Friday, March 14, 2014

Cooking Up Trouble - Part I

By Bettyann Moore

Porpoise McAllister was the only boy at Dailyville High who elected to take cooking class instead of auto mechanics in his junior year.

“Always knew you were a freak, McAllister,” Troy Jones, the captain of the football team scoffed.

“Gonna make tiny cakes for tea parties?” a kid in chemistry teased, miming sipping tea with his pinkie in the air.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Porpoise always answered with a mysterious smile.

The fact of the matter was that there wasn’t much more for Porpoise to learn about vehicle maintenance. He’d been taking apart cars, tractors, mowers and combines on the family farm since he was big enough to hold a wrench – and putting them back together again. When he wasn’t working on the farm, he was working on the things that kept the farm working. The thought of spending part of his time at school doing the same held no thrall. Cooking, though, that was different.

It was nothing short of magic to the boy when his mother or his grandmother created hearty farm meals day after day. A little bit of flour and some of this and that – voila! – a tall birthday cake for a growing boy. A hen that had been clucking in his grandmother McAllister’s chicken coop at breakfast was transformed into delectable fried chicken by lunch. The McAllister women were conjurers of a high order. Porpoise wanted to be one, too.

“You got no business in a class like that!” Grandpa McAllister roared. “Brian,” he said, turning to his son, “you gonna let this happen?”

At one point in his son’s life, Porpoise’s dad would have railed just as long and loudly as his father, but he’d learned a thing or two since then. It was, he knew now, important for the boy to figure out who and what he was on his own – and have his family’s support while he did it.

“It’s all right, Pop,” Brian said, passing the mashed potatoes around his mother’s dinner table. “Porpoise has his reasons, don’t you, boy?” He winked at his son.

“What possible reason ...” John McAllister stopped and considered. “Oh!” he said, his face lighting up. “Girls! Lots of girls in them classes I bet!”

“All girls and Porpoise,” Thea, Porpoise’s mother said, bringing more beets to the table. Margaret, his grandmother, followed close behind carrying a pitcher of fresh milk.

“Well, I’ll be danged,” Grandpa McAllister said, nodding thoughtfully. “If that don’t beat all.”

Porpoise kept his head down and kept shoveling his grandmother’s good food into his mouth. He couldn’t wait to get to the apple pie, his favorite. Let them think what they want to think.

“I don’t know,” Margaret said, settling back into her chair. “What do you know about cooking?” she asked, turning to her grandson.
“Numuh,” Porpoise replied.

“Sweetie, don’t talk with your mouthful,” his mother scolded. “What’d you say?”

Porpoise took a long drink of milk to wash down the potatoes. “I said ‘not much’, but that’s what class is for.”

“I suppose … who teaches the class anyway,” his grandmother asked.

“Mrs. Hoyt,” Porpoise said, taking another helping of roast beef.

“Oh, lands, not Elna Hoyt!” Margaret cried, her hand on her heart. “That woman couldn’t cook her way out of a paper bag, I swear! Do you remember that ghastly casserole she entered in the county fair that year?” she asked, turning to her daughter-in-law.

“It was … a bit unusual,” Thea, ever the diplomat, replied.

“Unusual! It tasted like soap and shoe leather!” Margaret harrumphed.

“The class will be doing the cooking, Gram,” Porpoise said, “not Mrs. Hoyt.”

“But she’ll be teaching you all wrong!”

“Now, Margaret,” her husband cautioned. “That’s not a very Christian thing to say.”

Margaret reddened. She always knew her husband was a little sweet on Elna Hoyt. Still, she could be a little kinder.

“Well, dear,” she said, patting Porpoise’s hand, “If you need any help, you know who to come to.”

“Yep,” Porpoise said, smiling, “Ma.”

“Oh, you scamp!” Margaret said, swatting the boy’s arm. “Of course your mother’s a wonderful cook,” she added hurriedly. “After she married your father, I taught her everything I know.”

Thea rolled her eyes. “Not everything, Mother,” she said. “A robber with a loaded gun to your head couldn’t get half of your ‘secret recipes’ out of you.”

“Seriously, Gram, you have secret recipes?”

Margaret patted her already neat hair into place. “Just a few,” she said, “handed down from my mother’s mother’s mother.”

Thea rolled her eyes again. “A few?” She started ticking them off on her fingers. “Your steak marinade, your chicken and dumplings, your chocolate sheet cake, your beef stew, your apple pie ...”

