Authors: Erica Bauermeister
Tags: #Contemporary Fiction, #Cooking
Not surprisingly, when it came time for Lillian to learn to read, she balked. It was not only an act of defiance, although by the time kindergarten started, Lillian was already feeling toward books private surges of aggression that left her both confused and slightly powerful. But it wasn’t just that. In Lillian’s world, books were covers and words were sound and movement, not form. She could not equate the rhythms that had insinuated themselves into her imagination with what she saw on the paper. The letters lay prone across the page, arranged in unyielding precision. There was no magic on the page itself, Lillian saw; and while this increased Lillian’s estimation of her mother’s abilities, it did nothing to further her interest in books.
It Was during Lillian’s first skirmishes with the printed word that she discovered cooking. In the time since Lillian’s father had left, housework had become for Lillian’s mother a travel destination rarely reached; laundry, a friend one never remembered to call. Lillian picked up these skills by following her friends’ mothers around their homes, while the mothers pretended not to notice, dropping hints about bleach or changing a vacuum bag as if it were just one more game children played. Lillian learned, and soon her home—at least the lower four and a half feet of it—developed a certain domestic routine.
But it was the cooking that occurred in her friends’ homes that fascinated Lillian—the aromas that started calling to her just when she had to go home in the evening. Some smells were sharp, an olfactory clatter of heels across a hardwood floor. Others felt like the warmth in the air at the far end of summer. Lillian watched as the scent of melting cheese brought children languidly from their rooms, saw how garlic made them talkative, jokes expanding into stories of their days. Lillian thought it odd that not all mothers seemed to see it—Sarah’s mother, for instance, always cooked curry when she was fighting with her teenage daughter, its smell rocketing through the house like a challenge. But Lillian soon realized that many people did not comprehend the language of smells that to Lillian was as obvious as a billboard.
Perhaps, Lillian thought, smells were for her what printed words were for others, something alive that grew and changed. Not just the smell of rosemary in the garden, but the scent on her hands after she had picked some for Elizabeth’s mother, the aroma mingling with the heavy smell of chicken fat and garlic in the oven, the after-scent on the couch cushions the next day. The way, ever after, Elizabeth was always part of rosemary for Lillian, how Elizabeth’s round face had crinkled up into laughter when Lillian had pushed the small, spiky branch near her nose.
Lillian liked thinking about smells, the same way she liked the weight of Mary’s mother’s heavy saucepan in her hands, or the way vanilla slipped into the taste of warm milk. She remembered often the time Margaret’s mother had let her help with a white sauce, playing out the memory in her head the way some children try to recover, bit by detail, the moments of a favorite birthday party. Margaret had pouted, because she was, she declared stoutly, never allowed to help in the kitchen, but Lillian had ignored all twinges of loyalty and climbed up on the chair and stood, watching the butter melt across the pan like the farthest reach of a wave sinking into the sand, then the flour, at first a hideous, clumping thing destroying the image until it was stirred and stirred, Margaret’s mother’s hand over Lillian’s on the wooden spoon when she wanted to mash the clumps, moving instead slowly, in circles, gently, until the flour-butter became smooth, smooth, until again the image was changed by the milk, the sauce expanding to contain the liquid and Lillian thought each time that the sauce could hold no more, that the sauce would break into solid and liquid, but it never did. At the last minute, Margaret’s mother raised the cup of milk away from the pot, and Lillian looked at the sauce, an untouched snowfield, its smell the feeling of quiet at the end of an illness, when the world is starting to feel gentle and welcoming once again.
When Lillian reached the age of eight, she began to take over the cooking in her own household. Her mother raised no objections; food had not disappeared along with Lillian’s father, but while it was not impossible to cook while reading, it was problematic, and because of Lillian’s mother’s tendency to mistake one spice for another if a book was unusually absorbing, meals had become less successful, if also occasionally more intriguing. All the same, the transfer of cooking duties from mother to daughter was met with a certain amount of relief on both sides.
The passing of the culinary torch marked the beginning of years of experimentation, made both slower and more unusual by Lillian’s blanket refusal to engage with the printed word, even a cookbook. Learning the ins and outs of scrambled eggs, following such a pedagogical approach, could take a week—one night, plain eggs, stirred gently with a fork; the next, eggs whisked with milk; then water; then cream. If Lillian’s mother objected, she made no note of it as she accompanied Lillian on her quests for ingredients, walking down the aisles reading aloud from the book of the day. Besides, Lillian thought to herself, scrambled eggs five nights in a row seemed a fair exchange for a week otherwise dominated by James Joyce. Maybe she should add chives tonight.
Yes I said yes I will yes.
As Lillian’s skills progressed over the years, she learned other, unexpected culinary lessons. She observed how dough that was pounded made bread that was hard and moods that were equally so. She saw that cookies that were soft and warm satisfied a different human need than those that were crisp and cooled. The more she cooked, the more she began to view spices as carriers of the emotions and memories of the places they were originally from and all those they had traveled through over the years. She discovered that people seemed to react to spices much as they did to other people, relaxing instinctively into some, shivering into a kind of emotional rigor mortis when encountering others. By the time she was twelve, Lillian had begun to believe that a true cook, one who could read people and spices, could anticipate reactions before the first taste, and thus affect the way a meal or an evening would go. It was this realization that led Lillian to her Great Idea.
“I am going to cook her out,” Lillian told Elizabeth as they sat on her friend’s front stoop.
“What?” Eight months older than Lillian, Elizabeth had long ago lost interest in cooking for a more consuming passion for the next-door neighbor, who, even as they spoke, rode and then launched his skateboard dramatically from a ramp set up in front of Elizabeth’s gate.
