Cooking With Joe and Al
“Hey, let’s make some brownies!” I said brightly.
“No way, not again,” Al recoiled.
“Oh, c’mon, just some brownies...” I pleaded, knowing that Al could be swayed with the slightest provocation. “It’ll be fun.”
“Okay,” she grinned, knowing that it would, of course, be fun. The ‘Joe Style’ of cookery was always fun and adventurous and a little bit dangerous.
This was because as a child I was never allowed to accompany my mother into the kitchen on her cooking excursions and, therefore, had been left to my own devises when home alone and struck with the creative desire to express myself via the edible arts.
“Kindest mother,” I had implored hundreds of times, “why will you not allow your very own loving child to accompany you in the kitchen on your numerous and exciting cooking excursions?”
She would always then turn and look sharply at me, “Maybe because of the biscuit incident or the cookie affair or how about Grit-Gate? Pick one.”
“First of all,” I defended myself yet again, “anyone can mistake flour for shortening. Second of all, if you can’t press cookies through a cookie press, then why do they call it a cookie ‘press’? And, last of all, the box never said to put water in the pan before you boil the grits.”
Mother indulged a rare pause while rushing around the kitchen with a towel and an armload of plates, “First of all, that’s what recipes are for. Second of all, cookie presses aren’t designed to handle chocolate chips, Froot Loops, M&M’s and whatever else you crammed into that dough. And, third of all, ‘boil’ implies the use of water. Plus…” she held up her fingers and ticked off five other reasons from sliced thumbs and hot pans to flaming hand towels. Inhaling deeply, she continued her barrage, “Do you remember how long it took me to scrub the half inch of baked-on carbon out of my…”
“Twenty dollar pan…” I lodged my eyeballs into the upper right quadrant of their sockets. Everything she mentioned had been the unintended consequence of being left alone two hours after school every day to absorb the inspiring kitchen adventures of Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet. Mother hadn’t found it the least bit amusing that, ransacking our suburban super market, I could only visually identify weird and sought after ingredients such as artichokes, and wholly forgot to remove their thorns before serving them in my first ever gourmet salad.
My mother. She sorely lacked in humor and felt strongly that cooking should be reckoned only as a very serious means to an end, not a means of inventive design. What she lacked in humor she made up for by possessing an unhealthy affection for her cooking utensils, pots, pans, supplies and entire kitchen space itself.
This time, knowing that Mother could be provoked with sufficient persistence, I would not be dissuaded — which is why I prepared to duck and cover by grabbing the pizza pan.
“C’mon, please...” I assumed the prayer stance hunched over and boinging on the balls of my feet, “Plea-he-heeeese…”
“But, Mom... I just want to make cookies or a cake or pudding or something... please...” I followed at her earlobe into the pantry, around the kitchen, along the counter to the stove.
“No... get away from me.”
I resorted to the tactical ploy known rarely to fail, “But, Mom, you never let me cook, and what am I going to do when you’re not around anymore?”
Ah ha, the very same reverse psychology unwittingly taught by my own parents. To this, I added a pinch of guilt, “What do you want me to do, eat cold cereal for the rest of my life? What will my children and husband eat? What kind of a mother will I be if I can’t prepare my own child a nourishing meal?”
“Fine,” she crammed a wooden spoon into a basket bristling with brethren and turned with her hands on her hips, “You do it, you’re on your own. You make a mess, you clean it up. You burn the house down, you live with it.” And this was the usual way between Mother and I, which is why I did most of my cooking when she was working down at the inn, away in town, or otherwise out of eye-shot, ear-shot and short reach of my latest endeavor.
Such was the convenient case this day.
Al seemed uneasy, “Joe, what if we get caught?”
“What? What are you so worried about?”
“Everybody’s gone, that’s what!”
“So? That’s a good thing,” I gazed under the stove. “Do you know how to light this thing?”
Al, more prudent than I, possessed the uncanny ability to foresee certain consequences wholly beyond my reckoning until I found myself actually reckoning with them.
