by Sumitra Mattai
Sumitra’s essay appears in episode 40 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
After I’ve put my kids to bed, cleaned the kitchen, and picked up the Legos, I climb a step ladder to reach the bag of Pirate’s Booty hidden high in the pantry. Standing at the kitchen counter, I eat handfuls of this puffed rice and corn snack straight from the bag, as white cheese flakes dust my cheeks and pajamas like pale yellow snow.
A nugget of Pirate’s Booty is like the love child of a styrofoam packing peanut and a cube of cheese. They are lighter and airier than Cheetos, though the texture is similar. I’m impressed by the presence of buttermilk and black pepper on the ingredient list on the back of the bag. It’s gluten-free, and mysteriously contains two grams of protein. The packaging makes a trio of claims: Baked, Not Fried! Made with Real Cheese! No Artificial Flavors or Preservatives! But I don’t eat these crunchy, craggy morsels for nourishment. I eat them because I’ve run out of willpower, and I’m trying not to drink wine on weekdays.
The trouble begins when I’m putting my kids to bed. On any given night, my three-year-old demands a snack, a drink of water, lotion for the itchy spot on her right thigh, and a different pair of socks, the ones with the bunnies on them. She says she needs to poop, then screams when I put her on the toilet. We argue over the temperature of her milk – first too hot, then too cold – before she throws the bottle on the ground. She and my seven-year-old son fight over a stuffed dog, and he falls and hits his head on the corner of a chest of drawers, necessitating an ice pack. They want to FaceTime with my husband, who is traveling, but he doesn’t answer his phone. To distract them from their disappointment, I let them make a video for him, a rambling montage of half-sung lullabies, giggles, and screen kisses. I read about penguins for my son, and the book “Room on the Broom” twice for my daughter. At 8:25 pm, when we are all sulky and overtired, she announces, “I don’t want to go to sleep!” Against my better judgment, I yell, “Jesus Christ!” Both children start crying, spooked by the frustration in my voice. It takes another twenty minutes for us to calm down. Feeling ashamed for snapping, I give into a weary tenderness. I nuzzle their soft cheeks, massage their backs, sing Twinkle Twinkle, and leave the room in a waft of humidifier mist. In the hallway, I watch their bodies writhe and settle into silence on the live camera app on my phone.
Then I take off my bra – the most anticipated moment of the day – and change out of my work clothes into sweatpants torn at the knees and an oversized hoodie I bought years ago in the Fort Lauderdale airport during an extra long and chilly layover. I go around the house picking things up and putting them back where they belong. I return the books back to the shelves, reunite the teacups with the talking teapot, and rescue the strewn Legos. Finally, I reward myself with a bag of Pirate’s Booty, shining on the top shelf like the star on a Christmas tree.
Pirate’s Booty became my go-to snack during New York City’s first lockdown, arriving in the grocery delivery whenever I managed to secure a time slot. In the early days of Covid, I smoothed the bag with an antibacterial wipe before opening it, along with my other groceries. Any object from the outside world inspired paranoia, even after more research emerged and recommendations shifted. Like many of us, lockdown forced me to become a better home cook. Day after day, I fought the battles of communal breakfast, lunch, and dinner, finding my way through the ever-shifting maze of my family’s moods and preferences. In the face of the unfolding apocalypse, I rationed ingredients I wasn’t sure we would find again, and felt the constant pressure to reinvent our repertoire. Snacking alone at the end of the night became a sacred time. The OCD-like rituals and full-body fear of 2020 have subsided, but Pirate’s Booty remains. The craving comes when I’m stressed or pms-ing, when eating my feelings is the only way through.
I mention the ritual to my therapist on a Monday at 12:45 pm as I pace up and down Lexington Avenue, avoiding my colleagues and the open layout of my office. We talk about the importance of coping mechanisms, and how the ongoing pandemic has us all dangling from a precipice, constantly grasping for normal. I promise to make time for baths and walks – the simple activities of a child are now a luxury as an adult. She suggests a technique called “prescribing the problem,” and asks me to choose a few days of the week when I will binge, rather than letting the feeling overtake me at random. I agree to try, to keep trying.
The Pirate’s Booty bag features a mustachioed pirate and his red parrot, absurdly named Crunchy, both grinning like potheads. With its playfully transgressive name, Pirate’s Booty is advertised as a healthy, gluten-free kid’s snack. But in my household, I have to hide the bag from my children. My son is allergic to dairy, and one flake of dehydrated cheese would give him an asthma attack and a swollen eye. Every time I add Pirate’s Booty to my digital cart, sneaking it in alongside kale, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes, I am aware of my transgression. Yet the guilt doesn’t stop me from enjoying it, gobbling furtively when no one is around.
The illustration of the pirate character, with his provocative grin and bulging eye, was apparently based on brand founder, Robert Ehrlich, who created the puffs in 1987. He sold the brand to B&G Foods, Inc. for $195 million in 2013. Four years later, it was sold to the Hershey Company for $420 million. I cannot comprehend that a snack with the word “booty” in the title could command such a price, but such is the power couple of capitalism and sodium.
I get my penchant for salty snacks from my father, an inveterate snacker. Though he lives alone, his pantry is always stocked with extra large bags of Doritos. When my parents were together, I used to hide in the basement of my childhood home eating his stash of chips, watching MTV, and blocking out the unrest upstairs. As long as I had snacks, I felt safe.
I think of my younger self as I stuff handfuls of Pirate’s Booty into my mouth, trying to ignore my existential dread. Some nights, I can’t stop thinking about global warming, the destruction unfolding at record speed. Other nights, I fixate helplessly on school shootings and the parents who can no longer put their kids to bed. I know I should join a protest or sign a petition, but it all seems futile. I think about the suits in charge, and wonder how they sleep at night when I can’t. I want to stomp and scream like a toddler and demand change RIGHT NOW! Instead, I focus on the small tasks within my control. I sweep the dinner crumbs off the floor and take out the trash. I write down appointments on the calendar, filling the small squares with meaning. I will myself to think forward, to believe in the future, however imperfect.
I thought I would’ve understood the world better by middle age, but I am more confused than ever. Sometimes, I feel as helpless as a blindfolded captive stumbling out onto the plank, resisting the pull of the wind and the waves, the endless abyss of the sea down below. But for now, I’m on a ladder, reaching for hidden treasure.
Original artwork by Claire Winkler
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