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September 07, 2007



Newly married and a bit smug, Elise flitted around the carpeted galley kitchen, ergonomic can opener in one hand and a gadget having something to do with recorking wine bottles in the other. She derived an unsubstantiated confidence in these shiny new tools of her domestic life. Escalating her arrogance further was the accompanying gift - a recipe box brimming with instructions for the favorite dishes of the guests at an all to frilly shower. The gift was a thoughtful one, and Elise tried to avert her gaze from the spot of blood on the lid - a remnant of the occupational hazard of serving as a bridesmaid and being asked to help open proffered gifts with too sharp scissors.

She closed her eyes and randomly pulled the recipe for Chocolate Cake submitted by the unassuming wife of a groomsman. The woman was British and Elise marveled at how much more interesting she seemed, just by virtue of being from another land.

Believing that her husband would be impossibly impressed by her efforts to pamper him, Elise began to prepare the batter. Cocoa powder, check. Butter, check. Eggs, check. Golden syrup - what? Vanilla essence? She paused. Is that the same as regular old vanilla? Self rising flour? Is there another kind? 250 mL of something? Elise's newlywed confidence began to deflate and if occurred to her for the first time that perhaps there was more to this cooking thing than she thought. Having spent too much time alone in the kitchen, she began to fret - is this the way marriage is too? She had thought that marriage was like reading a recipe: follow the ingredients - be kind, love, pick up your dirty socks and it would all be OK. She began to panic - what if she couldn't read the marriage recipe any more than the one for chocolate cake? Realizing her overreaction but worrying nonetheless she grabbed her keys and headed to the grocery store for a Pepperidge Farm chocolate cake. She returned to the car and reached into her purse for the new kitchen gadget she had brought and proceeded to eat the cake herself in the car with a shiny new Williams Sonoma fork.

Kim  Perrone

There was something so wrong about this...this pre-humous rummaging through my mother's past. Every so often, my parents arrive on my doorstep with boxes and bags of things they think I might want. Faded photos, musty books, an ugly comforter.... Um, Mom? Are those are my baby teeth? Would have thought you'd keep those....

Today's project is skimming through a ziploc of old recipes cut from magazines and flour packages. I'm wondering why I don't just trash it and save myself the time when my fingers suddenly stop tossing single scraps into the round file. My stomach lurches: Raspberry bars.

The page looks nothing like it did in memories. The bright, shiny sheet that mom and I referred to over and over again when I was ten, has turned soft at the creases, yellowed, and crusty from brown sugar crumbs and greasy fingerprints, most likely my own, smaller.

Later, I revert to age ten as I put the recipe together, not even having to think about the process: Nibble a few oats from the measuring cup, lick the fork every so often while pressing the sugary crust into the pan, lick raspberry jam that "accidentally" drips on my fingers, mash raspberry jam into leftover (okay, held over) raw crust and eat! Then bake, eat two bars with a cup of English tea. The trouble? Mom isn't there to stop me at two.

Much of the junk that lands on my doorstep finds its way back there soon after. However, that recipe is lying in my own recipe box waiting for a visit from mom. Together we'll introduce my six-year-old to the sheer decadence of raspberry bars, have a cup of tea and a little conversation about my teeth.

Queen of Carrots

Why "Christmas Dinner" fell off the list of preparations that year, I'll never know. Certainly it had always taken a backseat to the extravagant Christmas breakfast, to the hours-long orgy of gift opening, and really served as nothing more than metabolic balance for the dozens of varieties of Christmas cookies. Still, forgetting it almost entirely was an unpardonable offense.

The plan was to make a simple baked potato bar. But when my sister and I crept out to spread it out--while the rest of the family remained buried under mounds of wrapping paper--it looked downright paltry. No salads, scarcely any meat. What were we thinking?

We scuttered around trying to fill in the gaps on the table. What did we usually have? One of us brightly remembered a pink salad thing that Grandma usually made. Perhaps we could whip it up quickly. I was dispatched to casually find out her recipe.

Perched among the mountains like a guru, Grandma gladly dispensed her culinary wisdom, while I pretended my interest was merely archival. Pineapple, yes, eggs, yes, good so far. Half-pint of cream. Did we have cream? Cook for five minutes and cool for *several hours*?

