The Emperor has no peppers


‘A Tale of Two Families (and an identity crisis)’

Okay. Let’s take a quick poll. What’s a brownie? Is it thick and cake-y? Or sort of gooey and dense? And what about oatmeal cookies? Fat, with raisins? Or thin and chewy, with chocolate chips?

And, not to make this all about sweets, what about potato salad? (that is, if anybody out there even eats potato salad anymore): is it sweet and sort of vinegary? Or made with mayo? And if it’s the mayo-y kind, would that be Hellmann’s, or Miracle Whip?

You can get into some pretty lively debates about these things. Because we all grew up with a certain, shall we say, family food ‘standard of identity’. Which is a real thing, I’ll have you know. The government actually has a set of ‘standards’ that determine the ‘identity’ of foods. Like ketchup. You can’t just mix up some red sauce and slap a label on it that says ‘Lutheranliar’s Ketchy Ketchup’. Not if it doesn’t meet the Government’s Ketchup Standard of Identity.

I learned this when I worked in advertising for companies like General Foods. Which didn’t really make anything that you could call an actual ‘food’. That is, that could sustain life. Or that, in General (hah), met the Government Standards of Identity for foods. Country Time wasn’t called ‘Lemonade Flavored Drink Mix’ because GF thought that sounded nicer. It was because it most definitely did not meet the Standard of Identity for ‘Lemonade’, which involved having real lemons in there somewhere.

Well, families have their own Standards of Identity for foods too. Why, I’ve heard friends say that they didn’t realize that something as simple as a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich could be so um, surprising till they went to another kid’s house after school and were served one made with raspberry jam. (‘It wasn’t grape! How could it be a real P B & J?!’) Or: ‘They gave me a grilled cheese sandwich, and it had this white cheese inside. Cheese is yellow!’

Which brings me to my story for today. It involves a little misunderstanding about a food served quite often in the two families pictured below. To look at them, they don’t seem all that different, do they?

A gaggle of Henrys, hungry for potato salad made with Miracle Whip. (Looks like it’s too hot for stuffed peppers)

Whitmores dressed for a picnic where potato salad made with Hellmann’s will be served. No peppers will be involved in any way shape or form

But there were differences. And they were about food (for this story anyway). Oh, a cautionary note. The Dude absolutely hates it when I tell this story. But, since he never ever reads this blog, and no one else in his social-media-deprived family does either, I say ‘hah! anything goes!’

So here’s the story.

Shortly after His Dudeness and I got together, I was invited out to  their house in Amagansett (a house which we now own, but that is fodder for future posts). I was, as a Person Who Wanted to Impress Possible Future In-Laws, understandably flattered and eager to impress.

We went through the usual awkward Girlfriend Staying Over rigamarole (The Dude’s Mom: ‘I’ll put your stuff here in [Dude’s Real Name’s] room, shall I?’ Me: [Horrified silence])

Later, after some stilted family activity involving mopeds, it was time for dinner.

The Dude’s Mom, to me: “Carl (also known as Denny, short for Dennis the Menace) is home from college, and his favorite is stuffed peppers. So I thought I’d make them. I know it’s not very fancy, and it’s your first visit, so I hope that’s okay.”

Me: “Sure! I actually love stuffed peppers. My mom made them all the time when I was growing up. Great!”

So. The Whitmores array themselves around the table. There are five kids present, plus two parents, plus me. And one other person, the Boyfriend of Polly (the sister who was/is also known as Sparkle, after Sparkle Plenty, a character in a comic strip from the ’40s). You get the idea. There were a lot of people gathered around the ole Whitmore Family Board.

The Dude’s Mom circles the table with a big pot. From which she ladles, onto each plate, a very large meatball. A classic meatball, you know, made from ground meat and rice and the usual tomato sauce. A meatball. Not stuffed into a pepper. In fact, there is no evidence of peppers anywhere. At least not that I can see.

Now here’s the interesting part. Each person served his or her giant meatball says something like “Oh wow! Stuffed peppers! My favorite!” “Mom, you made stuffed peppers! Jeez!” And, “No one makes stuffed peppers like you, Mom!” (Classically ‘lutheranliar-like’ in its accuracy, that last remark, though probably unintentionally so.)

After we polish off our meatballs (er, “stuffed peppers”), I offer to help clean up, as Girlfriends Trying to Impress are wont to do. As I am scraping plates companionably with The Dude’s Mom, I happen to remark, “Wow. That was delicious! You know, my mom makes stuffed peppers too. But she, um, puts the meat, you know, into a pepper.”

To which The Dude’s Mom says, “Oh, I know what you mean, Dear. I tried that the first time I made stuffed peppers. But the meat just fell out, so now I just leave out the peppers.”

Okay. If a very large Whitmore Family is happy, who am I to judge? But then she served cheesecake. With graham-cracker crust.

Oh, by the way, that’s my mom up top, serving coffee. Which is so different everywhere that it deserves its very own post.

Time for a refill. See you next week.

New York City. April 2015

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24 thoughts on “The Emperor has no peppers

  1. My FIL makes a something he calls Fish Heads and Rice. It’s basically the insides of a stuffed pepper without the pepper. Fish Heads and Rice was a code-name. Family knew what it meant, but the neighborhood kids would go elsewhere to seek food.

    • I have no words. This is just the Funniest Comment Ever. I absolutely adore your FIL and want to hang out with him — and have some of his Fish Heads and Rice!