“Speaking of pie,” Margaret said, eager to change the subject, “who wants pie?”

Maggie McAllister, known to follow behind her husband with a wet mop when he came in from the barn, and who dusted and vacuumed every single day, even when her hip joints were screaming in pain, found cleanliness next to godliness. It wasn’t a matter of pride, it was just something one did. When it came to cooking, though, Maggie was proud, a bit secretive and, at times, downright boastful. If her pies won the blue ribbon at the county fair every year for 30 years running, it was as it should be, she felt. If Father Dolan begged her to head up the annual church potluck each year – featuring her fried chicken – well, the man was God’s instrument on earth, was he not? Who would know better?

Maggie wouldn’t know a persimmon from a pomegranet or a shitake from a portobella, but she didn’t need to; they didn’t fit into her style of cooking. There was nothing, she felt, that anyone could teach her about food. And up until then, no one had challenged her on that.

The cooking class was at the end of the day, which was perfect as far as Porpoise was concerned because that’s when he was always the hungriest. On the first day of class he shuffled into the room and took a chair at one of the tables in the back. There were two tables for four students who would share a “kitchen” with cupboards, counter, stove, fridge and sink. The room could accommodate 20 students. The girls who were in the room had already paired up; Porpoise sat alone.

“Hey, Porpoise,” one of the girls said, elbowing her partner, “you take a wrong turn at the Ag room or something?”

Porpoise made a mock-confused face and looked wildly around. “This is Animal Husbandry 101, isn’t it?” he shot back. The girls laughed, but not unkindly.

Mrs. Hoyt, dressed in a uniformly gray skirt, twin-set and pearls, came in then and eyed the boy sitting in the back of the room. “Young man,” she said, “this is Foods Class ...”

“Yes, thank you,” Porpoise said, settling back into his chair.

The woman scanned her class list. There he was: Gerald McAllister. I knew I should have taken early retirement, she thought. She stowed her purse in a cupboard and started pulling out various utensils, pots and pans. The bell rang as she put the last of the items on the counter in front of her; Mrs. Hoyt didn’t use a desk and she never sat down during class.

“Welcome, class,” she said, then stopped as a colorful blur burst into the room and scurried to the last chair, the one next to Porpoise. Mrs. Hoyt gave the new arrival her best evil eye.

“Tardiness,” she said loudly enough for all to hear, “is not tolerated in this class. Miss, uh ...”

All eyes turned toward the platinum blond who had arrived in a cloud of White Diamonds perfume who was now searching for a place to put her numerous books. She stopped when she realized that everyone was looking at her.

“Who, me?” she said. “April, April Showers.” She scanned the room with hard eyes, daring anyone to laugh. No one did. “I’m new. From SoCal.”

As if she needed to add that, Elna Hoyt thought. The creature was dressed in a long, brightly patterned peasant skirt, topped by an embroidered gauzy white blouse that dipped much too provocatively off the shoulder. She seemed to be wearing sandals. Her (obviously dyed) blond hair flowed down her back. It had little braids woven throughout it. In all her years of teaching, Elna had never set eyes on someone like her, outside of Madison, that is. Why, oh why hadn’t she retired? She cleared her throat.

“Yes, well, Miss Showers, I’m sure you won’t be tardy again. I will now take roll.”

“Whoa, what’s up with the stiff?” April whispered close to Porpoise’s ear. He nearly swooned from her perfume and her nearness.

“I think she’s been teaching since the Pleistocene Era,” he whispered back, careful not to let Mrs. Hoyt catch him.

April hooted, drawing a long, silencing look from Mrs. Hoyt.

“Gerald McAllister?”

“Here!” Porpoise piped up, then mumbled, “As if you didn’t know.”

“Wow,” April said, looking around. “You’re, like, the only boy in here, Gerald.”

“Everyone calls me Porpoise.”

“Porpoise? Like the fish? Crazy.”

“They’re mammals, actually, April Showers,” Porpoise said pointedly.

April gave him a look, then smiled. “I think it’s cool that you want to cook, Porpoise,” she said. “Any guy I hook up with better know how to cook because I like to eat!”

Porpoise blushed crimson. Did she really just say hook up? he wondered. He thought maybe he was falling in love.

The weeks went by and even though Porpoise looked forward to seeing April in class, he was less happy about the class itself. Two weeks in and they still hadn’t learned to cook anything more than rice. The rest of the time was spent on learning kitchen equipment names and uses, cooking terms like rolling boil and saute, how to sharpen knives, how to set a table and lots and lots of stuff about cleanliness and safety.