Never mind. I wrapped up the interview quickly and beat a hasty path to the kitchen, searching for some swifter filler for our bare table.


Why was I such a lousy cook? An otherwise bright child, full of enthusiasm, the proper respect but not a soupcon of culinary talent. And from such a family of cooks! One grandfather was an officer's cook for the Navy, the other grandfather hunted and roasted over open campfires. Please, don't even mention the women - from black eyed peas and corned bread to homemade foie gras, these women are doing it and doing it beautifully. Why was I the odd duck?
Look, I was born knowing how to read and I can follow directions with the best of them. I know for a fact that my grandmothers and my mom had plenty of secrets that were NEVER included in their written recipes. Oh, sure, all the ingredients were listed but nothing about "feeling" the right consistency of cake batter. Not a word about "eyeballing" the spaghetti sauce and mystically knowing what's missing. A cup of this, a tsp. of that,sift, stir and bake, doesn't BEGIN to teach you how to be a cook. Much the same as "heel-toe, heel-toe" doesn't make you a dancer! Trust me, I can't dance either!
The essence of both, cooking and dancing, lie within that mysterious "feeling". I had "ideas" about food but it took years to develop any sort of "feeling". I became a family legend (joke?) when I burnt Kool Aid. Really. See, I had this "idea" that the flavors would blend better with the sugar if they were melted together before you added the cold water. Great, except I had no "feel" for how quickly sugar burns and how impossible it would be to get that red mess out of the bottom of my mom's sauce pan!
My mother's most cherished recipe, and probably one of the simplist, was her dinner rolls. Pure ambrosia, they were. Light as angel's wings yet rich with flavor. They were coveted, bargained for, fought over pieces of manna. Sugar, flour, yeast, eggs, butter, water, milk - in her hands became a reason to love life. In mine, hockey pucks. Oh, I tried, believe me, I tried. And crying was about the only "feeling" I could come up with! Apparently, it all comes down to the kneading and the rising. You have to massage the dough, commune with the dough, and above all - LISTEN to the dough. Never learned to speak that particular patois, so I moved on to "eyeballing" spaghetti sauce.

I'm a much better cook now. Maybe it has to do with being a bit more seasoned myself, having a tad more of a "feel" for life itself. My mother died a few years ago and not one single cook in my family was ever able to make bread like her. A couple of nights ago, my son was sorting through his things and he came quietly into my bedroom and slipped something into the book I was reading. It was an index card with my mother's bread recipe written out, in her own hand. To hold that card, to touch that ink, the words that she herself had written! I was connected to her again. It was like being able to hold her hand, one more time. I was overcome with "feeling"..
too bad I didn't have any yeast in the house. That would have been a helluva batch of rolls.


Okay, here are some brief comments for each of you. First, thank you all for diving right in!
MJ--I love this: "what if she couldn't read the marriage recipe any more than the one for chocolate cake" The blood on the recipe box lid is ominous (I was a little confused but figured it out!), as is that absolute absence of the husband, except her desire to please him--I am VERY curious about this relationship and what happens next! Fabulous!
KIM love, love the list that starts this--the photos, books, and teeth. Teeth! And then on to the raspberry bars (y'all are making me hungry here). Food--texture, taste, such a powerful center of memory for us. I felt a very strong sense of loss, even in such a brief piece. KUDOS!!! And thanks for joining in!
QUEEN OF CARROTS (is there any more perfect nom de web for this exercise?) Grandma and her pink salad thing are highly memorable--if you keep writing this piece, I can't wait to hear the DIALOGUE between these women. What good could possibly come of pineapple, eggs, ice cream, and cream--YOW! You have a way with ingredients!
Oh, write about odd ducks, please. We love odd ducks. We wonder about them and focus on them and pay attention. Great way to open a piece, too--a sense of something different, something vaguely urgent about learning to "eyeball spaghetti sauce"! I almost didn't want to hear about her being a better cook now--I was so enjoying the details of lost in cooking. Great job!
Can't wait to read what else you have to share, writers!!

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