), he spread the sauce, the cheese, and put on some pepperoni. He watched with excitement as it baked up. The Featured photo was one of his personal pizzas, along with fruit salad, so we had something healthy to go with all the carbs. He was always delighted with his effort.

Dan retired in 2002. Jeffrey left for college in 2007. With my kids gone, and Dan retired, I did too and we go out for dinner almost every night now (we brought in during the lockdown). Eating out was Dan’s daily entertain. Getting together with friends or eating out after a matinee movie was better. Now I cook one or two meals a year – when we have family for the holidays.

Here is my table and my cooking the last time I had everyone for Christmas – 2019! I serve buffet, but always try to set a nice table.

My Vineyard house was on the Edgartown house tour this past August. I set the table with my mother’s silver, Irish linens and Blue Tower Spode china, which works better on the Vineyard than in Newton. Though I would no longer actually eat this way, it does make a pretty table.

August 4, 2021, for the Edgartown house tour

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    What a terrific history of your dining patterns throughout your life, filled with all sorts of great little highlights. Making one’s sibling’s milk come out his/her nose is, of course, a classic for many of us. As are Sunday night meals.

    For whatever reason, the two most memorable highlights were having a Boston condo with its own garage — wow! — and a nanny who made hand-ct french fries — double wow! I also remember meals wirh my daughters at Bertucci’s. We never took the dough home, but the girls could play with it when we sat down — sort of like clay — and it kept them happily entertained before the food arrived.

    As always, you have many wonderful photos to illustrate your story. And, even if you don’t cook much, your table settings are absolutely gorgeous.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I had forgotten that the kids could play with the dough at the table while we waited our food to come. Thanks for that reminder.

      I wrote about that nanny. She was terrific with David but left under strange circumstances. We suspect she was a call girl.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Your dining history is so interesting for someone like me who only goes out for dinner with friends or on special occasions. I think I have missed something good!

  3. Marian says:

    I could practically taste all the food you mention, Betsy, wonderful story. Wish I could tour your Vineyard house, it looks lovely. Although I cook almost every night, my repertoire is pretty limited. I just taught myself how to bake fish so that it comes out well, so I have one little “win” during the pandemic.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I hear you clearly, Mare. My best meal was rack of lamb but haven’t made that in a long time and only for dinner guests.

      I wrote about the Vineyard house sometime ago with lots of photos. The story is The Holmes Coffin House. Not quite as good as a personal tour, and we have bought some new artwork since I wrote that story, but it would give you a good idea of the house.

  4. Suzy says:

    You have such a great recall of details, as well as wonderful pictures. Love your featured image and the caption “Jeffrey makes pizza.” Sounds like it could be the name of an adorable children’s book. Thanks for giving us the rundown on mealtimes at all the stages of your life. And as John says, gorgeous table settings for someone who doesn’t cook much!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I like the whimsy of a children’s story by that name, Suzy. Very cute. I may not cook much, but I do want things to look nice! We had 250 people tour the house on a very rainy August day when I brought out the good silver!

  5. Dave Ventre says:

    The fact that your memories along this line are so numerous and detailed in itself amazes me!

  6. As always Betsy, and as others have said, your recall of events and dates and chronology, with all the illustrative photos, are amazing!

    But I urge you to use your mother’s lovely china and silver and table linen – your kids won’t want it , their generation has different tastes and priorities. So what are you saving it for!

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    My favorite part was the description of Jeffrey and the pizza making, and the delight it brought. Eating together is wonderful, but making food together can also be a good bonding experience.

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