Following chart-topping success across Europe at the dawn of the new millennium, Ambrosia Parsley determinedly dragged her avant-pop group Shivaree back into obscurity. Her solo debut Weeping Cherry came out this April. She’s presently working on a book of inspirational limericks. You can follow her on Twitter @parsley23 and Instagram MSPARSLEY.
They were sort of like werewolves, my family. There was just so much… hair. My father’s people migrated to Los Angeles from West Virginia under suspicious circumstances when he was fourteen. He then promptly met my mother on Venice beach (he still talks about the gold bikini she was wearing), threw her over his shoulder and carried her off to a cave in Reseda. They, along with their collective brothers, sisters, spouses and children, formed a crew so fantastically unique, demented, and steeped in uncut rock ‘n’ roll that the only decent rebellion I could conjure in my teens was to have myself baptized into a new church every six months or so.
They were all gorgeous (likely thanks to some pact with Satan) and chose to decorate themselves with Indian head dresses (from the toy store), rabbit fur coats, doe skin pelts, mink paws and feathers (you’re welcome, Coachella). They rode motorcycles and did other cool shit like kung fu and hash smuggling. They snoozed on waterbeds and liked to drink sake and listen to country music while wearing giant cowboy hats decorated with colorful roach clips. I’ve really got to hand it to them—they make remembering fun. And today’s mission is to remember what we ate.
My grandmother Suzie had her own restaurant up in Big Bear Lake aptly called Suzie’s Happy Catch. The hook for her place was you could bring in whatever you caught that day and sweet Suzie would cook it up for you one of three ways. Few, if any, ever took her up on the offer since Suzie’s Happy Catch was a really a place for Hell’s Angels to meet up and drink beer. I was never once allowed to go inside. To this day, I remain intrigued by the mysterious “three ways,” as no one can seem to remember what the fuck they were.
Suzie was loud and funny, with every available inch (and there were many) covered in glitter and turquoise. She could sing and play ukulele while wearing red Lee Press-On-Nails. She donned silver wigs and elaborate muumuus, whispered (loudly) when she swore and put clothes on her dog. She liked to steal silverware and Sweet-‘n-Low from restaurants (especially Sizzler). Later, when she parked her fifty-foot Airstream (connected to our house by several orange extension cords) in our back yard, Suzie became my personal trainer in the dark arts of show business. She taught me Fats Waller songs on her ukulele and hooked me up with the Shakey’s Pizza Ninety-Nine Piece Senior Citizen Banjo Band, where I sang lead every other Sunday for free pizza and a roll of quarters to play the video games. I thus owe my eternal damnation to her and shudder when offering an unkind word, but the woman could author a miserable dish like no other.
Suzie specialized in shitty breakfast food. Darkness like cold, hard oatmeal with a half jar of grape jelly or some Tang stirred into it, or burnt toast with diet margarine and paprika. Sometimes she would douse a giant wheat biscuit with boiling water, then press it flat against the plate with a spatula. These were then smeared with the aforementioned diet margarine and seasoned with equal portions of salt and sadness, so of course I secretly loved them. She made one cake. Its main ingredient was unaccountably a can of tomato soup and it made me want to kill myself. Her sole culinary redemption came in bottomless cups of Taster’s Choice (that’s instant coffee for you more fortunate) with as much sugar and nearly spoiled milk as we wanted.
It’s no wonder my poor mother never got it together in front of the fire. I can only ever remember her making three things. Not three signature dishes often repeated, but just three things. One. Time. Each.
A massive pot of soggy rigatoni in tomato sauce, with green olives.
A “Pinecone.” This was constructed from a few blocks of cream cheese with green olives folded in. After it was rolled into a pinecone shape, she decorated the outside with almonds to make it look pineconey.
Mom’s kitchen magic did eventually evolve, and in more recent times she’s made thousands of Christmas cookies, but the maternal line in my clan, while adorable (I can say that now), were an unparalleled culinary bust and I prayed for deliverance. Or at least something to eat.
My dad looked like Jesus Christ (or Charlie Manson, take your pick) and was a lineman for the county. The son of a miner, raised in the most brutal coal towns of West Virginia, dinner was often not even an option for him and his four brothers. So he hadn’t had much experience with, well… food. Therefore, the very notion understandably excited him quite a bit. Determined to feed his children everything he never got to eat, he invented a menu that was designed to not only stick to our ribs, but also to entertain (or make us bawl our eyes out).
Having starved for most of his life, my dad was drawn to anything that had the word “fortified” on the box. It was because of this sly advertising bullshittery that my brothers and I seldom got to enjoy an actual potato; yes, Idahoan “instant mashed” boasted a whole host of irresistibly fortifying vitamins and minerals. He fashioned these abominations to the tuber tribe into massive volcano-like structures and filled them with Campbell’s Beef & Barley soup. Volcano night was a real drag and I’d often refuse to come out of my room. They’d have to bribe me out with the promise of letting me watch MASH. Apparently I’d even ingest a volcano for Alan Alda.
Top Ramen, at 17 cents a package, left blessed room in the budget for my dad to “make it fancy.” He’d fry great slabs of spam and float them on top with some canned asparagus. It looked remarkably like a David Chang joint, and I loved it. On these rather special, “Newfaux Pacific Rim” days, my mom would send my twin brother and me to the Thai restaurant in the mini mall across the street to secure chopsticks. In years to come, she’d decide that if we ate EVERYTHING with chopsticks, we’d never get fat. So that’s exactly what we did.
The end of the month, as the paycheck stretched thin, was always stressful for Pop, but it was during those leanest times when my favorite fare was served. We ate Bisquick pancakes (totally fortified), “chighetti” (read on…) and ice cream cones (I love you, Daddy). As jubilant as ice cream for dinner might seem, I can remember him wincing a bit as he handed over those perfect, dripping messes. He’d remain mostly hangdog until the first of the month, then burst through the door after work, tan and fit from climbing those poles, laughing like a madman and holding a bag full of steaks (in retirement he would go on to become the San Fernando Valley’s acknowledged King of The Tri-Tip). We’d put on “Up On Cripple Creek” and dance around the kitchen, ready to do it all again.
1 large can Heinz spaghetti
1 large can Hormel chili
Kraft Parmesan cheese
Stir chili and spaghetti together over medium heat in your favorite large enameled cast iron Dutch oven while listening to Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein. Serve in shallow bowls with a generous sprinkling of Kraft Parmesan cheese. Eat with chopsticks.