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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

Going Hungry 24

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Twenty-four: The Pressure Cooker

After clumsily mangling the second chicken into parts, Gloria knelt on the floor and fumbled noisily around in the cabinet. The two pressure cookers were stabled all the way in the back because they didn't get used much, as Gloria had been doing most of the cooking over the past two years, and she was afraid of them. The big pots were heavy, squat, emanating danger from their shining sides. The grooves on the top rims reminded her of blunt, crushing teeth; the dull sheen of the metal made her think of ponderous monster robots -- the stainless steel pans they normally used seemed light-hearted, dainty, and pleasantly ornamental by comparison.

"You'll need both of them to cook up all that chicken," her mother's voice said from behind her, still carrying the anger she retained from their argument earlier.

Well, not really an argument, just words that turned heated unexpectedly. Philli, hating her new and absolutely necessary new night job as a janitor, was at a loss as to how her daughter was turning into the head of the household and leaving her practically a mere wage earner. Gloria was torn between disenchantment about her mother's inability to manage the household debts (or the past activities of her late husband) and a lingering longing for the relationship they used to have in which Gloria was always the apprentice, always the daughter, always the good little girl. Philli had to be rankled by her son's new income being deposited into Gloria's bank account, even though they'd set it up that way to limit the taxable income. Next spring's tax return might mean the difference between fixing a dishwasher or washing machine and doing dishes by hand or visiting a laundromat. Still unable to discuss the issues dispassionately, they choked their words and churned with their emotions. How dare Gloria take over my place as mother of the house? How could my mother be so stupid as to complacently overlook my father's affair that was bleeding our money dry?

"Good," Gloria mumbled. "Just what I need, two suicide bombs for the effort of one."

"Let's send you for an audition at the Gallo Center's next drama. Just get them out, dust them off, check the seals to make sure they aren't crumbling, and read the damn instruction book. It's in the cupboard over the stove, in the little shelf." Philli dipped a portion of last night's chili into a bowl and put it in the microwave.

While Gloria rattled the other pressure cooker out of the cupboard, her mother sprinkled some cheese and salsa onto the dish, grabbed a spoon and another cup of coffee, and said, "See you tomorrow some time."

And left. Gloria watched the door close with a feeling akin to having been slapped. She just left me to figure this out myself. She doesn't even need to be at work for another hour. She just left me, for spite. Tears stung her eyes a little, but she found the instruction manual for the pressure cookers and sat down at the table with it.

Although Gloria had been certain her mother had been being simplistic about the instructions, according to the manual, it really was not that difficult to load food in the pressure cooker, cook it, and then cool it. Nevertheless, she carefully worked step by step, assembling the various parts (pot, lid, inner rack plate, gasket, and regulator) on the counter, examining them all carefully for any sign of crack or corrosion or gunk or evil spirits. She placed the gasket inside the lid of each, making certain that the rubber ring was truly fixed beneath the small metal ridges that ensured a tight seal. Experimentally, she put the lids on each pot, and removed them, and put them on and off again, noting how the thing clicked when it was fully closed.

The moment of truth was at hand. She poured a cup of water into each pressure cooker, salted and peppered each of the chicken portions, and put them inside. She closed the lids, set the pressure regulators on top of the lid vents, and turned on the burners beneath each. The heat was on medium-high.

Taking the two cheap loaves of bread to the kitchen table, she tore them into bite sized pieces, her eyes always on the pressure cookers, her expression fearful. What if they blow up?

The manual had said nothing about the pressure cookers blowing up, but Gloria was sure that some time, somewhere, she had heard that if you don't use pressure cookers correctly, they could blow up. She did distinctly remember her mother saying that some fool she knew in her childhood removed the regulator before the pot was cooled and blew boiling hot applesauce all over their kitchen ceiling. Blew. Up. It might have been a squirting horrible mess to clean up, maybe that's all, but "Blew. Up," was as same in her psyche as "Bomb."

A hissing sound came from one of the pressure cookers and Gloria tensed even more, fighting the impulse to run to the stove, turn the burners off, and unload the monsters into a standard stew pot. She stood from the table and inched forward to see where the sound originated. A small button on the handle of the pressure cookers was making the noise, and alternately rising and sinking: rise with the hiss, sink with a clink. Gloria grabbed the instruction manual again, feverishly paging through it to see if an explosion was imminent.

With another hiss, one of the buttons rose and did not fall, and the hissing stopped. Then the other pot's locking mechanism followed suit. Gloria looked at the manual again, gaped at the pot, and was nearly dizzied by the design.

When it gets to the right pressure, it locks! You can't open it by accident and blow yourself up! As the lid's regulator began to move with little giggly hisses, she understood the remainder of the process. The regulator tilted, letting off steam, keeping the pressure inside the pot -- uhh, duhh, regular?

