When I married I thought cooking was following from memory how Mother prepared her food. She was a dynamo in the kitchen, and my sister and I stayed out of her way. She never offered to give us lessons, nor did we show interest in learning. Many years later she told me she never wanted to force my sister and me into the job. She began at age four when she could reach the top of the old wood stove while standing on a stool. Cooking was a chore to her. Cooking became my chore also. In my marriage I had two unfortunate cooking incidents I’ll never forget.
When I was growing up, my favorite meal was fried chicken, rice and gravy, and English peas. Mother knew how to crust the chicken pieces just right and keep juices inside for tenderness. This was my choice first meal in the aging barracks apartment at Ole Miss in June,1954.
Frying chicken was a cinch, I told myself. Countless times I’d watched mother as she wiped each piece with a wet paper towel, dredged the pieces through flour filled with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, plopped them into hot grease in an iron skillet. Turn the pieces over in, um, a minute or so. No sweat. Rice, no trouble, if by directions; peas, a double cinch; rolls, a kid could do in her play oven.
As the chicken crackled in the grease, I stirred one cup of rice into two cups of hot water, opened the canned English peas and poured them into a boiler set on low heat. I remembered to turn over the chicken pieces before I opened canned rolls. Then I laid them in straight rows on the baking sheet, slid the sheet into a 375 degree oven. I was satisfied with a prep job well done.
For a silent few minutes a vision of my dear mother came to mind:
She’ stands in the kitchen, one of her pretty aprons tied around her waist, perspiration dribbling down her face and arms. The room swells with fragrances from the sweet muffins inside the oven as unexpected visitors roll up the driveway. She can stir up a muffin batter and push the full muffin pan into the oven in quick time. When the guests walk inside the door, they say with glee, “I smell muffins. Ann, did you bake these for us?”
I set out mint-colored paper napkins to match our pottery splashed in greens, browns and yellows. What a nice table, I beamed, as I surveyed my handiwork. This was my main job growing up. I smiled remembering my Home Economics teacher praising my “table dressing.” For the few events we had my senior year, I was in charge of preparing the tables.
A strong aroma of fried-ness meandered from the kitchen into the living room and curled into the bedroom. I slapped my hand above and around the old stove for any resemblance of a vent hood. Didn’t all kitchens have them? I failed to think that the veterans’ apartments were built right after WWII. I visualized R's entrance into class that afternoon smelling like he’d pulled duty in a restaurant’s kitchen.
I rushed to open the four windows in the upstairs apartment, turned off the heat under the chicken, and lifted each piece carefully from the skillet to a paper towel and onto a warm plate. To make the gravy I poured water into the pan and stirred it into the fried residue and grease remaining. As I poured the peas into another pottery bowl, I noticed how pretty the green brought out the bowl’s mult-colors.
I turned off the heat under the boiling rice. Ah, the rolls. I stooped and pulled out twelve burned balls from the dark oven. Well, the insides should be okay, I told myself with no feeling that I had an F in baking yet. Everything’s ready. Nope, the rice. Without checking it for done-ness (I didn’t remember Mother doing so) I drained the rice into a sieve, ran cold water over it and poured the glob into a pretty, matching bowl.
We sat down to eat our first meal since our marriage two days ago. We’d moved to Oxford in a hurry so Richard could meet his first summer class. At noon he rushed up the old wooden stairs and greeted me with, “I could eat a dinosaur.” Well, wait until you bite into my chicken, I thought. I was giddy waiting for his compliments.
One second into the first bite, “Hon, uh, the chicken’s not cooked,” My new husband said, “ See the pink inside?” He waved a leg in the air. “We’ll get food poisoning.”
So what if the insides of the chicken were pink? The meat’s sure to taste delicious, I thought. I took a deep breath and five seconds later I said with feigned cheer, “I’lll reheat the skillet and give the chick a few more minutes.” I raked our pieces back onto the serving plate. Had I ever noticed to the color of cooked chicken before?
