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arnie maddox: lipton's beef stroganoff
august 10, 2002
My mom did all the cooking for us kids growing up, and all those meals started "from scratch". Just about the only exception to that I can remember is a dried noodle dinner I used to sometimes have called Lipton's Beef Stroganoff.
How it ever got into our house in the first place I don't know. I think I may have seen it in the store one time while we were shopping, and was intrigued by it. For one thing, as I remember it, the box was kind of odd-shaped. It was a square box, but the rear square of the box was wider than the front square, so that you couldn't set it on its side (it'd tilt over). You had to lay it on its back. That way, it looked kind of like a pyramid that had its top half cut off. As a kid, I kind of liked it that the box was a little inconvenient. It made it stand out from all the dull, rectangular boxes on the shelf.
Inside the box, you'd get a couple of different packets. One was the noodles, of course. You'd measure three cups of water or however much it was into a skillet (you cooked this in a skillet rather than a pot, for some reason), then once the water came to a boil you'd open the packet of noodles and drop them in (there may have been some milk mixed in with the water-- I don't remember now). The noodles themselves, even when they were cooked, were kind of narrow, and not too long, and tended to tangle in each other.
Once the noodles had been cooking a couple of minutes, you put in the second packet, smaller than the noodles but not too much smaller, which contained thin pieces of beef, except it was like a dried beef. You also at some point added a packet of seasonings.
Now that doesn't sound like much, but once all that had cooked the required amount of time, it was out of this world. Each weird-shaped box was supposed to be two servings (and the serving sizes were a lot more honest back then), but I'd always eat the whole thing myself. I still remember how excited I'd be once the sauce had more or less gone into the noodles and beef, and you had this skillet just full of this aromatic dish, ready to be slid onto a big plate.
Why was it so good? Part of it was the little noodles, and the flavorings they were cooked in. Like I said, the noodles tended to tangle together, they were a little on the sticky side I guess, so it was real easy to pick up a big forkful of them without spilling any. Also, though, the beef was really good. It didn't taste like real beef does-- it was obviously heavily processed-- but whatever they did to it, the flavor and the texture of it just struck a chord. That's the thing about processed food. A lot of it's not that good, but every once in a while you come across a processed dish where they get everything right, and you want to eat it every meal-- even between meals!
Anyway, that was how I felt about Lipton's Beef Stroganoff. It was probably the first time I ever ate processed food, meaning food that hadn't been prepared by my mother, or relatives, or family friends. To me as a kid, it was kind of like a glimpse of the outside world.
One time, my mom and dad were out, and Karen too I think, or else she was upstairs studying. I was hungry so I opened the door to the fridge. Nothing you could eat right away. Some leftover casseroles, but they were frozen (these were the days before microwaves). But in the pantry, alongside bags of different types of flour, I found not one, but two of the Lipton Beef Stroganoff packages, stacked on their backs. These I knew were mine, because I was the only one in the house who ate them. Dinner was still a few hours away, so I knew it'd be okay to eat one.
So I did. I still remember turning the weird-shaped box over, pulling the cardboard apart (I think the back had four cardboard triangles that joined in the center), then pulling out the dried packets. Got out a skillet, measured out the right amount of water with a precision that would later help me in my chemistry career, and made the dish myself, without any help. It's the first meal I ever cooked for myself. At the time, I felt like it was a rite of passage, one of the whole slew of challenges it was dawning on me I'd have to master over the next few years in order to grow up. I sat at the kitchen table and ate it, being conscientious about using a napkin, after a hot forkful or two getting lost in that incredible taste and texture.
I had the impression Lipton's Beef Stroganoff was pretty popular (I used to look sometimes in the other shoppers' carts to see if they were buying it too, because I had learned by then that if something was not popular, it usually went away, and I think I may have even, once or twice, sneaked boxes into other people's carts, hoping they'd buy it unknowingly, give it a try since they had it anyway, and then start buying it on a regular basis like my mom did for me). I remember how happy I was when Lipton came out with a couple of other dinners in the same weird boxes, because that suggested the company was doing well. I forget what they were, now. I think one was a rice dish that you added a slim plastic packet of "wine" to (how sophisticated I felt!), and there may have been one other. I tried each new one, of course, just like you'd buy the latest book by a favorite writer, but they weren't as good as the stroganoff.
