Recipe for Disaster
Nothing says welcome home like the scent of freshly baked goods from the oven. This familiar recipe is Quik ‘n’ E-Z, too: no kneading needed. For hearty appetites, double the ingredients.
1 impressionable college student, female, preferably attractive
1 middle-aged married professor of English literature, male
3 months of winter, blizzards included
1 semester of British poetry, ideally early 19th century
1 middle-aged married librarian, female, spouse of professor (above)
2 high-school students (1 male, 1 female), offspring of couple (above)
Combine first four ingredients in two-hour seminars, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons. Blend well until smooth. If mixture seems dry, add more Byron. Let rise in warm area overnight. Mince librarian. Punch down and stir mince into mixture. Add handful of shredded high-school students. Let rise again and punch down. Form into loaf and bake in hot oven until browned. Cool completely before cutting. Serves no one.
Auntie Lauretta’s Gossip Recipes
Auntie Lauretta laced her recipes with gossip, and soon the whole town ate only food prepared under her precise instructions:
3 tablespoons butter, 1 cup milk, ½ teaspoon salt, 2 sequins off the dress Amanda Berton wore to the Dunright Inn the night her husband travelled to Welland.
The other Aunties scrambled to regain our interest in their recipes. Auntie Balut tried cramming her recipes with jokes, unaware the bulk of the town’s kitchen work was undertaken by weary, exhausted folks who’d just finished a twelve-hour day and had no patience for her stories about French-Canadian trappers or talking dogs. Anyway, her jokes were terrible. No surprise, considering she copied them off the lids of disinterred coffins. Grave-robbers are notorious for their bad sense of humour. We stuck with Auntie Lauretta.
¼ cup minced onions, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 ¼ pounds ground beef, a drop of water from the church cistern, which Father Pierre no longer bothers to bless, not because of a crisis of faith, but pure, repulsive laziness.
Auntie Marjane filled her recipes with sex stories. Erotic imaginings, guides to exquisite new positions… The Aunties published their recipes by tacking them to the Tentacle Tree (so named because of its twisted branches that resembled an octopus). Auntie Marjane rushed to publish her latest sex-filled recipe, running with her thighs clamped together, soaking wet. “In six months this whole town will be flooded in either pregnancy or a VD epidemic,” she pledged.
Six months time saw neither. Auntie Marjane’s recipes were only good for teenage boys, who snatched them off the Tentacle Tree to read in the company of a greased knothole or docile goat. We stuck with Auntie Lauretta.
1 tablespoon butter, 4 tablespoons green pepper, a pinch of dirt from Marm Hailey’s garden, where she buried the jewelry stolen between her mother’s last breath and the arrival of her sisters.
Eventually, the rest of the Aunties stepped aside, leaving Auntie Lauretta as the sole writer of recipes in the Pelham Region.
“Let me prepare tonight’s meal,” my husband said. Though he’d scrubbed twice, his hands remained black from the mine dust. When miners passed away, the undertaker insisted on burying them in flesh-coloured gloves to keep their hands from staining the linen lining of their caskets.
I had Auntie Lauretta’s newest recipe, snatched fresh off the tree. Still, my husband insisted.
“Would it kill us to miss one night of gossip?”
He cooked as his grandfather had, in the days before the Aunties wrote their recipes. He built a spit from sticks and made a fire in the yard. We took turns sprinkling salt and sage over his freshly butchered meat. The meal tasted delicious. We lay back together, and I kissed the grease from his cheeks and chin.
“We should do this again,” he said.
That I didn’t readily agree led to an argument. A nasty one. My husband had long been simmering unflattering opinions of the Aunties, and he unleashed them all at the top of his voice. I hoped no one was listening.
After he sequestered himself in the bedroom, I took Auntie Lauretta’s recipe from my pocket and read by the light of our cooking fire.
1 pound beef liver, 1 chopped onion, 1 bay leaf from Patrick Major’s bush, which he hides behind to stare onto his neighbour’s porch, waiting for their youngest daughter to come out unattended.
Despite my husband’s anger, I maintained fidelity to Auntie Lauretta’s meals, not because of morbid attraction to her gossip, but to make sure our names never found their way into one of her recipes.
Seems we weren’t the only household to enjoy an original meal. Deep below the earth, in the belly of the mine where the Aunties could not hear, the men and women put down their pickaxes and conspired to cook their own recipes.
“One day a week,” they agreed, “Just to show her we aren’t dependant on her gossip.”