The inn was closed and everyone had gone into town for supplies. It was a rare chance to be alone and in the kitchen at the same time. I would not be thwarted by some unfounded fear of failure. Although, I had to admit, on the several other occasions when Al and I had attempted brownies, it had always ended in some inexplicable fiasco.
One time, the whole batch seemed to propagate itself into a colossal, pulsating hulk which thankfully had been killed when Al slammed the oven door on it. Another time, it had shriveled in the pan, resembling the gaskets I’d seen Dad use on engines. And once, the batter had baked to surprising perfection, yet was chock-full of giant flour-filled tumors. But this time things would be different. This time, experience had made us wise and an iron will made us invincible. We would conquer the odds and create a masterpiece of cuisine.
“Where’s the recipe?” Al asked, looking in the cupboard. “I can’t find the book.”
“Mom probably hid it again. We don’t need one anyway. I can remember the ingredients.”
“Yeah, but how much of each thing?”
“Oh, I pretty much remember.”
Al looked at me with dread in her eyes.
“It’s okay, Al, we can remember it.”
For some reason, the fates blessed me with a desire to create but cursed me without the means to materialize a vision. At least, that has always been the way with culinary-type mediums. In fact, now that I reflect, it has been a rather constant theme throughout my life.
I pulled a huge mixing bowl from the shelf. “Brownies are the easiest thing in the world to make.”
“So how come they never come out right?”
“Probably the barometer.” I had learned through distant observation of my mother that the barometer was an inexhaustible excuse for any failed attempt at baking.
Al rummaged in the pantry. “I can’t find the cocoa.”
“Then get the hot chocolate stuff. That’ll work.”
Mother endlessly arranged and rearranged her pantry, obsessing over new locations and means of camouflaging key ingredients while intending to discourage my forays into the kitchen realm. It was her territory, and she never tired of defending it.
Before adding the hot chocolate mix, we gobbled giant spoonfuls and tried to look at one another’s bulging cheeks without laughing. I gave Al the ‘don’t smile’ look. Predictably, she would be the first to crack, stifling a grin while knowing full well the worst thing you can do under such circumstances is suppress a laugh. Such an act could easily result in severe sinus burns or even brain damage. Overcome by one another’s convulsive expressions, the powder inevitably found its way up our noses, into our eyes and hovering in the atmosphere.
We washed down our three-minute hacking fits with tall glasses of cold chocolate milk and resumed our task, time being of the essence.
“How much baking powder?” Al held the spoon above the can which had finally been located behind several jars of noodles and dried beans on the very top shelf.
“Oh, a couple tablespoons I guess. But toss in a couple more of baking soda, because I can’t remember which we use.”
“We’d better only put in one tablespoon of each then, huh?” suggested Al, mathematical genius that she was.
“Right,” I agreed utterly without question, as math was not a strong subject with me.
I stopped to ponder. “Okay...” I said, “what should we use for a secret ingredient?” Somehow, years earlier I had gotten the notion that anything delicious was surely possessed of a secret ingredient.
“Joe, we don’t need a secret ingredient. These ingredients are weird enough.”
“What about black pepper? I wonder how that would go with chocolate.”
“Forget it. Now hurry up and mix these in.” Al handed me an egg carton and flopped down on the bench at the table.
I picked up an egg and, with Al as my audience, adopted my Julia Child instructive mode, complete with voice impersonation: “Here, is an egg. What you’ll want to do… is… crack it into the bowl, like so…” I poised the egg over the rim of the mixing bowl intending to execute the one-handed method of egg crackery which I’d seen so many others perfect — even Willy.
“Now,” I continued, “don’t fear the egg… it cannot harm you… all you have to do is tap it…” I tapped the egg, caving in the side of it, “…lightly…” I craned the seeping mass over the center of the bowl, “and simply separate the two halves… one from the other… artfully using a couple of fingers to…” bits of egg shell began oozing with the broken yolk down into the bowl, “…to pick out any shells…”
Al piped in with her rendition, “This method is best used by people who are not Joe…”
In no time, we had amassed and mixed reasonably appropriate ingredients into the bowl.
