In my dreams I can flip pancakes onto a platter with one hand while zip cracking eggs onto a sizzling griddle with the other. Toast pops into midair and is covered with jam before it hits the plate. Piles of burgers are stacked up high and sigh into their buns. I spin, pivot, staccato two-step and then arc a perfect stream of hot coffee into half a dozen waiting cups. There isn’t even a spot on my clean white apron.
I sometimes think I would cook like this if I could. But I can’t.
So instead I slow down. I pour a glass of wine, I turn up Radio Dismuke. I chop and I knead and I stir to a far more sedate beat. Here it is.
*A handful of Raisinettes melting in one hand and a fistful of Tam Tam Crackers crumbling in the other. The dancing lady and the dancing man statues are poised on the buffet. The big cousins are jumping on the furniture, hiding under the table, they are everywhere all at once but they are still watching out for me. My first treats in the dining room at my grandmother’s house on Northlawn.
*Platters of brisket and corned beef and pastrami, trays of roast chicken, and sliced turkey and beef tongue. Mustard and coleslaw and pickles and rye. One tiny, lukewarm bowl of Birdseye mixed vegetables. My grandfather holds court from his armchair and knocks back a tumbler of buttermilk as he nibbles the core of the iceberg lettuce that was saved just for him. While he’s occupied, my grandmother silently beckons my sisters and me to the kitchen. She gives us Faygo Red Pop to drink right from the bottle. A disliked, discarded creamsicle melting on a plate is instantly replaced by an icy fresh Eskimo Pie. A tin of Mandelbrot is pressed into our hands. A tunnel of elm trees shades the way home. Sunday dinner at Grandma and Poppa’s on Lauder.
*It was the most amazing thing in the world. Drop in a nickel and a small brown container of chocolate milk tumbled into the slot. It worked every time. Except for that one time it didn’t. Somebody turned the dial and a container of white milk came out instead. I couldn’t figure out who would ever want to drink white milk when you could get chocolate. It was the worst. I drank it anyway. I had to. Everyone drank his or her milk because that was the rule at Francis Scott Key Elementary School.
*Three crisp one-dollar bills. Every Saturday afternoon. Tracy and me. Grilled cheese for her and tuna for me sitting at the Kresge’s Lunch counter. We drank Vernors served in paper cones that were nestled in silver holders. You could blow the paper off the straw if no one was looking. Then a walk all by ourselves around Birmingham. We each had 50 cents left to spend. So many choices but we still always chose the same. A tiny bag of pistachios for her. A tiny bag of jellybeans for me. Every single Saturday.
*The lines snaked in and around the Continental Market. In the doors and out again. Such a miniscule little shop. It was right next to the place where they sold clogs. And near the other place they sold scented candles. Olga’s Souvlakis. Hot sliced lamb with yogurt, onion and tomato wrapped in warm, flat bread. It wasn’t spaghetti and it wasn’t chop suey. But it was a miracle secured with a toothpick and placed in a red and white container.
*We were all three belted into the backseat. Which was worse: being stuck in the middle or being stuck in a window seat and having the middle sister fall asleep on you, turning you into the human armrest? But a drive west to Chicago for the weekend meant a box of Frango mints from Marshall Field. A drive north to Toronto it meant a bag of Coffee Crisp candy bars. No complaining.
*We never knew when it might happen. We never knew exactly where we were going. Just “get in the car” please. So we did. The windows would be open; the summer air was warm and sweet. A lucky sister might get the coveted seat between Mom and Dad in the front. We would drive and drive, anywhere and everywhere as the summer sun set into twilight. It didn’t matter where we went because at the end there was always ice cream. Small was three scoops. Medium was six. You can guess the size of the large. I am not making this up. Dad would eat his and then have to lick down my little sister’s cone of something weird like Blue Moon or Bubblegum or Superman. He always made a face as he licked the cone flat for her. But he always did it, every time.
*The plastic bowl was as almost as big at the table. You could guess the seasons just by looking in the bowl. My mother filled it over and over. Masses of cherries and strawberries, mounds of peaches and apples and pears. On summer weekends, when my dad was out grilling hot dogs “that snapped when you bit them,” my mom was inside quietly filling and refilling the big bowl with delicious salads that both crunched and dripped. Smart people at some of each.
*We snuck it in. We had to. Everybody else in our cabin bought normal things like chips and gum and candy bars on that overnight. Not us. We pooled our money and bought a whole salami. Best idea ever and it was yours, Ruth. You kept it hidden under your t-shirts in your corner top bunk. You were in charge of after hours slicing, reverentially doling it out after lights out. I couldn’t really be trusted not to eat the whole thing in one sitting. I still don’t know where you stashed the knife.
*I was so afraid. I moved through the cafeteria line alone. What was everyone else eating? I didn’t care what I ate; I just wanted to eat the right thing. Macaroni and cheese. I hated it. I chose it. The tables in the Kingswood dining hall were round. I was told this was to “invite conviviality”. They actually used the word conviviality. But it was only convivial if there was someone to talk to. I sat down with my plate of macaroni and cheese and looked up. There was.
*Really there was only one way to do it. It didn’t matter the flavor. Look whoever it was right in the eye, grab your knife. Flip the plastic container over and stab the bottom and twist. Squeeze the contents into the bowl. Slide the bowl nonchalantly over the glass. Rules were rules. No one could leave the dining hall with an extra yogurt. You done your job. You done good. As soon as you were done, money in your pocket, you got out of there. As fast as you could made your way to a counter stool at Pizza Bob’s for a chiapati or to a hard backed booth at Drake’s for a grilled cinnamon roll with Russian Caravan Tea. You deserved it.
*Jamie’s brownstone apartment was down the street from Bloomingdales, five spindly flights up to the top floor. The whole building had settled so the floors were uneven, almost buckling. The kitchen was somehow crammed into a closet, shoved in so tightly that the oven door only opened halfway. It didn’t matter. We didn’t cook. Winter Saturdays we ate pizza curled up by the fireplace. Summer Saturdays we ate pizza baking ourselves on the blacktop roof. Always always double cheese.
*Valentine’s Day. A corner table at La Tulipe. Twin Kir Royals. Twin chocolate soufflés. You didn’t propose that night. But I proposed that someday soon you might. You did.
*Mango sorbet pressed into waffles. The room was dark save for the glow of the TV screen. The channel was always turned to Food Network, the quiet rhythms of Sarah Moulton, the Two Hot Tamales, Emeril before the “Bam!” lulling us to sleep. We would lay with piles of pillows and blankets on the floor. Waffles finished, sticky hands were pressed into mine. One in each.
*Chocolate was always his favorite. Of course it was. He always chose it; he always said this was so. Until the day he said that he always loved vanilla too. I had been there all the time and I didn’t know? But I didn’t know. At the movies he bought things like Buncha Crunch or Sour Patch kids. But then one day he bought a box of Raisinettes. My own favorite, Raisinettes? I had never seen him eat them before. But he said he’d always loved them. Didn’t I know?
I did not. But now I do.