Stephanie's cheesy potatoes

This morning was just an ordinary shopping trip, and in my mind Stephanie was with me, which is also ordinary. She's with me everywhere I go.

Walking into the store, I grab a cart. In our early years she led the way, and when walking became difficult, she let me shop alone, or if she came with me she'd handle the cart; it gave her some additional steadiness on her feet. In the wheelchair era, I usually did the shopping alone.

Today I walked past the fresh leeks, and thought of her. Nowadays I never buy leeks, as I just have no use for them, but Steph added leeks to the shopping list on a regular basis. They're a key ingredient in her potato & leek soup, which was always quite good. And I'm thinking, I'm such a big dumb boy — I didn't compliments her on that soup as much as I should have, because a recipe full of potatoes was also full of calories.

What was I thinking? Stephanie liked her potato & leek soup perhaps more than I did, but it was good, and Stephanie made it, and she might have made it more often if I'd complimented it more enthusiastically. Mostly, though, I just said, "Thanks, honey, that was really good." She deserved better than that.

Still in the produce section, I walked past a giant bin of corn-on-the-cob, which was Stephanie's favorite vegetable. Corn in a can was a weak substitute for the winter months, but genuine corn was on the cob. Any time I wanted to put a smile on her face, all I had to do was pull an ear of corn out of the shopping bag and put it on the kitchen counter.

She had high standards for corn, and knew how to peel back the husk and evaluate the kernels to select the best corn in the store. When I started doing all the shopping, she taught me her skill as a corn whisperer, and the corn I brought home usually met with her approval. I so much miss her approval. If she was here, I would've bought four ears today (two for each of us), and Steph would've cooked them to perfection — she knew exactly how long to boil them at exactly the right setting.

She had me switch brands of butter, because she thought the generic butter didn't fully flatter the corn. To be honest, I was skeptical, but after a few ears there was no denying that she was right about the butter. She would serve the corn in our little plastic cob-shaped bowls with cob-shaped handles stuck into the ends of the ears, but today I didn't buy any. Haven't bought any corn since Steph went away, and I'll probably never buy corn-on-the-cob again.

Midway through the aisles, a little box of spaghetti stared at me. When I was a kid my family ate spaghetti often, but my mom wasn't really a great cook, and her spaghetti was never something to look forward to. I'd never had lip-smackin' good spaghetti until Stephanie made it for us — many, many times. Whenever I tried prepping a spaghetti dinner for us, lots of advice from Stephanie was needed on when exactly it was done cooking. Without her advice I'd never get it right, so without her, spaghetti is never on the shopping list.

Further down the same aisle, there's the macaroni and cheese — one of the few things Steph tried to make from scratch, and felt she'd failed. After several attempts using several different recipes, she concluded that she honestly preferred the processed, pre-packaged macaroni and cheese over any recipe. She liked Kraft and Annie's and Trader Joe's, and especially liked the "deluxe" packages that come with pre-mixed cheesy sauce in a tin-foil tube. Mac and cheese became a serious staple in our kitchen, because when Stephanie's appetite faded as it sometimes did, she could almost always eat and enjoy at least half a bowl of macaroni and cheese from a box.

In the "ethnic aisle," where the store stocks its selection of Mexican and Asian and Kosher foods, Steph frequently wanted Thai noodles. Along with some shrimp and some Asian spices and oils, she could turn those noodles into shrimp noodles — that's what the recipe card said, though we always called them scrimpy noodles. They got the "scrimpy" nickname from several years when we were dirt-poor, and Steph used only half the shrimp that the recipe called for. As our finances got marginally better, the scrimpy noodles got less scrimpy and more shrimpy.

The store carries two brands and four different styles of Thai noodles, and a couple of times I brought home the wrong noodles. The first time Steph said not to worry, but she thought the resulting bowl of scrimpy noodles wasn't quite as good as usual. Still, she blamed herself, not my noodle-selection. The second time I just marched right back to the store and traded the wrong noodles for the correct noodles. A dinner of Steph's scrimpy noodles was always a treat, but the recipe is complicated, and experience has taught that with any complicated recipe I'll screw something up. So I usually skip that aisle altogether.

In the frozen food section, Steph was with me today as I walked past the pre-packaged potatoes O'Brien, key ingredient in her cheesy potatoes. It's the same story as the potato & leek soup, only more so — we both absolutely loved Steph's cheesy potatoes, yet we didn't have that dish as often as Steph would've liked. While I was dieting (which was the last several years of Stephanie's life) we cut down on Steph's cheesy potatoes, from 2-3 times per month to 2-3 times per year. She wanted to support me in my weight loss, and even made a few batches with cauliflower instead of potatoes — a lot fewer calories and a little less flavor.

To be clear, I never asked Steph to make cheesy potatoes less often, or to make cheesy cauliflower instead; she volunteered it. Just as clearly, though, I should've insisted that we have cheesy potatoes as often as ever, as often as she'd like, and made with potatoes, not cauliflower. Going without helped me lose weight, sure, and at the time I appreciated Steph's kind gesture, but now the idea of Stephanie depriving herself just to be supportive of me, seems sad and short-sighted and stupid and wrong. Why should she limit her cheesy potato pleasure, just for me?

Waiting at the cash register, there are candy bars for impulse buyers, and a wide selection of refrigerated soda pops. Snickers was her favorite candy, and a Cherry Coke was her favorite soda, but after the diabetes diagnosis the candy bars weren't allowed, and Steph tried the Diet Cherry Coke but thought it tasted weird and wrong. "I'd rather have no Cherry Coke than Diet Cherry Coke."

I pay at the register. They bag the groceries. I push the cart to the car, put the bags in the back seat, and wish I was holding Steph's wheelchair for stability, as she slid into the passenger seat for riding shotgun. On the drive home from the store, I wonder what clever things she'd say. Back at the apartment, in the early years she'd help carry groceries into the kitchen, and in the later years she'd apologize for being unable to help, no matter how many times I told her that she had nothing to apologize for.

Always, Stephanie is with me, at least in my head. And always, I'm glad.

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1½ pounds frozen potatoes O'Brien (thawed)
1 cup chopped onions
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
½ teaspoon pepper
16 ounces sour cream
1 ½ can cream of chicken soup
¼ cup melted butter

Preheat the oven to 350°. Use the butter to grease a glass baking dish. Mix everything else together, thoroughly, and bake for an hour, or until the top is golden brown.

At the bottom of the recipe card, there's an additional note Steph wrote to herself, starting with the word "Hint:". Then there's a big blank spot where her handwriting has faded away from time and handling and grease, but enough words remain that her intent is still clear — she's saying that you can quick-thaw the potatoes O'Brien by pouring them into a big colander in the sink, and running warm water over the potatoes for 5-10 minutes.