Chapter Thirty-three: Embroiling
"What you laughing at?" Maria asked Gloria, looking grumpy.
"I'm sorry, 'Shut it, man-boy' was such a zinger. I wish I had thought of saying that to my brothers!"
"I surprise myself sometimes," Maria said, trying not to look proud. "Of course, if I had said that to my brothers, someone would have slapped me into a wall. In the Azores, you didn't talk like that to the men in the family. Ever."
"Well, I bet in the Azores (and here Gloria vowed to look up on line what the hell the Azores were) the boys weren't as ... well, they wouldn't act like Steve did."
"That true. Son act as stupid as him, mother tell the father, the father knock sense into him."
Gloria listened, and thought it made sense ... for someone else's culture. Her father had never been physically punishing with her brothers, at least not that she ever remembered.
Of course, in Modesto, in the Melton household, creativity was praised, and had Will wanted to take ballet lessons or watercolor painting, her parents would not have batted an eye, or been disappointed in his choices. Even when Will turned out to be a lazy turd around the house, no one nagged him to straighten up. His grades in school had been reasonably good, his computer skills astounding, as were Ben's, too.
Ben was more interested in his father's business skills, though, poring avidly over spreadsheets with him and talking about client relationships. Ben dressed neatly and kept his room looking like an office. Both her brothers were fairly even tempered, reasonably well behaved. And they treated their sister well. As the oldest, she made sure that they understood the concept of seniority -- there was no trace in their household that males had priority or mastery over the women.
In fact the only bad actor in the bunch was her father, with his damn affair on the side. When it crossed Gloria's mind, she was very glad she had never known about it when it was going on, because her father's image would have been tarnished beyond recognition. And then who knows what she would have done to exact revenge for the loss of her idol? Wrecked the car that he bought from that low-life whore?
But flatbread. That was the task at hand. They used the clean granite counter on either side of the stove as a rolling board; a big cast iron griddle straddled the front burners of the stove itself. Maria used her rolling pin, but had provided Gloria with a wooden roller that had no handles. It was thinner than Maria's rolling pin. "You try this one. See, you use your hands to make it roll. Young hands don't ache as much as old ones. Watch, I do one. Cut pieces this big -- not big like tortillas, a little bigger than cookies. Like a piece of toast, that size. Pat it back and forth, gets the excess flour off, then throw it on the griddle. Easy. Don't worry about perfect round breads, odd shapes look more natural."
Each of them rolled, each of them had a spatula and a dish. They turned the flatbreads when they were a little bubbled on top, with just a hint of browning on the first side. Thicker than tortillas, they would be used for scooping the hummus, and the eggplant, Gloria learned. They worked along together -- the rolling and turning were not very hard to do, and soon Gloria found her rhythm, nearly keeping up with Maria.
I can do this, Gloria thought. I can do this job, and I can do it pretty well so far. Even if we have to get an apartment, I can still do this job. Maybe it would be better to get out from under that damned mortgage payment after all.
The possibility of getting an apartment had begun to draw closer to reality. With Will's money taking care of the groceries, Philli's paycheck and Gloria's might be enough to put deposits down on an apartment. She'd probably have to share a bedroom with her mother, and Will and Ben would have to share another, but in a few weeks, at least they wouldn't be looking at cots in a charity shelter. That at least might not happen.
The flatbreads were done, stacked on platters, and put in one of the ovens to keep warm, covered in aluminum foil.
"Eggplant next. This the tough one. Overcook, is like mush. Undercook, feel slimy in the mouth. We try to get the outside almost crisp, then we cut and season and hope for the best. Another one of those magazine recipes Bakers found. You like eggplant?"
Gloria shook her head. "My mother and I tried one for fun, once. It wasn't fun."
"It's a very pretty vegetable on the vine," Maria said. "But I guess I never had one I liked much. Not something I would make for myself at home, you know?" The cook pulled a page from a magazine from her apron pocket. "Here's what they give me. They say, 'Sounds tasty except for honey. Can you make it so it is a vegetable serving not a relish.' You are right here with me on this one. To me, it sounds like it will be mushy."
"Wow. Sounds like the seasoning would be good, the cumin and onion and pepper, and garlic -- they sure do like garlic, don't they? -- but wouldn't it be better if the eggplant had a little crispiness to it? That would contrast well with the softer cooked onion and pepper, and the tomatoes could be added last ... Would the eggplant come up crispy if we fried it in a little oil in a skillet? Maybe dust it with flour to take up some of its moisture?"
Maria tossed the paper into the air and let it flutter down to the vegetable prep table. "Makes sense. Not white flour, though, we try corn flour, masa. More texture. We get onions cut up and sautéing, then do peppers, add more oil if we need it, then do the eggplant in the same pan, add flavor."
Maria hurriedly chopped a yellow onion into tiny cubes, then tossed them into a skillet with a little oil. In the meantime, Gloria seeded and chopped red bell peppers and tomatoes. "I get to use the knife again!" she crowed to Maria.
"Tomorrow it's all mine again, you wait."
The onion cooked, and was joined when it was done by the peppers. The two cooks evacuated them from the pan; Maria turned up the heat a little. "I think we want to sear these," she suggested. Gloria cut the eggplant and dusted the wet edges with corn flour, handing the slices one at a time to her boss. The eggplant sizzled loudly.
"When they done, cut them up and put them in the oven to dry out some more, I think," Maria said over the hissing sound.
Gloria chopped cilantro in the smallest food processor and emptied the bowl out onto the board that held the tomatoes. With a fork and the tomato knife, she cut the eggplant into cubes, and as each batch of the vegetable was done, she added it to the cookie sheet that dried in the oven.