  2. Unbound Roots

    I love this. Ha! The young me would have been please that the pepper had been omitted, because I was definitely a meat and potatoes kinda girl when I was little. But, even I would have known that it can’t be stuffed peppers without the pepper. I hope you enjoyed the meatball 🙂

  3. Okay… no. Just.


    I was… I thought I was prepared. Because I’ve had stuffed pepper arguments. Discussions. Debates. And, in the case of my mother (who boils the peppers before stuffing and baking them, ffs) actual fights over the correct stuffed pepper. Turns out, there are a lot of delicious ways to make stuffed peppers because bell peppers are delicious and putting things in them (all sorts of things! Meats, rice, quinoa, veggies, cheeses, the possibilities are endless!) only makes those things better. I’ve even made little bell pepper boats in which to bake my honey jalapeno cornbread with great success; such is the magic of bell peppers.

    I was not prepared for someone who straight-up omits the peppers. Such a person (and I’m sure she’s lovely in other ways, but I’m left to judge her on this one story because it’s just. So. Wrong) has clearly given up on life. I hope you hugged her right then and there and, over the years between then and now, brought her around to The Way of the Pepper and taught her to love life again.

    • Oh, actualconversations, what would I do without you? As usual, this is a 100% authentic and verifiable story. I can’t remember if I hugged on this occasion, but that would indeed have been a better response than stifling a shriek of laughter with the dishtowel. Which is what I think I did. Oh, and I never ever make Stuffed Peppers for The Dude. Way too many landmines there, if not actual peppers.

  4. josypheen

    I find that spaghetti is different in every family (and chilli, although I guess that is on a similar vein…) Oh! And roast dinners on sundays. Every family has their own style.

    I looove stuffed peppers, so id’ve been really confused about the lack of peppers! A giant meat ball does sound yummy though!

    • Yes, fortunately that was a yummy meatball! I didn’t have to, you know, politely push it around my plate or anything like that. And yes, spaghetti and chili — wow! — SO different! In fact, I think you may just have inspired another post. It will also feature Meatloaf. The supper, not the star.

      • josypheen

        Ha! So, meatloaf isn’t really a thing in the UK, so I’ve only had it a handful of times…but i can imagine it could be truly amazing, or amazingly awful, depending on the cook! I’ll watch out for your post! <3

  5. I’m trying to follow the logic of a stuffed pepper without a pepper and can’t get there ?? I am a picky eater, so I’m very specific about calling dishes what they are, in case someone else is similarly picky. I don’t eat cheesecake- do they normally not have a Graham cracker crumb crust??

    • Cheesecake has a graham-cracker crust — and is a sort of refrigerated pie-like dessert — anywhere in the United States EXCEPT in New York City. Where it is a treat that has been baked and most def has never touched a graham cracker. It has a sort of sweet piecrust-type crust. I’m getting hungry just typing this (!)

  6. Ellen Fulton

    Have to say stuffed peppers are just tooooo much work, plus mine fell apart also! Very creative to omit, plus everyone loves meatballs, right? My husband came from a Miracle Whip coleslaw family, Coke plentiful, no liquor, no cigs in house, but his Mom was a great cook. Best Cowboy Cookies! My Mom …. Well, I never eat canned lima beans … Do they still exist? And the smoke … Well, I grew up ok anyway!

    • Cowboy Cookies?!? I am intrigued! And so grateful for your comment, not to mention grateful for the fact that you wed someone from a Miracle Whip family! Now I have to go fix (non-stuffed-pepper) dinner. I’m getting hungry.

  7. Mystery Chef

    Corn Dog Pancakes:

    Dry ingredients:
    2 cups flour
    1/2 cup corn meal
    1/4 cup brown sugar
    2 tsp baking powder

    Wet ingredients:
    2 cups milk
    2 eggs
    1/3 cup cooking oil or melted butter

    Secret ingredient:
    2 all-beef kosher hot dogs, sliced into pink coins

    Mix wet ingredients; mix dry ingredients, then combine the two and stir. Heat griddle or cast-iron pan until a large welt rises from your finger when you hold it on the cooking surface for five seconds. Drop a pat of butter onto the pan, and pour in half a cup of batter.

    Arrange hot dog coins into a pancake smiley face. When deep zits break out on the face, flip it over and cook further as you sing happy birthday three times. The timing is perfect that way.

    Serve with a generous portion of Maine maple syrup. Nothing else will do.

    • OMG, Mystery Chef. I wanna make these this weekend! The ‘Happy Birthday’ timing is a fantastic tip.
      Though the ‘zits’ timing idea is a tad, um, appetite-challenging (!)

  8. Myrna Henry

    I salute your gastronomic memories! I have always marveled at the way different dishes ‘turn out’ when prepared by different hands!

    • And I salute YOU, Mom, for making the best cookies ever, including those nice fat oatmeal ones with raisins. And, of course, the molasses ones we gobbled up just last week!

  9. I’m with the crowd in shorts. The first time my husband wanted to maker pancakes I was revolted. My mother made the world’so most hideous pancakes!

    • Hah! Thanks! As one of the crowd in shorts, I salute you. Speaking of pancakes, The Dude’s family makes them with cornmeal, of all things. I must admit I was skeptical, but over time grew to rather enjoy them. On occasion. When wearing shorts.

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