More than ever before, Porpoise wanted to learn how to cook. He fantasized about creating dish after incredible dish … all for April. Her eyes would grow wide with admiration as he set each one before her at a perfectly set dinner table, china and silverware gleaming in candlelight. Appetizer, soup, salad, entree … topped off by a gooey, but sophisticated, dessert.

None of the dishes he served to April in his daydreams had names or form. They were complex, he knew that, sometimes involving the use of a blowtorch (he’d seen that on a TV show once), and certain to dazzle April in prep, presentation and taste.

“Do you want to come over for dinner one night? I’ll cook for you,” Porpoise blurted out one day in class as he and April worked side-by-side at the sink learning proper dish washing techniques.

“Seriously?” April said, her eyes wide. “You would do that?”

It was too late to back down. What the heck was he thinking? “Sure, no problem!” he said, mind racing.

“We haven’t exactly learned anything here,” April reminded him.

Porpoise waved a sudsy hand in the air. “I cook with my mom all the time,” he declared. It was sort of true. She let him chop vegetables once in a while.

“That’s, like, really cool, Porpoise. I’d like that. No one’s ever cooked for me before.” Now it was April’s turn to blush.

Porpoise washed a few more already-clean dishes, his head filled with visions of that perfect meal and April’s perfect response to it.

“So, when?”

“What?” April’s question startled him out of his reverie. “Oh, uh, I’ll have to see what works for my mom and dad … a week from Saturday maybe?” It was Monday. That would give him almost two weeks to plan … and to practice.

“Gram! Gramma!” Porpoise barreled into his grandparents’ house on a mission.

“Whoa!” Margaret cried, nearly getting knocked over by her six foot grandson. “Where’s the fire?”

“Gram, Gram, you have to help,” Porpoise wheezed, out of breath. He waved a sheet of paper in the air, a rudimentary menu he’d come up with. “Food, I need food!”

“Did your mother run out?” his grandmother teased. “Sit yourself down, I’ll get you some food. PB&J? Some leftover pie?”

“No … I mean, yeah, some leftover pie would be good, but that’s not it.” Porpoise took some deep breaths and sat at his familiar place at his grandparents’ table.

Maggie McAllister seldom saw her grandson in such a state. She sliced off a large piece of cherry pie, poured some milk and set it in front of the boy. She had dinner to see to, but her grandson needed her. She took a sliver of pie for herself and settled her bulk into a chair at the table. By the time she lifted her fork, Porpoise was licking his plate clean.

“I swear, you’re the eatingest boy I ever laid eyes on,” Maggie said. “Now what’s all the fuss about?”

Porpoise gulped down the last of his milk and swiped a sleeve across his mouth. Margaret made a “tsking” sound between her teeth.

“There’s this girl, see,” he began, “I want to cook dinner for her.”

Maggie kept her composure. Porpoise had never shown any interest in girls before.

“That’s wonderful, sweetie! I’m sure some of my tried and true recipes will suit nicely ...”

Porpoise waved the sheet of paper again. “Thanks, Gram, but I went through Mom’s Joy of Cooking and something called Mastering the Art of French Cooking and I made a menu,” he said. “It’s just that I need your help to make it all. You’re the best, Gram. You’re like a magician in the kitchen.”

Maggie tried not to show how preturbed she was; the boy did compliment her after all, but what was wrong with her recipes? What was wrong with a good country ham with potatoes? Mastering the Art of French Cooking indeed. Fancy-shmancy falderol.

“Cooking’s not magic, exactly,” she said, “old recipes play an important part ...” She saw the crestfallen look on her grandson’s face and rallied. “But, of course, sweetie, I’ll help any way I can.”

“Great, Gram, thanks! I really want to impress April,” Porpoise said, blushing a little.

“April, that’s a lovely name, dear,” Gram said, “what’s her family name?”

“Showers, April Showers,” Porpoise replied reverently. “They just moved here from California.”

Seeing the look on her grandson’s face, Maggie kept her chuckle in. “I’m sure she’s a lovely girl. Now, let’s see this menu of yours.”

Porpoise handed the sheet to his grandmother, whose eyes went big as saucers when she saw the list.