Then I heard, I forget where, that the government, or maybe it was a consumer group, was threatening Lipton with legal action because there was not enough beef in the dish, in proportion to the amount of noodles, for Lipton to be able to legally refer to the dish as Beef Stroganoff (something similar happened years later when someone sued McDonald's when they first came out with their quarter-pounder, because whoever this someone was, he bought a quarter pounder, but then instead of eating it, he had it officially weighed, and the patty was a little less than a quarter pound, so he sued. Now McDonald's advertises the quarter-pounder as being a quarter pound "pre-cooked", or something like that). Anyway, this talk about suing Lipton's, or somehow bringing them to task, went on for a while. The other dishes disappeared (I guess everybody else preferred the Beef Stroganoff one too), and I started to worry about all this negative attention being focused on my favorite food. Then one day we went to the store and the package was different. It was still in a weird-shaped box, but instead of being called "Lipton's Beef Stroganoff", it said, "Lipton's Stroganoff - With Beef". It just didn't taste the same after that. After a while I stopped eating it altogether. A few years later, when I had my own car and had by then mastered a lot of those challenges growing up I talked about above, I saw the Lipton's Stroganoff while I was out shopping in a store one day, but it was in a normal-sized box now, kind of like macaroni and cheese comes in, and it just didn't look as weird as it once had. Holding it in my hand, I could just sense it wouldn't taste anything like it used to. I didn't buy it. I felt kind of sad.
A couple of years ago I contacted Lipton to see if they still sold the original product anywhere (even as "with beef", if necessary), and urged them, if they didn't, to consider reviving it. They sent me a nice form letter back, thanking me for my interest, and some free coupons for their dried soup mix (the one you stir into sour cream to make onion dip).
Last Friday, Cindy, my daughter, spent the night over at Margaret's. I turned on TV for a while. Mostly news about the upcoming Republican primary. Bored after a while, I got on the computer, and for the first time noticed that in Netscape they have a little box you can click titled, "White Pages."
If you've never noticed it before, it allows you to enter information about a person and find out how to contact them. Obviously, the more information you add, the more you narrow down the results.
I'm still in touch with most people in my life except for one or two, and one of those was my best friend from childhood, Rick (I'm not going to use his last name). He and I used to explore the woods around Idaho Falls together, go swimming after school, and talk for hours about everything under the sun. I probably talked more freely with him about things that mattered to me or bothered me or confused me than anyone else in my life (that's a funny thing about childhood friendships-- they're a lot closer than adult friendships).
Rick was a lot wilder than I was. Whenever we went to a restaurant, and even though I'd ask him not to, he'd order a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato (they were called "California Burgers" back then, because of the lettuce and tomato), a plate of french fries and a side of cole slaw. He'd eat the burger and fries, give me his half of the money to pay for the bill, then just before we left the table or counter or whatever he'd cram all the coleslaw into his mouth. Once we got outside, he'd wait until an old couple or a family was walking up to the front door of the restaurant, then he'd stagger around on the sidewalk to catch their attention, bend over clutching his stomach, and "throw up" the cole slaw all over his shoes and the sidewalk.
He also had what he'd call his "victimized woman" scream. He showed it to me soon after we first met, while we were in downtown Idaho Falls. He told me to wait at the corner, then he strolled down the street, passing all the people, until he got about mid-way, at which point he bent over and pretended to tie his shoelaces. While he was doing this, and with his head down so nobody would realize it was him, he let out this huge, long, blood-curdling scream that did sound a lot like a woman being attacked. It was amazing. It wasn't just a scream, it was a whole series of screams, each one worse than the last, finally ending with what sounded like the woman passing out, or dying. People came out of the shops, cars stopped in mid-street, drivers getting out, and Rick himself stood back up, looking around just as frantically as everyone else. Once, a few months after this, my father came home and told my mother, while I was doing my homework at the kitchen table, that he had heard a terrible scream earlier in the day while he was walking to lunch, but that no one on the street was able to find the woman who had made it. It still worried him, and it worried my mother when he told her. I felt bad about that, but I also felt, in a way, kind of privileged that I knew what had really happened, and my parents didn't.
While we were still in our early teens, Rick ran away from home, and never came back. I mean never. Back then, kids ran away for a couple of hours, maybe once in a rare case overnight, staying at a friend's house without the friend's parents knowing, but that was it. Rick though ran away in 1974, and that was the last anyone ever heard from him.
So I guess you can figure out what I did next. Yep. I typed in his full name in the Netscape White Pages, and hit Search.