“My mom. I’m going to cook her out.”
“Lily.” Elizabeth’s face was a mix of scorn and sympathy. “When are you going to give up?”
“She’s not as far gone as you think,” said Lillian. She started to explain what she had been thinking about cookies and spices—until she realized that Elizabeth was unlikely to believe in the power of cooking and even less likely to see its potential to influence Lillian’s mother.
But Lillian believed in food the way some people do religion, and thus she did what many do when faced with a critical moment in their lives. Standing that evening in the kitchen, surrounded by the pots and pans she had collected over the years, she offered up a deal.
“Let me bring her out,” Lillian bargained, “and I’ll cook for the rest of my life. If I can’t, I’ll give up cooking forever.” Then she put her hand on the bottom of the fourteen-inch skillet and swore. And it was only because she was still at the tail end of twelve and largely unversed in traditional religions, that she didn’t realize that most deals offered to a higher power involved sacrifice for a desired result, and thus that her risk was greater than most, as it meant winning, or losing, all.
As WITH MANY such endeavors, the beginning was a disaster. Lillian, energized by hope, charged at her mother with foods designed to knock the books right out of her hands—dishes reeking with spices that barreled straight for the stomach and emotions. For a week the kitchen was redolent with hot red peppers and cilantro. Lillian’s mother ate her meals as she always did—and then retreated into a steady diet of nineteenth-century British novels, in which food rarely held a dramatic role.
And so Lillian drew back, regrouped, and gave her mother food to fit the book of the day. Porridge and tea and scones, boiled carrots and white fish. But after three months, Charles Dickens finally gave way to what appeared to be a determination on her mother’s part to read the entire works of Henry James, and Lillian despaired. Her mother may have changed literary continents, but only in the most general of senses.
“She’s stuck,” she told Elizabeth.
“Lily, it’s never going to work.” Elizabeth stood in front of her mirror. “Just boil her some potatoes and be done with it.”
“Potatoes,” said Lillian.
A FIFTY-POUND SACK of potatoes squatted at the bottom of the steps in Lillian’s basement, ordered by her mother during the
period, when staples had begun appearing at the door in such large quantities that neighbors asked Lillian if she and her mother had plans for guests, or perhaps a bomb shelter. If Lillian had been younger, she might have made a fort of food, but she was busy now. She took her knife and sliced through the burlap strings of the bag, pulling out four oblong potatoes.
“Okay, my pretties,” she said.
She carried them upstairs and washed the dirt from their waxy surfaces, using a brush to clean the dents and pockets. Elizabeth always complained when her mother made her wash the potatoes for dinner, wondering aloud to Lillian and whoever else was near why they couldn’t just make a smooth potato, anyway. But Lillian liked the dips and dents, even if it meant it took more time to wash them. They reminded her of fields before they were cultivated, when every hillock or hole was a home, a scene of a small animal battle or romance.
When the potatoes were clean, she took down her favorite knife from the rack, cut them into quarters, and dropped the chunks one by one into the big blue pot full of water that she had waiting on the stove. They hit the bottom with dull, satisfying thumps, shifting about for a moment until they found their positions, then stilled, rocking only slightly as the water started to bubble.
Her mother walked into the kitchen, the
Collected Works of Henry James
in front of her face.
“Dinner or an experiment?” she asked.
“We’ll see,” replied Lillian.
Outside the windows, the sky was darkening. Already cars were turning on their headlights, as the light filtered gray-blue through the clouds. Inside the kitchen, the hanging lamps shone, their light reflecting off the bits of chrome, sinking quietly into the wooden countertops and floor. Lillian’s mother sat down in a red-painted chair next to the kitchen table, her book open.
Lillian’s mother read aloud,
“the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong. . . .”
Lillian, listening with half an ear, bent down and took out a small pot from the cabinet. She put it on the stove and poured in milk, a third of the way up its straight sides. When she turned the dial on the stove, the flame leaped up to touch the sides of the pan.
“There had been a moment when I believe I recognized, faint and far, the cry of a child; there had been another when I found myself starting as at the passage, before my door, of light footsteps....”
The water in the big blue pot boiled gently, the potatoes shifting about in gentle resignation like passengers on a crowded bus. The kitchen filled with the warmth of evaporated water and the smell of warming milk, while the last light came in pink through the windows. Lillian turned on the light over the stove and checked the potatoes once with the sharp end of her knife. Done. She pulled the pot from the stove and emptied the potatoes into a colander.
“Stop cooking,” she said under her breath, as she ran cold water over their steaming surfaces. “Stop cooking now.”
She shook the last of the water from the potatoes. The skins came off easily, like a shawl sliding off a woman’s shoulders. Lillian dropped one hunk after another into the big metal bowl, then turned on the mixer and watched the chunks change from shapes to texture, mounds to lumpy clouds to cotton. Slices of butter melted in long, shining trails of yellow through the moving swirl of white. She picked up the smaller pan and slowly poured the milk into the potatoes. Then salt. Just enough.
Almost as an afterthought, she went to the refrigerator and pulled out a hard piece of Parmesan cheese. She grated some onto the cutting board, then picked up the feathery bits with her fingers and dropped them in a fine mist into the revolving bowl, where they disappeared into the mixture. She turned off the mixer, then ran her finger across the top and tasted.
“There,” she said. She reached up into the cabinet and took down two pasta bowls, wide and flat, with just enough rim to hold an intricate design of blue and yellow, and placed them on the counter. Using the large wooden spoon, she scooped into the potatoes and dropped a small mountain of white in the exact center of each bowl. At the last minute, she made a small dip in the middle of each mountain, and then carefully put in an extra portion of butter.