When we next roasted fresh meat and vegetables, neighbours ambled over, drawn by the delicious aroma smoking into the sky.
“That smells remarkable.”
“Please,” my husband urged. “Join us.”
At the meal’s end, I placed Auntie Lauretta’s freshest recipe into the fire, unread, where it burned faster than cigarette paper. I couldn’t fall asleep, my mind churning, imagining what hideous gossip might have been contained:
1 tablespoon butter, 2 beaten eggs, 1 pinch of mine dust from your husband’s hand, the left one, which roams over Marjorie Collins while they plot against me in the darkest parts of the mine.
Offended by so many of her recipes left behind on the Tentacle Tree, Auntie Lauretta adjusted the embedded gossip. Now, they seemed more like prophecy.
This easy to prepare dish works perfect as either picnic fare or something for the funeral after a pressure rupture splits Mavis Richler’s whore face wide open.
My husband reads the recipe as I crack eggs into a skillet. The neighbours no longer come over when we cook dinner—they’re too busy doing their own original cooking.
“It’s not prophecy,” my husband says. “Only a weak attempt at a threat.”
He doesn’t think so next week, when the minors return to the surface early. My husband is one of the four cradling Mavis Richler’s lifeless, bloody body. At the funeral, she is buried without gloves, because her head stains the linen lining so badly the casket has to be closed.
Chains covered in mine dust are wrapped around the Tentacle Tree. Horses, men, women, even children plucked from the school house pull until the roots rip from the ground. The violent tearing of the earth sounds like I’m listening to my own scalping. We drag the trunk down the escarpment and set it on fire. The Tentacle Tree blazes all night, and fuels our celebration. We cook over the tree, each of us sharing food, pushing extra mouthfuls between one another’s lips. The pungent smoke from the Tentacle Tree makes my mind feel as though it is flying outside my body. The introduction of spirits does nothing to slow the festivities. Soon we are disrobing, and writhing serpentine across the ground, caring not the age or sex or family relation of whom we draw into our lusty embrace. Only when the trunk smoulders during the break of dawn do we go still, all our appetites finally satiated.
After the bacchanal, there are no more recipes from Auntie Lauretta. Why should she bother? There is no gossip she can share that will be worse than what we all participated in around the blazing Tentacle Tree.
In the harsh morning light, while we scrambled to pick our clothes from the ground, we were astonished by the number of bones lying in the dirt. I try to remember exactly what we ate that night, but can recall only that it was tasty and I kept calling for more. Our numbers have been whittled down; there are far less of us now.
I don’t make fires anymore, preferring my vegetables raw. The animals I set free. I won’t eat meat. Not after that night. I’ve eaten my fill. Too much, too fast.
Our neighbours try to forget, carrying on like before, working in the mine and hanging their laundry. They even dig up Auntie Balut’s old recipes, but the jokes never make them laugh.
At night, I write my own recipes. They will surely come in handy for the one swelling my belly. During the years of our marriage, my husband’s seeds never took, and he was ashamed to think he had a broken stem inside himself somewhere. At least he’s been spared this cruelty, for he’s counted among the many who never returned from the Tentacle Tree, the meat sucked from his bones. I wonder, did I taste him?
I smell smoke from the neighbours. They only cook after midnight, not wanting to be seen. I close the window and climb into bed to resume my writing.
Line the bottom of the pan with half a sliced eggplant, layer in 2 cups of chopped mushrooms, 1 cup chopped zucchini, three crushed tomatoes, cover with remainder of sliced eggplant.
No gossip. No prophecy. Not even painful history. Just how to prepare food, and the implied blessing of your enjoyment.
My friend who was an uncle to me gave me the recipe forty years back. He thought he’d given it to his anorexic daughter. I had to pull it from my recipe box and show him. But he gave me the recipe he recorded from his grandmother—father’s mother, not the side of his poisonous mother, but of his gentle and feckless father. He transcribed it in his own Labanotation, he charted her moves and Russian-inflected words, he observed. She was the star; he was her biggest fan.
A recipe for people who can’t get it right: Use all the flour. Keep the dough moist. Heat half the milk to boiling, stir in the cold half. Mix thoroughly. Don’t touch with your hands! Let it rest. Work fast! A ridiculously rich dough. Full of oil and sugar, butter and eggs, a pint of milk and two pounds of flour to hold it all together. Putterküchen. A preposterously tender dough. Must have used a winter’s worth of butter. That’s what the name means, isn’t it? I asked. Not ‘butter,’ ‘putter,’ he replied sternly. But what else could putter have been? And what a silly contradictory dough, raised but not kneaded, each folded circle getting a good quarter-cup of cinnamon sugar not quite contained by the intricate folds. Another three cups of sugar, one-third cup of cinnamon, just enough water to turn the mix into wet sand, spilling from the slack dough. Extravagant to use so much when you know it will go to waste. And that baking pan was a horror to clean. I had no non-stick, too expensive. All my pans were hand-me-downs. I must have soaked that one for a week.