“Uh, have you tasted the rice? It’s clumpy. Why is this different?” Tears burst into rivulets down my face. Already I was a failure. Couldn’t he eat and lie by declaring this was a delicious meal? I fled to the bedroom and flung myself on the bed in complete frustration. Where was sympathy for this beginner? A hug, or maybe a handkerchief to wipe my tears? At least an apology for hurting my feelings?
After a few minutes I realized my disappearance wouldn’t feed my new husband. With all the bravura I could muster, I returned to the table. Most of the rolls were missing, including the brown crusts, and all but one helping of green peas. I refried the chicken. This time the meat was a bit tough, the skin dry. We ate in silence broken with my occasional sniff, sniff.
I didn’t fry chicken nor cook rice for several years. A review with Mother about my mistakes was on my first-home-return agenda. For the time being, I switched to spaghetti with meat sauce as my special dish.
We moved to the small town of Picayune for a new adventure in 1963. Richard left the Highway Department after he was hired by a new home construction company. My husband thought we’d make a million dollars with this company which would build new houses to accommodate the “thousands of workers” guaranteed to move into town. NASA was building a space center in the area.
My cooking had improved by this time, nine years later, with the choice of canned and frozen items. They were easier and quicker to prepare for consumption. Even today my kids, who now as grown-ups eat organic foods, laugh at what I served from cans in their growing-up years: Spaghetti-O’s, hot tamales, vegetable soup, pork and beans, to name a few.
My mother-in-law was our first visitor to our rented brick home to see her third grandchild, Jane, born two months after we moved. I shook when I thought of her criticizing my every move. However, I determined my time with her would be a success and planned her dinner with us. Previous meals with her had gone well when we lived in Jackson. I’d never had a failure with my spaghetti dish.
Stir the meat seasoned with some salt, garlic powder and dried onions in a hot skillet.
Plop dry spaghetti into boiling water until tender,
Open a can of tomato sauce, add a dollop of Tabasco, and pour into to the sizzling meat. Stir and lower the heat.
Open a package of French bread, slice and roll margarine across the pieces in a baking pan, sprinkle garlic powder,
check the oven is on BROIL.
When spaghetti is tender, run under cold water, pour into a sieve and into a large bowl.
Add meat mixture. Stir and when good and hot, pour over spaghetti sitting in bowls.
Run bread into the oven. Be sure to watch for done-ness.
Elizabeth set the table and filled three glasses with ice and tea. We sat down to warm bowls brimming with Italian/Southern-style aromas. I wiped my face on my napkin with relief. Would I pass muster? Seconds passed; the roar in my ears began.
“Hon, what’s this floating in my sauce?”
“I don’t see anything,” I replied, refusing look at my spaghetti. I steeled my mind to the oncoming disaster.
MIL agreed, ”I see them, too. They’re BUGS!”
I bent my head almost into my bowl and swore in silence I’d not howl if dozens of dead crickets lay among the spaghetti.
“Vivian, we can’t eat this with bugs. I’m throwing our food out.” A heavy silence reigned for a few seconds while silverware scraped against glass bowls.
I resolved to eat my spaghetti, bugs and all. Within a few quiet moments I had a solution. “Rinse the spaghetti and put on more meat and sauce. That should give you enough to eat.” I wasn’t going to leave my hot bowl to satisfy these critics. I felt MIL cringe at my suggestion.
“Don’t worry, Dear" his mother said, I’ll find something to cook for us.” Their dishes rattled in the sink. As MIL ran water over the dirty bowls, I imagined her smiling as she gloated over my failure.
Not to be outdone by these two weaklings, I seethed and thought: What if this was the only food they had while stranded on a mountain side? After a tornado hit our house? We were shivering in the cold as we watched our house burn? I gobbled my spaghetti with grunts of satisfaction, knowing full well if there were bugs they were quite cooked. My guest and her son ate eggs and bacon.
I never learned to cook any better. Over the protests of my husband that they weren't healthy, I switched to TV dinners. No bugs, m'lord, in these meals.