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July 08, 2024

Going Hungry 27

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Twenty-seven: Learning the Ways

"How was your days off?" Maria asked her as she tied her apron. "You go dancing?"

Gloria shook her head. "No, I sure didn't. I spent most of the time shopping and cooking and putting things up. I learned how to use a pressure cooker, though. Scared me half to death."

"That's funny! Lots of people afraid of them, though. You cut up lettuce for lunch salads, okay? Remember how?"

"Yes. Someday I hope to cut up the tomatoes with your amazing little knife."

"Yeah, when you pry it from my cold, dead hands," said Maria in her accented voice.

Gloria jumped with surprise at hearing the joke come out of the cook's stolid face. Laughter burst from her, and she saw a little crinkle at the side of the older woman's eyes, and just a tiny twitch at the corner of her mouth. Grinning, Gloria set to work with the lettuce knife.

Over the course of the day, she fetched pans and implements for Maria -- usually items that were on low shelves -- and was set to stirring frying rice and soups, mashing eggs for egg salad, plating broiled salmon steaks, toasting cheese sandwiches for the staff.

The cook kept a critical eye on Gloria's work, but had no complaints. At the end of the day, when they were returning pots and pans to their storage places in the kitchen, still hot from the dishwashers, Maria asked, "Why were you doing the cooking on your days off? You cook for your brothers?"

"Mom had to take a night job cleaning offices. She's gone by three in the afternoon, so she can't really make their meals."

"Huh," the cook grunted. "Brothers all in school?"

They untied their aprons. "My older brother is working the almond harvest. The younger one is still in high school, though."

The older woman stared at her. "That's hard, dirty work. Why you all work so hard?"

"My father died. We're just trying to keep our house." Gloria felt her eyes sting with tears and turned away. She was here to do a job, not garner sympathy.

After a moment of silence, Maria said gruffly, "You make the high school brother help around the house."

With a rueful laugh, Gloria told her, "Yes. You teach me about your kitchen here, I teach him about my laundry room there. He even made supper last night."

"What he make?"

"Frozen pizza, grilled sausage pieces, and salad."

"Boy food," Maria said as she opened the door to leave. "Except for salad, of course."

* * *

"You know how to make noodles?"

"No," admitted Gloria. "You mean from scratch?" It was Saturday, and Gloria was rather disappointed that her mother had not so much as left her a note. What was more, her mother had left for work yesterday before Ben even came home from school, and left him no note, either. She sort of understood that her mom was having a hard time adjusting to the night shift, but she didn't understand why she was ignoring Ben. That wasn't disappointing; that was right on the edge of pissing Gloria off.

"Yes. This one thing the Bakers love how I make it for real, not things out of a package. I teach you today."

"Cool!" blurted out of Gloria's mouth, earning her an annoyed glance from the cook. "I mean, excellent! I've always wondered how ... do you use a pasta machine?"

"Bah. Today salad is spinach with three colors bell peppers. You clean and cut up the spinach, chop the peppers into nice rings, take out all the seeds. You plate one, show me how you do it to make it pretty. Don't throw out the extra pieces of pepper."

While Maria busied herself with a saucepan, some seasonings, and a container of half and half, Gloria began slicing peppers. To make "nice rings" she would have to discard part of the bottom and the top of the peppers. Although that seemed wasteful to her, she would follow orders. Her idea for plating would be to have the rings leaning on each other, with the spinach seeming to flow through them. Before she began the spinach, she stepped across the kitchen to see what Maria was making.

"This the dressing."

"Will we toss the spinach in it, or serve it on the side, or drizzle it across the top?"

"Drizzle -- you are funny. We put it in a line across spinach. I think they like to eat peppers with their fingers."

Gloria nodded and cut the washed spinach into smaller than bite-sized pieces. She arranged the tri-colored rings, green-yellow-red, and sprinkled the chopped spinach through them in a line. She took the pilot plate to Maria. "What do you think? I would see a cracker maybe, holding up the end piece of pepper, make it look prettier ..."

"Hah, you a genius!" Maria said with a grin. "We do a little chunk of garlic bread there, nice and brown. Bakers love garlic, good for the heart."

Maria put her whole skillet into a refrigerator and turned her attention to a mixing bowl, bread crumbs, and margarine. Gloria went to the other side of the chopping island to watch what she was doing. "Don't cut off fingers," Maria warned.

"I won't, I promise. Can you talk about what you're doing while you're doing it? I can't figure this one out."

"I make a crust. Bread crumbs from all the bread that don't get used this week, let dry and chop up with food processor. I do that yesterday while you put lemon and cilantro on fish. Takes about two seconds, all done. I add just a little salt, put melted margarine in, mix it till it stick together, press it into custard cups from the refrigerator. Easy crust, tastes good. Back into refrigerator."

She gave the mixing bowl a quick wash with soapy water from the sink. "Now eggs." She cracked a dozen of them into the bowl, carefully sprinkled a light dusting of flour, stirred, and added more flour. "Nobody likes snotty eggs," she explained inelegantly. To the eggs she added handfuls of shredded cheddar cheese, and folded it in. "They like orange cheese. Don't know why."