She was a witch. Not one who ate children who approached her butter-cake house, but one who foretold the future. Knew without trying, spoke without knowing. Don’t marry this girl, you’ll both regret it. What did that marriage last, three months? What else did she know? Didn’t matter. It was the word of the bubbe, hallowed be her name, sanctified be her acts. She was a Jewish grandmother. Was she proud of him, or did she want to sit on his pride? He wrote down every word, admonitions and all.
She was very fat—at least 400 pounds. I try to imagine this. I fail. But firm. She modeled corsets for catalogs. My grandfather was crazy about her. Now I see her, a butter mountain, spilling out of the corset the way the cinnamon sugar spilled out of those fussy pastries. Like him I made the recipe just once.
A Moveable Hunger
The Girl Who Fought a Wolf for a Cheeseburger
My grandfather told us this story when we were too young to understand.
Once there was a cheeseburger which sat in a white paper bag atop an aging picnic table in a preserve complete with trees and hiking trails surrounded by subdivisions about a crow’s flight from the Hudson River. The cheeseburger was neither happy nor unhappy–it was a cheeseburger, it waited to be consumed.
But whose cheeseburger was it? someone asked and Grandfather smiled, showing all his teeth, and stage-whispered, Whoever wanted it most.
Taking a shortcut to their grandparents’ house along one of those winding trails in the nearby forest that had yet to be stripped by the Brothers Troll to make way for new subdivisions were two cousins: one boy, one girl. They had names, but were most usually called Python and Badger by their relatives. Badger was three inches taller and had been an avid crawler as a babe. By thirteen, her hair was still naturally striped, but none ever considered calling her Zebra. Python was wider, his sleeves snagging on branches hedging the narrow deer-tramped path. He’d shed his namesake’s belly bump on his last growth spurt and kept an aquarium of fancy mice as pets–he did not eat them; they were for entertainment only: Python was no more actual snake than Badger was a caniform.
Also in the woods was a wolf.
We all wanted to be the wolf. But someone must be Python. Someone must be Badger.
The wolf did not have an aquarium filled with rodents. Had he, he would’ve gobbled them up. He was a lean wolf, a wandering wolf, a sneaky, shadowy, on-his-own and sometimes mean wolf. He was not a cheeseburger-eating wolf. He preferred his meat raw, bloody, just-chased and seasoned with adrenaline; grilled cow bits were not a delicacy he craved. But the coyotes were many and he was one and his last rabbit so long ago. He was tired of crunching on berries and leaves. They filled his belly but left him wanting. Foraging was not the same as hunting, not to a packless wolf.
He was resting under a felled tree, bellied down in the cool and leafy dirt, when came his way a teasing scent, an unfamiliar scent, a food-like scent. To the wolf, the cheeseburger smelled of hunt (also death, but mostly hunt).
A wolf may be shy, but he is a curious sort. So he followed his nose to the clearing with the wooden table and watched the scented bag from the brush. A smart wolf–one that had lived as long as he–knew not to lope paw first into unclaimed territory before checking for traps.
Don’t be fooled–every story is a trap. Just as every hunger is a hunt. Every meal, a clicking clock.
Badger and Python were late for lunch at their grandparents’ house. Python had stopped to climb a tree and Badger waited on the ground in the shade. She piled stones into small castles and announced the passing of minutes. Badger had a trick: she could tell time with her stomach. Her parents were careful to feed her breakfast at seven, lunch at noon, a snack at three and dinner at six. Her pockets were filled each morning with protein bars for just in case; however, Python’s binge while they played tag in the cul-de-sac before their journey had emptied her reserves. She stacked rocks, calculating seconds by the itch in her brain, measuring minutes by the drips of patience leaking out her mouth.
“It’s half past one,” Badger announced and Python told her she couldn’t possible know that. Badger left him in the tree and Python soon climbed down and ran after her, stuffing her castled stones in his jean pockets. He did not like to be left behind.
It was half past one.
We D’Vors, Grandfather told us, are hungry, have always been. Or perhaps, he mused, we simply hunger more.