"All of them done," Maria announced, turning the gas off under the skillet. Now we test." She scooped a spoonful of the eggplant onto a dish, added some of the onion and tomato and pepper, sprinkled it with salt, garlic powder, cumin, and a little bit of chili powder and tossed it carefully.
"It looks interesting," Gloria offered. "And it smells nice ..."
Maria tore one of the flatbreads in half and handed a piece to her. "You first. You die, I don't eat it."
Gloria put a small spoonful of the vegetable mixture on the flatbread and bit. As the sensational mixture of textures and flavors swirled into her head, Gloria held out a hand, palm out, in warning to the cook. "Don't eat this, Maria! It's horrible! I'll eat it all for you!"
Maria batted her hand down and had a big bite wrapped in her piece of flatbread. "Yeah," she laughed. "We tell Bakers that we save them from this one."
"I hope I can remember what all went into it," Gloria said, looking at the recipe.
"You will. I think we will be making this again and again." She looked at the clock. "Time for putting out hummus and flatbreads, then we do chops. Get them out, we have to drain marinade. I get broiler pans ready. Use a colander for the chops."
While Gloria staggered to the meat prep area with the big pan of chops, the cook pulled out two pans, each as wide as the oven, with raised ribs and drainage holes in the low parts, and a catch pan beneath. "Give them a shake and bring them here."
Maria lined up the chops on both pans and put them under the broilers in each oven. The eggplant was relegated to the lowest shelf, to stay warm and continue to dry. "Three minutes each side," the older woman lectured. "We set timer. There! When six minutes are up, we pull our own little chops and test for doneness. Don't test on guest food. That's why we order extra. Only need to test one, but it's rude to test and eat in front of your partner."
Partner! That one word was enough for Gloria to forget her worries about Ben and her mother and make her feel like she was glowing with the praise. Maybe Maria hadn't meant it quite that way -- but she didn't care. Today, with the eggplant experiment a success, Gloria felt like she was not just an assistant, but a real live helper.
"Chops done, test, quick."
Each of them cut into a chop and observed the doneness. "Perfect," Maria pronounced. She turned off the broilers and moved each rack down two levels, left the doors open. "Now let's make this eggplant thing."
She bent and pulled the tray of cubed eggplant from the lowest rack in the oven, set it on the counter. Suddenly the color seemed to drain from her face, and she held onto the counter for balance.
"Maria!" Gloria cried.
"You finish up the eggplant and plate ... I'll be back in a minute."
There is something wrong here, Gloria thought, panicking. That's twice today she's gone weird on me and walked out.
But she turned to the food and seasonings and did the best she knew how to do. She plated the chops and the eggplant as though the lamb chops were nestling around the vegetables like curled cats. She longed for a bigger arsenal of garnishes, to make the plates look complete. The servers were not yet there, so Gloria snatched a zucchini from the crisper, washed it and hacked it into pencil thin strips, dusted it with the Mrs. Dash seasonings, and added two two-inch slices to each plate. That'll do.
Maria reappeared in time to see the last tray loaded and whisked away. "Good job with garnish. See, you think of things I don't. Let's put sorbet into little dishes and then we can relax a little."
"Maria, are you all right?" Gloria asked for the second time that day. "You went so pale!"
"Eh, old women get these problems. No worry, Gloria. My doctor just tells me I'm too fat and I should take better care of myself. 'Get more exercise,' he says. Hah! Easy for him to say, no way he cleans his own house on his days off."
It was a distraction to cut perfect balls of champagne sorbet and put three in each little goblet. Maria cut them, while Gloria snipped tender mint leaves and placed them, dark green against the pale pink scoops. They put the trays back in the freezer when they were done, then returned to the stove area where their chops were waiting.
"Sad thing about being the cook -- lamb chops cool too quick," said Maria, cutting hers into bite sized pieces.
With relief, Gloria watched Maria pick up the chop and gnaw the last flavorful bites from the bones. She followed suit. "I didn't think I'd be so hungry after the soup at lunch, but I could eat about ten of these, I think."
"You can't do that, you get to be a fatter cook than me." She wiped her lips with a paper towel. "Now, you tell me, what made you want to cry today?"
Gloria sighed. "My brother Will is running out of time with his job in Van Duyken's orchards. Harvest is just about done, and he's going to have to find something if we're to stay in our house -- if we could, for just a couple months more, we could afford an apartment, maybe. Mom has a job now, too ... but she works nights, and she's almost always gone hours before she has to go to work, so the boys are on their own for food the days when I work. I'm trying to cook stuff ahead for them, but today we ate the last of the eggs and bread for breakfast, and I'd hoped -- thought -- she'd get Will and Ben what they needed until Wednesday. But she didn't. She just took off and left them on their own. I -- I guess I don't feel ready for Mom to leave us on our own. Kind of sudden, kind of ... sad."
"Ah, that Van Duyken. Stingy damn Dutchman. Only thing that saves him is he married a Portuguese. Listen. In the spring, don't you see the big baby birds, already able to fly, flutter their wings to their mother, say, 'Feed me! Feed me!' and chase her around begging? No? That tells me you spend too much time looking at TV or computer rather than out windows. Next spring, you watch. You'll see yourself there. Your mother know you and your brothers can take care of yourselves. You know your brothers can take care of themselves, or else you'd be calling them every hour."
"You're right," Gloria said in some surprise. "They can, and I do know that." They can, and I do know that. Wow. We thought we were the kids, but we're the Three Musketeers.