"For the color?"

"Maybe. Maybe reminds them of DelTaco, the sins of their youth."

As Gloria stifled herself so as not to hoot with laughter -- after all, she wasn't completely sure that the dour Maria was joking -- the cook put the mixture back into the chiller.

"Done cutting? Good, now we do garlic toast. You make garlic toast? No? This how you use up old bread. Bakers don't use old bread, though." She took out a couple sticks of margarine, put them in a mixing cup, and put them in the microwave to melt. From the storage refrigerator, she pulled a loaf of thick-cut bread called 'Texas Toast.' "Here," she said, "cut these into six pieces each."

While Gloria cut bread into neat slices, Maria went to the cupboard room and brought back two huge cans of white beans. "We make bean soup for staff."

The margarine was melted; Maria added pepper, a little salt, and a lot of garlic powder. "We brush the bread with this," she said, pulling a small kitchen basting brush from a drawer.

"And then bake it in the oven until it's brown and crisp!" Gloria finished for her. "That's how I made stuffing for my brothers last Wednesday!"

"Not stuffing if it not in the bird," Maria corrected. "Dressing. But good, you do it." She retrieved the chilled custard cups and carefully ladled the egg and cheese mixture into them, sprinkled the tops with pepper, and slid the trays into the oven. "Plenty of room for your bread in there."

At the cook's command, Gloria set a timer for twenty minutes. While Gloria opened the two cans of beans, Maria got a huge pot from the cabinet. "Throw one can in and mash them with potato masher. Then other can. Makes it creamy, yes? I put frying pan and bacon on back burner, cook until so crisp it crumbly." Into one hand she shook salt, pepper, tarragon, garlic, and thyme. The pile of spices had to be nearly two tablespoons, which she tossed carelessly into the pot. "Oh, yeah, onion, too." Rather than chopping fresh onion, she just poured another pile of seasoning, onion powder this time, into her hand and dumped it into the pot.

"What else to we have to do to the beans?" Gloria asked, never having had bean soup in her life.

"Crumble bacon and throw it in. Simmer for maybe ten minutes. Ready to eat with bread and radishes then." She heaved a big roast out of the refrigerator and onto the cutting table. "I cut this up, can you watch and stir beans at same time?"

"Yes, ma'am. What kind of meat is it, and how will you cut it?"

"Big sirloin roast. Main thing is, cut so grain is cut. You understand that? Breaks up muscle connective tissue, makes it tenderer."

"Got it. Makes it easier to chew. Doesn't it make it soak up flavors better, too?"

"Yes. See, you know more about cooking than the last girl. She knew about chasing boys and pierce-holes in her lip and nose. Always look like she have a booger there, poor girl, but didn't know how to peel a potato. What was her mother thinking? She burned boiled potatoes. What kind of girl burns boiled potatoes?"

"I don't know, but I'm glad she did. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here, and I want to be here. At first, when I applied, it was going to be a job and maybe keep us our home, but my god, I've learned so much already!"

"Don't say 'my god,' please, Gloria. That disrespectful to my church, Bakers' church, too. I don't know what you believe in, but God is what I believe in, and no swearing, not in this kitchen."

"I'm sorry!" Gloria stammered, confused. What had her words to do with religion? "I didn't know, honest. What did I say? I won't say it again!"

"You say 'my god' like people from Kansas used to say 'Gee Whillikers,' and that means you say 'my god' like God don't exist, just another mouthful of words. God is real, God is here, God is in my heart, my soul. Not just words."

"I'm sorry," Gloria said again. "I didn't know. I promise I won't say it again."

"Let's just get this meat cut up, okay? Take both of us, and we both keep an eye on the beans."

They sliced the meat into small pieces, the whole five pound roast, working quietly together. Into three skillets the meat went to brown, which look less time than it took the beans to boil or the bacon to crisp. So much cooking going on at the same time, and suddenly Gloria needed to watch it all as Maria took the mini- quiches out of the oven and set them on large plates beside the salad plates. The cook had some sliced tomato slivers to garnish the quiches, dribbled some of her prepared sauce over the spinach, and off the dishes went to the strangely tasteless Bakers.

Maria turned to the meat and unexpectedly, sprinkled flour over it all. "Keep it turning, now," she commanded. The two of them stirred the meat, listening for the sizzle that demanded water, soon.

"Little bit at a time," Maria said, adding less than a quarter cup to a skillet. As the water sizzled in the hot pans, the flour soaked it up and began to make a gravy. The cook let the pans dry out again, the floured meat browning more. "More flour, let it brown. This makes the broth."

The mixture in the frying pans was looking pasty and clumpy, but then Maria said, "Now water, and stir, and lids." She dumped about a half cup of water in each pan, stirred each one with her spatula, and then put glass lids on each pan. She turned down the heat. "Stir now and then, nothing more for a while. Meat bits will be so tender the Bakers don't need teeth."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-11-02
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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