My mother-in-law is not a good cook. This is a fact. A fact she will remind you a thousand times.

We visit her about once a week and she makes dinner, which is always sort of humorous in its drawn out strangeness. Whatever time my husband and I arrive at her house she will begin to discuss her plans for the meal, but the plans are never about the actual food. It has more to do with the arrangement of the dishes, whether we will be drinking water or coffee. If I say water and I pour it too soon (because I did not plan ahead and got thirsty RIGHT NOW) I will have to watch the glass very carefully. I may not set it down. Ever. Because if I do she will make a pinched face and frown a lot. And this has little to do with the coaster because we always use one. It’s all about placement. If we use the “coffee” table, she sucks the air in through her teeth every time my daughter comes near the glass, “The water the water, watch the water!” We always smirk and then she says, “Well?”

I learned the hard way not to be in the kitchen too much for the cooking because it seems to make her really nervous. She will stand and frown into the pot, constantly lifting the lid to see what the rice is up to.

I hate making rice! It gets all soupy and gluey.

Ma, you can’t lift the lid. You are letting out all the steam.

She looks at me like I am a know-it-all. She can not accept that the rice will cook better without frown beams and constant attention, galled that it could puff up without her.

She does not cook with spices of any sort. I have watched her cook and seen her forgo major ingredients. When I ask her why she says, “You can add it at the table.” And we do. At the table there is a vast array of spice blends and brownish, pulverized herbs brought out by my father-in-law who has lived with her for forty years and must be used to it by now. She finds ketchup too spicy. She eats butter on saltines. She drinks plain hot water.

We are lucky if she will eat with us because she sometimes eats at the counter in the other room, insisting that there is not enough room for her. She is always the last to sit down. She will not use a real chair, preferring instead to have a stool.

Dessert is a must. We can not eat cookies before dinner without a lot of fuss about how much less room there is in our stomachs for green beans and glue rice. But after dinner we should have room for dessert, or else we have done it all wrong.

Then it is time for the assessment. She will indicate which parts of the meal should have been better, but this is never a call for suggestions, as I have learned the hard way. At this point you are merely expected to nod a lot and say, “Really? You thought the tacos were greasy? You are supposed to drain the hamburger!? No way! And who really needs a flavor packet?” Then she will smile and the whole room lights up. That is my favorite part of dinner.

I offer to make her dinner myself but having them here is equally challenging. “Weather permitting” and “God willing”, they will make the twenty minute drive take half an hour and not “run into any problems” en route. I have to hide my cat. I can not conjure up complex flavors. I have to turn the heat WAY UP. I have to make a dessert. I have to clean things I don’t often bother with. I have to stop them from cleaning the things I did not get to or even think of. Jay’s father will say, “Just as I suspected, your refrigerator is overworked because you need to pull it away from the wall and vacuum the back, here, while you are working on dinner let me do that for you.” They have to “get on the road” before the dark comes creeping up.

Somehow I like them anyway. They add a flavor to my life that is spicier than ketchup, better than boiled cabbage and more complex than a taco kit. If I am lucky they will save my appliances from overworking themselves, God willing.

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