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July 15, 2024

Going Hungry 34

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Thirty-four: Too Serious

Two of the Three Musketeers were still awake when their mother barged in the front door, a big silly grin on her face and not quite reeking of booze. "Hey, kids, how goes the world?"

As she observed her mother clinging to the door knob, Gloria realized that Philli was a bit too potted to traverse the house unaided. She got up from her chair in the family room and steadied Philli. "Great, Mom, you didn't work today? Come on, let's take your shoes to your bedroom so we don't trip on them, okay?"

"Good idea. Brilliant idea! I always knew you were my daughter!" Philli giggled. "Guess what? This working mother got herself promoted to working an earlier shift!"

"Very cool, Mom!" Did she really, or is it just the alcohol? And why is she drinking during the afternoon?

Gloria sat her mother down on the bed and pulled off her pumps. How the hell did she manage to walk and balance in these things? "Do you want to change into pajamas, Mom?"

"No, no, I'm just going to nap for a little and then I'll get up."

Sure you will. "I'll put the trash can right here in case you have to throw up and can't get to your bathroom, try to remember."

Philli looked at her with suddenly cruel eyes. "I'm not that drunk, Gloria. Mind how you speak to me. I was just out with friends and co-workers and my boss, and they know we're strapped and we're not out of any of your precious money. I had fun. Go away so I can remember that it was fun, and not see you scowling at me."

"Yes ma'am," Gloria said, her face burning, feeling as though she had been slapped. She turned and left the room.

"Is she okay?" Ben asked her when she returned to the family room.

"Yeah. She said she was out partying with friends and co-workers, that's all."

"Since before I was home from school? What the fuck, Glory? Seriously, what the fuck is our mother thinking?"

"I don't know, Ben. She just ran me off -- if I wasn't so tired of being surprised and hurt, I'd have been surprised and hurt by what she said to me -- to leave her alone. As it is, it's just another every day whack." Gloria shrugged, yawning.

Her mother had a point, in a way. Go away so I can remember that it was fun. That was what Gloria wanted to do, to remember the high points of the day: Will's good humor when he came home from work (that was kind of strange in itself, though he did say the work was getting a little easier), Ben's glowing triumphant face when he told of doing his first solo supermarket shopping for the family, her own success with that eggplant mixture (the Bakers had loved it, and wanted it added to the repertoire of foods coming out of their kitchen), Maria's oddly comforting admonition that the Melton kids were old enough to be on their own. "What are you and Will going to eat tomorrow night?"

"The last of the spaghetti sauce on hamburger buns. There's still some of the cheddar cheese, so we'll grate off some of it, and it'll taste great. Can we make some more of that up this week? It's really good."

"It's good until you suddenly get tired of it, and then it sits and goes bad in the fridge," Gloria observed. "Why don't we make stew this week instead? There are some beef roasts in the freezer. You can have it as soup, on tortillas, with bread, over rice -- lots of choices for you scurvy ... man-boys. Of course, we ought to dig a couple chickens out to thaw, too. If you get tired of the beef, you can alternate with the chicken."

"The only problem with the chicken stuff was the texture. The chicken kind of shredded into strings. It wasn't bad -- but it was kind of mushy."

"You know what? I'll ask Maria tomorrow. She knows a lot about cooking, and not from a theoretical view, but from doing it for a long time, like since she was twelve or something. Maybe she made every mistake in the book over the course of years, and just knows what not to do." Another yawn opened her face.

"Go to bed, Goblin-Head. I'm down to the last day of that eBay sale, so if no one bites by 10 pm, I'm pulling the comic books from sale. I want to go follow that."

"Good night, sleep tight, don't let your multiple personalities fight," Gloria said, and smiling at having got the most complex insult off last, went to her room.

"Next time I have to get a new assistant, I'm getting an ugly girl," Maria muttered after Steve delivered the fresh tomatoes. He'd kept looking over her shoulder and trying to engage Gloria, at least in eye contact, waggling his eyebrows and waving to her.

"You could get an ugly boy, maybe," Gloria said easily.

"No, I couldn't. I'm old but not blind. We get these tomatoes delivered right from Harmon's fruit stand for one reason: he grows all his own, and he grows the good old-fashioned tomatoes with good flavor. We cut them like steaks, load them with mozzarella, sprinkle fresh basil and parsley, broil quick. Just about last of the season, and these he covers already in plastic so they ripen.

"What we do for desserts? Bakers want dessert, but don't say what."

"Risotto, tomatoes and mozzarella are all kind of soft," Gloria ventured. "So maybe something with a little crunch? A bread-like cake, with a buttery icing and nut topping? Or an apple crumble?"

"You got ideas," Maria nodded. "Banana bread, with chocolate melted on top, and nuts. Good. You make them."

"But ... I don't have my banana bread recipe with me," Gloria said, appalled that she was called upon to make a food she suggested, while unprepared to carry it out.

"You got to learn to carry it all up here," Maria told her, tapping her forehead. "Cookbooks are for kitchen counters in pretty little houses."

"Sorry," Gloria said sadly.