“Taste the batter.” I held it out to Al.
Had these been Mother’s brownies, we would have been overjoyed to sample the batter as well as lick the spoons, bowls, beaters and counter spills. But, since this particular concoction had begun to fester and swell like some dark, seething incarnate, we were more inclined to recall our polite upbringing and control our initial impulses.
“No way, you eat it.”
So I did. And something was missing. “It tastes weird,” I commented to Al who acted as though she anticipated such an appraisal. “Wait a second…” I sucked the tarry substance off my front teeth, “sugar! We forgot the sugar.”
“Well duh!” Al seemed immensely relieved that the weirdness was easily corrected.
And so it was, that after searching high, low and in-between, we resigned ourselves to the fact that all our efforts were for naught.
Having separated and hidden each key ingredient, including the cookbook, Mother had successfully, even in her absence, foiled our grand plan. As far as Al and I were concerned, there was no known substitute for sugar.
“Ah, but wait!” I held up a finger. “What about the café, huh, huh?”
“Yeah!” Al brightened.
And we were off.
Grabbing the ring of master keys off the hook by the door, we hurried to the café where we began scouring cupboards in search of the single one ingredient that would instantly turn our fermenting brew from dismal failure into sweet success.
Sadly, we could locate neither canister nor bag.
“How can there be no sugar in a restaurant?” Al looked around irritated.
“Oh, there is sugar. But they’ve hidden it. They think they can stop us from baking, but I will find a way.”
“Joe,” Al searched my eyes and seemed more concerned than usual, “maybe this is a sign.”
Slowly, a grin spread across my face, “Oh, they are tricky… tricky, tricky, tricky. But they have forgotten one thing.”
“Forgotten what?” Al looked dubious.
“The sugar packs on the tables.”
Al and I loaded a hundred-and-fifty sugar packs into our up-turned T-shirt bottoms, pilfered the booty back to the house and began ripping madly away. Afterward, we hid the evidence in a rumpled brown bag stashed under my bed, which led to a later situation there is no time to discuss here.
With the mountain of gooey dishes quickly washed and put away, and all bottles, cans and jars returned to their secret locations in the pantry, the time had come to bake the readied confection.
Despite Mother’s attempts at confusing ingredients by constantly switching labels... despite her rearranging pots, pans and key utensils into cupboards, drawers and upon unfamiliar hooks... despite her every sly tactic at foiling my ability to assemble a near-edible manifestation, Mother had gravely miscalculated our persistence and ingenuity in her absence.
However, to her crafty credit she had undermined our remaining chance at marginal victory by deviously reserving the greatest barrier for the last step in the baking process. I am speaking of our relic gas stove which had been decommissioned from safe use sometime just after the Bronze Age.
The beast, roughly the size of a battle cruiser, had been rightly abandoned by the house’s former occupants. Made of enameled cast iron, its top was tunneled through with orifices grown over with black claw-like fingers fond of grasping at shirt cuffs and potholders. It lurked in the corner of the kitchen, silently threatening any but her who might dare come near it.
I had been taught to fear it. Taught that it was complicated and dangerous. And there was good reason for this.
I had only known electric ranges which were easy to operate… friendly. But this oven was different. There was no electric anything. It did not even possess numeric dials for adjusting heat. It had only two settings: flame, no flame. I was allowed to know three things about the stove.
1: It consumed explosive gas through a vaguely suggested network of copper tubing.
2: It would only come alive through a specific and difficult series of maneuvers. And,
3: In Dad’s words, “Never light this damn thing, or — look at me never light this damn thing, or you could blow you and the house up.”
Only Mother was privy to the nuances of its secret means of ignition. Observing casually from the living room, however, I had been able to discern the more obvious steps involved in her complicated and highly orchestrated set of maneuvers.
First, she would drop the broiler door and peer into the depths of the beast. Then, she would twist around, practically dislocating her hips and shoulder blades while leveraging a foot beneath a nearby drawer handle. Flattening herself into the broiler compartment and using her chin as an inverse fulcrum, she would then — lit match in hand — reach underneath all the way up to her shoulder while simultaneously grasping for and turning the big, red flame/no flame knob.