Darwin said it simpler: Survival of the fittest. But Grandfather was a complex man who prefaced traps with tests.
The trail was longer than Badger remembered, filled with more burrs and stickers than Python recalled. Ahead of them the path branched. The left twist took them to their grandparents’ house. But the right…
Badger stopped at the fork in the trail. She turned her face into the wind, lifted her nose. “Do you smell that?” she asked her cousin as he bumped into her back.
Python sniffed. “Smell what?”
“Meat,” Badger whispered, and hurried off to the right, where they soon came to the clearing with the picnic table and the telltale bag. “Fries, too,” Python said as his stomach forgot the protein bars it’d once held and clamored for lunch. “But it isn’t ours.”
Badger scanned the clearing–not for traps, for witnesses–then boldly stepped forward. It was Python who spotted the wolf; his hunger not yet riding him. Boy cousin grabbed girl cousin’s arm and pointed.
Sometimes I wonder if the meal was Grandfather’s. If he sat, out of sight, with straw-pierced cup and watched with greedy eyes.
There: a cheeseburger sat in a white paper bag alongside a red box of fries and three ketchup packets atop a weathered picnic table in a small clearing circled by trees. To the west crouched a wolf. From the east strode one girl cousin, one boy cousin.
The wolf eyed the cousins, then the bag. The girl squinted at the bag, then the wolf. The boy dreamed of fries, of claws, of naps in a tree. He pulled a handful of stones from his pocket and threw them. “Run!” he yelled, intending he and his cousin to flee to the safety of their grandparents’ home and a waiting lunch. Instead both wolf and girl lunged toward the table. Paws churned, feet flew: they raced for the cheeseburger.
If you’re a blooded D’Vor, sometimes hunger consumes you. And not all meals are food–some are metaphor. Consume or be consumed.
A wolf can run at 35 MPH; a girl at six. The wolf reached the table first. He bounded up, front paws hitting the bench and, propelling his body over the top, snatched up the bag in his teeth.
Badger didn’t need to reach the table first; she just needed to reach the cheeseburger before it was eaten. The wolf’s jump landed him on her side of the clearing. As his paws touched down, she threw herself at his shoulder. She bounced off, a wolf’s weight greater than a girl’s…but not before the wolf stubbed his paw and she grabbed at the dangling bag. The bag tore, leaving the wolf with a mouthful of paper. A handful of fries pelted the clearing like hail. Python scavenged a few: five second rule.
Now Badger was closest to the fallen meal and the wolf’s momentum carried him towards Python before he could circle around. She scooped up the bottom half of the bag and scrambled under the picnic table, wolf snapping at her heels.
He growled at her, swiped a paw between bench and tabletop. Badger growled back.
The wolf wriggled his snout into her wooden cage and nipped at the bag. Wolf spit landed on her cheek. They played tug of war for two moments before the paper split. The cheeseburger, still in its wrapping and slightly warm, landed on Badger’s knee. Fries littered the ground.
The wolf’s tongue lifted the burger, licked her knee, and Badger punched him in the snout. He backed up, bunched his shoulders, eyes locked on hers and–
Python yelled. Both wolf and girl were startled. They’d forgotten all about the boy. Rocks pelted the wolf, the table’s top, one even managed to nick Badger’s cheek. She ignored the small pain and dug her fingers into the bun. It was hers.
The wolf glanced at Python, then at the cheeseburger. His lupine eyes met Badger’s and their hungers introduced themselves. Like recognized carnivorous like.
The wolf was hungry; the girl hungrier. Continuing the fight would exhaust both of them. The cheeseburger would get cold.
He cocked his head. She nodded. He returned her nod. They understood each other perfectly.
She took a bite of burger. The wolf sprang eastward–and took a bite of the boy.
What, Grandfather asked at the end of his tale, are you hungry for? And then, he shuffled to the fridge and made us lunch–which we devoured. Waiting had made wolves of us.
But we can’t all be wolves. The hunger won’t let us.
How long, do you think, before we want the same prize, before we race to snag some cheeseburger, hunger snapping at our heels?
Whoever wants it most, Grandfather said. Whosoever’s hungriest, he meant. Time shall tell which one of us is the wolf, which one Badger, and who will be poor bloody Python.
As the brain itches. As the stomach rumbles. As the story goes…
It’s half past time.
How hungry are you, Cousins?
Recipe card images courtesy of sweetlyscrappedart.blogspot.com and callmevictorian.com