She remembered her mother using the pots for making cooked cabbage, and the motion and sound the regulators had made: kind of a shimmy-wiggle-shimmy dance to a "Chh-Ch-Chh" song. With a start, she grabbed the kitchen timer and set it for fifteen minutes, turning the burners down to medium.

Still eying the pots with distrust, Gloria took the celery out from the refrigerator, the onion from the onion and potato bin, and a cutting board. Her thoughts alternated between suspicion of the pressure cookers, and wondering if her dicing of celery and onion would be satisfactory to her boss Maria. By the time she was done cutting up the vegetables, and had dumped them into a medium pot with three sticks of margarine, the timer was racing towards its bell. My god, can that stuff be cooked already?

The chicken backs and hearts and livers and gizzards and necks had begun simmering at the back of the stove, giving off a disgusting low chicken smell. Nevertheless, Gloria knew from past experience that the broth would reach out for salt and pepper and thyme with open embrace and transform into a silky base for the chunks of chicken to simmer in.

The bell of the timer rang. Gloria turned off the burners, and re-read the instructions again. With fear enough to make her armpits prickle with sweat, she carefully lifted the first pressure cooker and took it to the sink. She turned on the water and let a small stream play across the lid. It sizzled and danced, but did no harm, so she increased the stream. The regulator began to hiss again, drawing air in, and then, like a magical trick, the locking button dropped.

In awe, she removed the regulator, and then the lid, cranking it to the right. Inside, steaming hot and pale to the eye, the chicken sections were slumped together. She poked the meat with a fork, and it nearly slid off the bone. Holy cow, it's cooked. She put the pot on a trivet on the counter and went for the second pot, following the same procedure. Wow, that's ingenious, she mused as the second locking button dropped.

Total elapsed time since her mother grumped her way out the door: thirty minutes.

"Wha -- hell, that's hot!" Gloria shouted as she lifted a piece of chicken with a fork, trying to steady it with a finger. She dropped the chicken, casting about the kitchen to get an idea of how to safely handle the parts so that she could bone them. She could not remember how her mother had done it -- probably she'd just gone to her room to talk on the telephone or gone out with friends to play or roam looking for boys while this recipe was made.

Cookie sheets, she decided, and dragged them out of the baking cupboard. She laid the chicken pieces out. The racks and the sides of the pressure cookers had residue on them from the cooking chicken juices. With a knife and a spatula, Gloria scraped the chicken goo into the pot with the livers and backs. The tasteless soup that Maria the cook had served the staff was a profound reminder that flavor, no matter how trivial, should never be overlooked.

By the time that both pressure cookers had been scoured and rinsed and set to air dry, all their components separate, the celery, onion, and margarine had melded into a fragrant mix. She added salt and pepper, tasted, added more pepper, and set it to the side. The backs and giblets begged for more water, and she obliged them.

The garage door opened, and Ben came in. "Sure hope that doesn't have poison in it," he said.

"Loaded to the gills," Gloria assured him, "but only for boys. Mom and I can gorge on it to our hearts' content." Once she gets over her snit, that is.

"You used Mom's pressure cookers?" Ben observed.

"Yes, and thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown doing it," Gloria told her brother.

"Huh," he said, picking up the manual and browsing through it. "Doesn't look all that hard. Why'd she make it sound so technical?"

"Yeah, I know. Once I went through it step by step it wasn't so scary. In fact, it's pretty cool the fail-safes they put into it. See this?" She showed him the steam regulated locking button. When it gets to pressure, you can't open the lid! And if you're paying attention to the thing, it automatically regulates the pressure with this doo dad."

"So it's good for ... what, exactly?" Ben asked.

"Well, it cooked this damn chicken to bits in about twenty minutes instead of two hours," she informed him.

"That works," he replied. "Want me to help cut up all this chicken?"

"Ben, you have homework and friends and your E-Bay thing -- you don't have to do that."

"You didn't say no."

"I won't, but I also won't ask."

"I got no homework -- I did it all in study hall instead of reading. And friends I can get with later. E-bay takes care of itself. There are some people who are following Mom's jewelry and Will's comics, but no one bidding yet. I think they're waiting for me to get desperate, but they can wait until I do. Let me change clothes and I'll be back. Remember, you're supposed to be teaching me about laundry, too. I hear the washer going -- no fair starting without me."

Gloria pondered the reason for her brother's agreeable mood. He wasn't shaving yet, at least not much, so he might not be overly consumed with hormones. Maybe he was scared about having to go live in a homeless shelter, but she couldn't detect any fear about him.

As the youngest brother, maybe he'd watched her and Will and their mother bicker and quarrel and decided he wanted none of it, but Gloria was too jaded already to believe that Ben was an innocent, compliant, helpful and blameless boy.

He had to be up to something.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-10-12
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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