Somehow, following this procedure, the stove would miraculously growl to life.
She constantly reminded me the lighting ritual had something to do with safety and pilot lights and gas leaks, but I knew her real reason for keeping the beast was simply to employ yet another complicated obstacle along my path to gastronomical independence.
Though I lacked detailed information on lighting the beast and further lacked her ability to simultaneously unhinge, stretch and flatten myself, making the most of her technique, I guessed a pretty fair imitation was probably within my grasp and would certainly be necessary to complete our masterwork.
Match in hand, I looked up at Al from my position on the floor beside the stove, “Okay, so when I say go, you turn the red knob there to the right, but not too much or we’ll get blown across the parking lot.”
“Joe… I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“C’mon, it’s no big deal. I’ve seen Mom do this a hundred times.” Such was the force to bake brownies within me.
“Yeah, but you’ve never done it.”
“Just turn it. Okay, ready? Ready? Al?”
“I can’t do it Joe, I’m scared. What if it blows up?”
“I’m not going to light the match until you turn the knob, I think that’s how Mom does it. It’ll be okay. Ready....? Go! Turn it, turn it!”
“Okay, Okay! It’s ON — Oh my GOD! You’re going to kill us!” Al ran for the front door.
“Al, get back here and turn it off! I can’t light it! It might blow up! Hurry and turn it off! Turn it off!” Now it was my turn to freak-out.
“No, I can’t, I’m scared!” she screamed from the corner of the kitchen.
I re-hinged my dislocated bones, clamored to my feet and whipped the knob to the ‘off’ position.
“Okay, look, we’ll wait a minute or so and try again.” I repositioned myself on the floor in front of the opened broiler door and fanned away the gas, trying desperately to catch the breath that seemed to have fled my lungs.
“No way, you are totally crazy. Let’s just forget it,” Al urged.
“Oh yeah, right, and if Mom and Dad find out we made up all this batter...” Ever the repressed optimist, my kitchen adventures were so rare, I always triple-batched anything in case it turned out to be really good.
“Okay,” Al sobered instantly. Anything was less fearsome than the consequences that awaited us ‘if Mom and Dad found out’.
She steadied her hand on the red knob as I positioned my upper torso, match in hand, under the broiler. There, I squinted beneath the darkened labyrinth of steel grates watching and waiting for some signal I’d never seen.
“Okay, ready? GO! But SLOW!” I commanded, squinting even harder.
As Al slowly turned the knob, smelly, noxious fumes began enveloping my head. Naturally, I hesitated then thought of the gases accumulating as I hesitated, so hesitated even longer gripped in a perpetually disabling panic and visualizing cumulus clouds of explosive particles mounting within the room, sufficient to level the top of a mountain…
“Oh my God! They’re home!” Al shrieked.
In a frenzy of tornadic motion, Al turned off the gas and snatched up all three pans of bubbling goo. Racing down the hall into my bedroom, we leapt onto the bed and began devouring raw globs of batter with our spatulas.
Halfway through the second pan, Al slowed to three rotations per second. “I think I’m going to up-chuck.”
In the spirit of camaraderie, I seized the pan and vacuumed the remainder.
Two minutes later, we emerged bloated, our minds numbly imperceptive to the reality walking through the doorway.
“What’s that smell?” Mother set two bags of groceries on the kitchen table and sniffed at the lingering odor of propane drifting about the house.
“Al farted,” I said, surprising myself at the flash of quick wit under the circumstances.
Mother rolled her eyes and looked doubtfully around the kitchen.
She left for Big Red as I hurriedly pulled one of the baking dishes, wiped clean by a dirty shirt, from behind my back and returned it to its shelf.
Reappearing, Mother lifted a red box from a grocery sack.
“Here, I thought you two might appreciate this...” she handed me the box, pausing to study Al who had suddenly taken on a greenish cast. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “It’s just instant brownie mix.”