He had an unusual last name, and even then, the name looked like part of it should be spelled differently. I was hoping that because of that last name, it wouldn't matter that I didn't have a city or state for him.
Believe it or not, only one name came up, the last name as he spelled it, with the initial D (his actual first name was Richard, so I started thinking maybe he calls himself Dick now instead of Rick).
The result gave an address, and a telephone number. Even weirder, the address was in Fort Worth, Texas, which is less than an hour away from me (in good traffic).
It wasn't that late, and it was a Friday night, so I called the number.
It rang a couple of times, to where I debated whether or not I should leave a message if there was an answering machine, and then the phone picked up in mid-ring, and this woman's voice said, "Hello?"
I said hello back, and asked if this was the so-and-so residence.
"May I speak to Rick, please?"
There was a long pause. She asked who was calling. My heart flip-flopped. "Tell him this is Arnie Maddox. We used to be best friends back in Idaho Falls, Idaho."
Another long pause, then she said, "Arnie?"
I started to spell it out for her, thinking she wasn't sure if I had said Ernie or something, but she interrupted, saying, "Arnie? Is that really you?"
I said it was, and now of course I'm wondering if maybe he married one of the hometown girls, and I'm speaking to someone I actually know from the past, but don't realize it. "May I ask who this is?" I say. "Do I know you?"
"This is Rick," she said, which probably all of you have figured out already, but I had been completely clueless (if anybody ever writes a biography of me, they should call it, It Takes a Village to Raise an Idiot).
After we talked a little more, she told me some of her story, including the transgender operation she had ten years ago (I'm using "she" here instead of "he" because that's how she obviously wanted to be referred to, and I always believe in calling people what they want to be called. ) Anyway, it was kind of awkward, and not what I had expected, obviously, but it got a little better when we started talking about old times, and growing up together. After about twenty minutes, she asked me if I'd like to have dinner with her. Not a date, she quickly added-- just a way for old friends to catch up. I said yes.
We wound up, just this past week, going to Edelweiss in Fort Worth, which is the best German restaurant in Texas, as far as I'm concerned. As it happens, it was on their "all the ribs you can eat night" (they make incredible ribs, no sauce, just a dry rub, but out of this world). We arranged to meet there, in the parking lot outside (I told Cindy I was meeting an old boyhood friend). I described what I would be wearing, because of course I had no idea what Rick would look like.
I was standing outside my car for about ten minutes after when we were supposed to meet, looking at the traffic to see if a car looked like it was going to pull into the lot, when the door of a car that had already been in the lot when I first got here opened, and this woman got out, said, "Hi Arnie" to me, bent back into her car for her purse, then shut the door and locked it.
This is embarrassing, but it suddenly occurred to me Rick might want to kiss me in greeting, which I felt funny about, but what actually happened is that as she got closer, she held her hand out. We shook.
"I've been here before," she said, looking nervous.
W e got a table right away, and both ordered beers.
"So do you go by the name Dick now? Or Dickie or something?"
She seemed puzzled at first, then let out a polite laugh. "It's Dorothea."
The night went pretty well. To be honest, I don't know if we'll ever see each other again. People usually grow up different, anyway, and of course that's true even more so if one of them changes sex. Because I hadn't seen him in so many years, it was doubly hard to recognize the boyhood friend in the adult woman's face. I never really "found" Rick in the Dorothea sitting in front of me. After my phone conversation with her, I naturally thought back over all the times Rick and I had spent together, and I realize now, by some of the things he said back then, and some of the things he did, he probably had been interested in changing his sex for a long time. I had just never put the pieces together. But not having changed sex yet, and maybe while still being torn about if he should, he had developed what I guess it's fair to call a flamboyant personality, with a "look at me" attitude-- the sort of persona that I'm sure he felt, back then, was what was available to him, since he couldn't be what he really wanted to be. Being kind of shy back then myself, I guess I admired that loudness in him, that flamboyancy, even though I didn't know its source. Now that he had gotten his wish, and he was a woman, all that wildness had been toned way down, and he was this smartly-tailored, quietly-laughing woman sitting across from me. In his own mind, he had become perfect, and I was happy for that. We want our childhood friends to have their dreams come true. Dreams mean so much back then. But to be honest, although I was happy for Dorothea, I missed the old, imperfect Rick. He hadn't died, in fact he was sitting right in front of me, but he had just as surely gone away forever.
Which is what got me to thinking about Lipton's Beef Stroganoff. It's like the old Rick turned into a box of macaroni and cheese.