Another writing exercise - a piece of memoir as accurate as my memory gets these days. Was it just a cooking lesson? Much more than that.
At the breakfast table, Dad was twirling his orange juice glass and watching my mother wait on me. “It’s about time you learned to cook,” he said, peering at me from under his shaggy eyebrows.
“But Dad—I know how to make toast,” I whined.
“You make nothing,” he said. “A baker made the bread. We bought a loaf, your mother sliced it and you put it in the toaster. That’s what you did. You toasted bread.” He paused and glared at me, “Ten-year-old girls world-wide make bread, sew clothes, sell vegetables and take care of their siblings while you can’t even make your own bed.”
I sulked. He used his family lawyer voice, the one I heard on the phone when there was trouble in his large unruly Irish family. By trouble, I mean when someone needed bailing out or worse when someone died.
Until then, grades were the measuring stick of accomplishment in the family and I earned good grades. My sister and I, pampered and spoiled, were lazy and unskilled in the household arts but that hadn’t mattered until now. Educated in a strict convent school, Mom vowed to raise her own daughters with more love and less discipline than she’d experienced. My father realized she’d swung too far in the opposite direction.
Later, my mother told me Dad was going through a rough spot, forced to defend a veteran who’d molested his own daughter. My father found the man disgusting. “He should be tattooed on the face as a warning,” Dad told my mother. The case disturbed him and in the face of such evil, he’d realized how overprotected and unprepared for life my sister and I were. He decided he was negligent; we should grow up fast and he was beginning with me in the kitchen.
“We’ll make a cake together this afternoon,” he announced. Mother, a fastidious housekeeper cringed. She foresaw a flour storm in her domain, the tidy kitchen. Many years later she confessed they’d come close to separation after Dad retired and took up baking. He kneaded his bread dough while sitting on the living room couch watching game shows on TV. She’d stood with the vacuum at the ready wondering where her skilled, natty husband had gone. Now, she was sharing the house with a curious unshaven old creature, a sloppy amateur baker, enthralled with Monty Hall. It was hell for a while until they agreed on a lifestyle tolerable for both.
Dad brought a Betty Crocker yellow cake mix home. My mom and older sister laughed. “You call that making a cake?”
“You have to begin somewhere,” he said. He dragged a stool into the small pink-tiled kitchen and made me sit at the linoleum counter. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, the best time for fun and games outdoors. On the radio, Johnny Ray was singing Cry, the perfect song for the way I felt. The front yards in our neighborhood stretched for blocks without fences in both directions. Every post-war bungalow housed a kid or two ready to play our massive hide and seeks, rope pulls, ball games. But I was stuck in the kitchen with my father, turned stern teacher. We gazed at the image on the box front of a perfect slice of two-layer yellow cake, the icing between the layers even and glossy, the top decorated with artful swirls of chocolate icing; not a messy crumb in sight. A food stylist, not a home baker, created that memorable cake slice, but we were oblivious to pictorial tricks when he began his lecture.
“This is what we’re working for. It’s vital to have a target in mind before you begin to make anything otherwise you might finish with a Rube Goldberg thing, no matter if it’s a cake or a dress.”
How he decided he was the one who should teach his fidgety, unfocused daughter to bake, I can’t fathom. He displayed little prior interest in domestic matters and left everything about our kitchen to my mother. What an absurd pair we were—Dad, dressed in suit trousers and suspenders; me double wrapped, like a cocoon, in my mother’s apron, so long it hung to my ankles.
“Let’s get everything we need,” he instructed. Everything we needed was a pan, the electric mixer, a measuring cup, water, the Crisco can, vegetable oil and two eggs. My father was a careful planner. He was fifty-three in 1952 and faced a dozen years of law before he retired. Scribbling on the back of an envelope, he’d work on his plan to reach the magical financial goal of a thousand dollars a month. My mother, a saver, squirreled away every penny she could; Dad had luck dabbling in the stock market.
The years sailed by and he retired with his thousand, but giving up his work wasn’t as satisfying as he’d hoped. Thanks to careful preparation, his successors did well; he was shocked he wasn’t missed. “It’s like a hand in a bucket of water. You remove it and the void fills instantly as if it was never there. Try to do something lasting,” he advised me during one of our last visits.
