On The Road: Food for Thought (and the College Student)

What's in the pantry?

“There’s no food in this house!”

So came the plaintive wails of our daughter, Sophie, as she perused the kitchen shelves in late December, having newly arrived from Kennedy Airport upon completion of her first semester at the College of Charleston (where she passed Calculus II, yay!)
Really? Is that possible? No food at all?

Well, not quite. When I took a look, I saw there were stacks of beans (black, refried, cannellini, kidney, garbanzo), boxes of pasta and cans of soups of varying vintages hiding out in the pantry, while a fair number of root vegetables and a head of lettuce were taking root in the “crisper” (whatever that means). Meanwhile, we had tubs of hummus, pesto, a package of smoked salmon, a brick of cheddar and a yogurt or two standing sentinel on the fridge shelves.

Certainly there was enough food to get us through a minor snowstorm, though perhaps not Armageddon, which, given our recent kefuffle with Iran seems far more likely than it did a month ago and would come with a whole other set of complications requiring at least a gallon of ice cream that we definitely did not have.
Still, I knew what she meant.

In recent months, I have come to discover a few things that become apparent once your last (or only) child heads off to college. The first is that though the tuition bills go up, the household bills go down. I mean, way down. It’s hard to say exactly why or how. If you’ve seen us lately, you know that my significant other, Adam, and I are certainly not starving by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s true, we do seem to be spending a lot less on groceries these days.

I chalk it up partially to the fact that Sophie is a rabid (or should I say “rabbit”) and avowed vegetarian and has been for quite some time. Meanwhile, my husband is a dedicated carnivore. I can go either way, which is why during our daughter’s last two years of high school, we solved this Jack Spratt dilemma by enrolling in a food delivery service that, each week, dropped the ingredients and recipes for three vegetarian meals right on our doorstep.

Some of these meals were hits, like the squash chili which we now make even when there’s not a vegetarian present, and others were misses (the frequency of massaged kale salad in these packages, for example, got a bit tedious). But one thing was certain — it cost us a fair amount each week to do the double menu thing.

Then there’s the requisite block or two of tofu that can always be found in the fridge when Sophie’s in residence (kind of like the British flag over Buckingham Palace when the queen’s home), along with the many spices required to whip up an Asian stir-fry at a moment’s notice.

That’s what I smelled cooking late one night over Christmas break after my child had returned from traipsing all over town to meet up with friends she hadn’t seen since August. The meal was taking place almost at midnight because one of those friends had called Sophie to come over and perform an emergency haircut. Exactly when my daughter learned how to cut hair, I have no idea. I didn’t see it on her fall course list, so I’m assuming we have YouTube or someone in her dorm to thank for this newly acquired skill. She also came home with a new tattoo, but that’s another column.

So tofu at midnight it was.

Besides the reduction in food bills in recent months, we’ve also come to notice that once the house is cleaned, it tends to stay that way much longer. There are far fewer dishes in the sink, beds stay made, couch pillows intact, sand and dirt remain primarily outside and pairs of sneakers and Doc Martens don’t pile up in disarray by the front door. We’ve also witnessed a reduction in charges incurred during late night drugstore runs for everything from facewash and moisturizer to hair products and snacks. Now, on the rare occasion when I do go to CVS, I get a receipt that’s only about a foot long, as opposed to the eight-footers I could count on as recently as last summer.

Which leads me to wonder, has our child changed her grooming and snacking habits or is she simply going without when she’s on her own? I’m betting it’s the latter. Although we’re picking up the big ticket cost of college, we’re leaving the financing of the various sundries up to her. It’s pretty obvious she’s skimping because when we spent Thanksgiving in Charleston, during a brief visit to her dorm I could see she hadn’t done laundry in a while. That’s when she admitted she was out of detergent and had been for a while. An intervention followed in the form of a trip to Target and close supervision as I made her lug every item of clothing and bedding on her half of the dorm room down to the deserted laundry room for a thorough scrubbing.

Goading a child about the need to keep up on one’s laundry is apparently one of many separation rituals typical of the late teenage years. We haven’t even gotten to checkbook balancing yet, though I doubt there’s much balance to balance in her account. I gotta hand it to her though, she hasn’t asked us for any spending cash and we haven’t offered, so she’s figuring it out somehow. They always do, I’m told. At least she knows how to do laundry and has been given the tools to do so. I’ve heard of some kids arriving at college who haven’t got a clue where to begin with that task.

But just like cutting hair, there’s a YouTube video for that, I’m sure.

Still, there’s one major thing that I really have missed by our daughter’s absence in recent months — and that’s the sound of teenage girls laughing as hard as they possibly can while baking brownies, dancing to the Wii or playing a round of Cards Against Humanity.

She was only home for a couple of weeks over Christmas. On January 6, she was already back on a plane headed south for semester number two. Though our thoroughly trashed house will soon be clean once more, I suspect we’re in for an awfully quiet winter ahead. Guess it’s time to catch up on all those Netflix series I’ve been avoiding. Have you seen “Don’t F— with Cats”? It’s fairly disturbing, but if you have any others to recommend, let me know!