Appetizer: Jambon Chevre
Soup: Lobster bisque
Salad: Tomato Feta
Entree: Duck Confit with Pommes Frites
Dessert: Creme Brulee

Lobster … tomato … duck. Maggie knew those words, but what the heck, she wondered, is a confit? It sounded like a feminine hygiene product. Or Pomme Frites? Did they rhyme? None of it made any sense to her. Surely Porpoise was pulling her leg. She looked up at his eager face, though, and knew he wasn’t.

“So, you can do it, right, Gram?” he asked. “You can teach me how to make these?”

Maggie’s reputation and pride were at stake. “Um … wow, honey, these look awfully ambitious for your first time ...” The statement was probably correct given that Maggie had no clue what any of them were.

Porpoise’s face fell. “But, Gram, you’re a wizard at this and we have almost two weeks to practice!”

Without admitting that she had no clue how to make any of the dishes, Maggie latched onto anything she could.

“Lobster, though, Porpoise! Do you know how much lobster costs?”

“Gram,” Porpoise reminded her, “I’ve been getting paid for working on the farm since I was six and haven’t spent a penny! I’ll make a shopping list and I’ll go to the store and buy everything we need.”

“I don’t think Thompson’s Market carries lobster ...”

“So, I’ll drive to Madison … Milwaukee, if I have to! I just want it to be perfect.”

How could she say no? She glanced down at the paper. “Let’s start small,” she said. “Sort of ease into it. We can try the salad first … the tomato thing.” She didn’t want to risk saying “feta” – whatever that was – incorrectly.

“Cool, Gram, you’re the best!” Porpoise stood up and gave his grandmother a bear hug. “I better go talk to mom and dad, though, to see if next Saturday is okay, and make my shopping list!”

“You do that and I’ll get my dinner started.” Was it bad of Maggie to wish that his parents would tell him no? “Here,” she said, “give me the menu and I’ll copy it down. I don’t want to forget!”

Fairly certain she wouldn’t find any of the recipes in her collection of spiral-bound church and county fair cookbooks, Maggie headed to her husband’s computer. He used it to keep track of soybean prices, to send email and play some sort of alien blaster game. Although she knew how to turn it on and get to the Google, Margaret McAllister wasn’t one to waste her precious time on such machines. She needed it today, though.

First she typed in “feta” and found out that it was a cheese. Cheese she could handle. Why didn’t they just say that? It was crumbly and aged, probably a lot like blue cheese, she thought. Then she typed in “Tomato Feta Salad.”

“Oh my lands!” she cried. “There’s thousands of recipes!” She scanned the first page and clicked on the one that said “easy”. Wonderful, she was familiar with all of the ingredients, except the feta. Porpoise could take care of that. It looked simple and claimed to only take 20 minutes to make. Doable, definitely doable.

She moved onto the bisque. In her mind she pronounced it “bis-kay,” which made her think it was some sort of biscuit (her biscuits were famouse hereabouts), but it didn’t make sense given that it was listed as a soup. While Maggie never cottoned to taking short cuts in her cooking, or anything for that matter, once again she clicked on “easy,” though totally amazed at the sheer number of recipes available.

She gave it a read-through, it sounded quite good, actually, but she stopped at the word “deglaze.” They needed to “deglaze” the pan with white wine. What? Make it so it doesn’t shine? She opened another window and typed that in. “Oh for pity’s sake,” she said to the screen … “pour some cold liquid into a very hot pan to get up all the brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan” … she did that all the time when she made gravy. Another fancy word for something simple. Maggie was starting to feel confident, then she moved on to Jambon Chevre.

“Why, it’s just ham pinwheels!” Maggie cried when she saw the recipe. Even with goat cheese, she figured they could handle that.

Now the Duck Confit, pronounced in her mind, of course, as “con-fit.”

Maggie’s heart sank. First of all, it was pronounced “con-fee” – just thinking that made her feel foreign. But the worst part was the total prep time – 11 hours. Eleven hours? For duck? She read on. Plus overnight in the fridge? Basically, if she understood what she was reading, it was all about cooking duck in its own fat, for a very long time. Any leftover fat could be used to make Pommes Frites … that was another thing on the list. “Oh, great,” she said after looking that up, “it’s just French fries.”

On to the crème brulee. Again it was nothing more than a fancy pudding, except they had to use a propane torch, for crying out loud. Maggie knew her husband had one in the barn somewhere; she hoped it would do. Maggie wasn’t feeling very friendly toward the French at that point. She hoped this April was worth all the fuss and bother.

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