Back in the pink kitchen, we read the cake mix instructions together: Empty the contents of the box into the mixing bowl, add water and two eggs. Beat on medium speed for three minutes, pour into a greased pan and bake in the pre-heated 350° oven for thirty-five minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
My mother, unable to stand the kitchen scene, retreated to our basement where she knit and tuned in the Plouffe Family on her transistor radio. My sister, at the stage in life where my suffering gave her supreme happiness, gloated behind the door of the bedroom we shared. In peace, she could practice posing and admiring herself in the full-length mirror.
I tore at the box in my usual style: Act first. Think later. Dad stopped me and made me follow the dotted lines, cutting with scissors to remove the top. Through the open window, I could hear my friend Earl playing Stretch on the lawn. I wanted to play the game with him.
“Let’s get that pan greased,” Dad instructed. I smeared Crisco in the middle, missing the corners. Dad made me repeat the process, covering every inch, every nook and cranny.
If he hadn’t followed orders carefully during the war, he told me, he wouldn’t have made it home from France. If he’d failed to grease his gun correctly, he wouldn’t have survived.
“What will happen if the corners aren’t greased?” he asked.
“We’ll finish faster and I can go out,” I smirked.
“What will happen if the corners aren’t greased,” he repeated.
I burst into tears of frustration and wondered how many grease stories one man could tell. Sobbing along with Johnny Ray, I said, “I guess the cake will stick.”
“And then what’ll happen?”
“The cake will break apart when you try to get it out.”
Dad smiled. “I rest my case. Is it worth taking the time to grease the corners?” I nodded, forced to answer every one of his questions. On we plodded, yoked together, father and daughter, teacher and reluctant student. He must have been as frustrated as I was. In his zeal to teach me, he’d forgotten I was a child.
Of course, I didn't measure the water correctly. He made me get it right. We bent down to see the level in the measuring cup. It would be right once the bottom of the meniscus lined up with the one-cup mark. While in the army in England, waiting to turn eighteen, he worked as a pharmacist’s assistant measuring out doses of cough syrup. He gained a measuring skill and a small pharmaceutical vocabulary. A word maven, he retained the specialized terms in his working vocabulary and they became ours too. For fun, we tossed around jewels like aliquot, ampule, deciliter, sublingual, formulary, and cathartic.
“Hand me an aliquot of butter, will you?” Dad asked my sister.
“Oui oui,” my sister replied. “How about a deciliter of milk with that?”
During the cake making, after getting the correct water quantity, he asked if the water should be hot or cold? Now he asks me?
“It doesn’t say,” I cried. “How should I know?”
“Use your head,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I guess—cold. It’s supposed to be easy,” I said blubbering.
All instructions, he declared, no matter how simple, required study and we should have read them through once before acting, expecting questions like the water temperature.
“Next— the eggs,” he announced as if I’d be thrilled. “We’ll split the job,” Dad winked at me. He cracked one. I did the other and dropped eggshells in the batter, which he had me pluck out with Mom’s tweezers. I could barely see the shells through my tears. He patted my shoulder as if he’d turned back into the old Dad, the pre-teaching Dad.
“Now you’ve made something,” he said.
It was five o’clock. I’d been learning for one hour; crying for another. My sleeves were snotty and my eyes were swollen. We put the cake in the oven. Dad let me remove my apron but he made me responsible for the time. When the timer dinged, and I removed our creation from the oven, my heart sank as low as the cake. An ugly swale ran across the middle, the sides and bottom were too brown and the center was pale. It resembled a cheap copy of our target—the picture on the box. My sister, a budding scientist, opined that my tears diluted the batter. “It even tastes salty,” she quipped after sampling it. “Sublingually,” she added, looking back over her shoulder.
Dad didn’t live long enough to see me apply the important lessons he taught me in the kitchen that day. He’d be amused that I cracked over ten thousand eggs (leaving no shells behind) during my time with a state egg promotion board; that I collaborated with the World’s Fastest Omelet maker—an epic planner—and that I once earned a living formulating generic cake mixes, low-cost copies of those Betty Crocker beauties.