I remember seeing the saucepan on the stove, with a slight bit of steam rising from it. The burner was turned down low, and when I peered over the edge of the saucepan, I could see a fine mess of spaghetti and meatballs, my intended lunch.
But where was Mom? I was nine years old, and I’d biked home for lunch from my fourth-grade studies at Lincoln School. There was the spaghetti on the stove; there was my plate on the table, attended by the tall green can of parmesan cheese; but where was Mom?
I still don’t know where she was on that day in early 1963; it was probably late March from what I remember of the state of the yard and the trees and such. My guess is that she ran over to the neighbors on a quick errand and had been detained by chit-chat. In those days, it would have been standard to leave the back door unlocked during a brief errand like that.
I looked at the spaghetti in the bottom of the pan. Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, my favorite lunch, with four meatballs. But was it ready? I didn’t know. After all, I was nine; I didn’t know much about food preparation. I did know on that late winter or early spring day that I didn’t have a lot of time to figure things out. I waited a few minutes, and Mom didn’t show. So I scribbled a note on the pad on the table, and with a longing glance at the spaghetti in the pan, I went out the door and bicycled back to Lincoln School with an empty tummy.
A little more than twelve years ago, I ran into some medical problems that required a lot of changes. Basically, I had to watch my environment and I had to change my diet. One of the diet changes was the elimination of refined grains; I was on a whole grain diet.
I soon learned to read ingredient labels. As an example, a few products at the time trumpeted “whole wheat” on the fronts of their boxes, but a careful reading of the ingredients would reveal that the products also include enriched wheat flour along with the whole grains. I soon learned that if I were to trust the words on the front and choose such a product for my lunch, I’d spend the entire afternoon and a portion of the evening in great discomfort. Thankfully, I’ve been careful enough that such discomfort has been rare.
Things have gotten better over the last twelve years in a couple of ways. First, I’ve learned that my system can tolerate small portions of regular flour. Among my favorites along that line are the shrimpburgers from Val’s Drive-In down on Lincoln Avenue. I can’t eat the buns, but I pull the thinly breaded shrimpburgers out of the buns and eat them from a plate like shrimp steaks. The same holds true with rice. I generally eat brown rice, but I can eat a small portion of enriched rice on occasion, so I’ve been able in the past few years to join my family in our traditional Christmas dessert of rice pudding.
Also, it’s gotten easier to find products on the grocery shelves that I can eat. (It’s still challenging in a lot of restaurants, but it’s getting better there, too.) And a little more than a week ago, I learned something. Some time ago, we picked up a few rice mixes in envelopes, with the legend on the front promising “All Whole Grain.” When we got them home, I read the ingredients, and saw that the pasta in the mix was made with Durum semolina flour. As I generally rely only on products that say “whole grain flour,” I was skeptical and was pretty much ready to toss the three envelopes into a box to donate to a social services agency across town.
Then I started to think: In the past twelve years, I’ve seen many products list Durum semolina flour in their ingredients without saying it’s a whole grain. What if it is? The listing on the front of the rice mix seemed to indicate that it was. I Googled, and I learned that semolina flour is indeed considered a whole grain. The next question I had was: Would it function in my system like a whole grain? We made the rice mix last week, and I had plenty, enough to trigger discomfort if I were wrong. I had not a hint of trouble, and the thought of being able to add more options to my menu was a pleasant one.
The day I left the spaghetti on the stove had not been a pleasant one to that point. During the morning, Mrs. Mayer had called the fourth-graders in our fourth/fifth combination class to get out their arithmetic homework, probably some long division problems. Of the ten of so fourth graders, nine had their work done; I didn’t, and that was not a rare occurrence.
It wasn’t that I was incapable of doing the work. Long division was easy. So was reading. So were social studies and science and any other bits of academic work that came my way. (Well, except for penmanship. My handwriting remains to this day nearly illegible.) As the bulk of the work was easy, I was, for the most part, bored with school. Pair that with what I now know to be Attention Deficit Disorder – a condition neither recognized nor understood in 1963 – and you have a student who could rarely get his work done on time. As a result, school frustrated me, and I frustrated my teachers. And on that one morning in early 1963, Mrs. Mayer told me that, one way or another, I would have my arithmetic work done by the time lunch hour ended.
So after seeing the spaghetti on the stove and not having any idea whether it was ready to eat, I biked the five blocks back to Lincoln School and got to my arithmetic. I finished the assignment in time, done neatly enough for Mrs. Mayer to read it. I think she was pleased, though it was hard to tell. She always seemed a bit cranky, though she may have had reason, now that I think about it. It was just two years later, when I was in sixth grade, that the cancer finished its work and Mrs. Mayer passed on.
But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I’d gotten my work done by her deadline, and I’d had to skip lunch to do so. Not just lunch, but Chef Boy-Ar-Dee spaghetti!
During our next shopping trip after I’d researched semolina flour, the Texas Gal and I wandered past the canned pasta. And there was Chef Boy-Ar-Dee lasagna and beefaroni, in cans that pronounced the use of whole grains. I looked at the labels: whole wheat flour and semolina flour. We bought some for my weekday lunches, and I’ve had no problems.
So I’m moving another step forward. On the counter in the kitchen is a can of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee spaghetti and meatballs, listing semolina flour for the pasta. I might have a problem with the meatballs, as they have some cracker crumbs as filler, but I think it will be okay. So someday soon – probably not today, but maybe tomorrow – I’ll eat Chef Boy-Ar-Dee spaghetti and meatballs for lunch.
And I know I’ll think about the day I had to leave my lunch behind on the stove in order to go finish my arithmetic. I can still see the spaghetti in its orange sauce, heating in that pan, as I turned away hungry and headed back to school.
I was going to end this post with a selection of tunes from the Hot 100 from this week in 1963, but the Texas Gal insisted there was only one song that would work. As it turns out, she was right (as she so often is): A little bit later in 1963, Tom Glazer, a folk singer from Pennsylvania, got together with a bunch of kids he called the Do-Re-Mi Children’s Chorus and recorded a marvelous children’s song to the melody of “On Top Of Old Smokey.” Released as a single on the Kapp label, “On Top Of Spaghetti” went to No. 14 during the summer of 1963.
Even after finding a video of that 1963 single, though, I wasn’t entirely persuaded. But as I dug around YouTube this morning, I changed my mind. Why? Because in 1992, Disney included the song “On Top Of Spaghetti” on its kids album Shake It All About. And who did Disney get to record “On Top Of Spaghetti”? None other than Little Richard, helped out by – among others – Zaina Juliette Ark’Kenya, also known as Arkeni. Enjoy!