"You too serious, Gloria! I'm teasing you! Look, these Bakers want something special, they give us the recipe. Otherwise, they're happy as long as it tastes good. Go get a white cake mix from the pantry. We add banana and ground nuts. Bake just a little extra time because of the extra moisture, we good to go."


"Go, do it. Just add one cup of mashed bananas and maybe one of nuts -- grind them up, though. We add the crunchy ones on top. Use bundt pan, that way we don't waste ends."

Gloria scrambled off to collect what she needed. What does she mean, waste ends? As she thought about the bundt pan, she understood. If they used a loaf pan, or a 13 x 9 pan, there would be browned ends the Bakers might not like to see. Pretty, pretty, pretty, she thought, got to make it pretty as well as tasty.

Beating the batter of the box cake mix was a lot easier with the stand mixer than with the hand mixer from home, of that there was no doubt. It was great to be able to set the mixer on 'Fold' and dump in the cup of bananas and the cup of ground nuts, and know that the machine would take care of the job.

"Good," Maria said, appearing behind her left shoulder. "You know how to use this machine. You know what settings mean. See? Your mama knew what to teach you to survive, yeah?"

"Yeah," Gloria said in reply, not mentioning Mama's drunken appearance the night before. "We can survive. I hope."

"When you get cake in the oven, come see about the basil and parsley. It's funny stuff."

Gloria sprayed the non-stick bundt pan with olive oil, added flour to the pan and shook it until it was coated, then poured the batter in, hoping it wouldn't stick and look ugly for the guests. Then she was seized with a worry about how they would drizzle chocolate over the cake and cut it without making it crumbly looking. She set a timer for 32 minutes, however, and went to Maria to see about the funniness of parsley and basil.

"Lots of leaves," Maria said. "But I put in processor and wham! See? Almost liquid, very thin. What would you do?"

It was like a test. Gloria thought about the stuff sprinkled on broiled mozzarella ... "I'd add a little oil to even out the texture, spin it some more in the processor, and then, if it was too juicy, drain it on paper towels." She dipped her pinky finger in the mix and tasted it. "If you added garlic to this, it would be chimichurri."

Maria's eyes narrowed. "Chimichurri is what?"

"Parsley and garlic paste for spreading on bread, or on meat. I think it's South American. My mother and brothers aren't real thrilled with it, but then they wouldn't like the basil and parsley on cheese and tomatoes, either."

"We try it. They don't like it, they sure as -- they will tell us. I get the garlic cloves."

In a minute, they had chopped the garlic along with the basil and parsley. Maria tasted some on a small twist of bread. Her eyes lit. "We make the pieces of French bread small today. They going to want more of this chimislurry; we give it to them."

"Your goal is to fatten the Bakers?" Gloria asked coyly.

"No, my goal is to give them good-tasting foods," Maria replied with a sly look. "They fatten themselves."

The staff meal was next up, and Gloria was perplexed when Maria pointed out two slabs of ribs for her to carry out to the kitchen. Ribs were on the menu for the Bakers, not the staff, as far as Gloria knew.

"Cut up a big yellow onion," the cook ordered. "Small, no bigger than my pinky nail."

Gloria did as told, and returned to the meat prep table to see that the cook had used a big chef's knife to separate the top part of the ribs from the stripes of the rest.

"This part," she tapped the striped ribs, "is St. Louis ribs. The rest is brisket. Bakers want St. Louis, we get brisket. We chop brisket up small pieces." While taking the St. Louis ribs to another cutting board, she motioned to Gloria to cut the brisket up into small chunks.

"It's cut up," Gloria told her. "The timer! My cake!"

"Calm down, go check with toothpick. They right above the stove in that cabinet."

The cake was done. With heavy mitts Gloria removed it from the oven. Now what? I've had cakes stick to the pan and come out mangled. The box mix instructions said to wait until the cake was cool to turn it out of the pan, so Gloria left it under the window beside the stove, where the cool air drifted down the glass, and returned to the meat prep.

"This stuff better to eat if you slow-cook it in the oven, wrapped in foil, but we don't have time for that for the staff lunch. We going to use your friend the pressure cooker." Maria used her chin to nod in the direction of the pan cupboard. "Get big pan, add a little oil, start cooking onions in it."

While the onions were sautéeing, Maria cut the ribs into sections of two, still lecturing. "We cut the ribs this size for browning. As soon as your little brisket pieces are browned, we put them in the pressure cooker. These St. Louis pieces can wait until after lunch for their turn, and we won't wash the pan between. Browning will add to the St. Louis ribs, what doesn't stick with the brisket. Keep stirring your onions! I'll get chocolate ready to melt."

After setting a double boiler on the other stove, Maria asked, "What you think? Milk chocolate or dark chocolate?"

The mozzarella was bland on top of an acid taste of tomato; the basil parsley mixture was spicy with garlic. To offset and complement the flavors, maybe the milder taste of the milk chocolate would be better -- but the cake would be sweet and moist, especially with the banana. "Dark chocolate, with a sprinkling of granulated sugar over it before we add the nuts. What do you think?"

"I think I like the way you think," Maria smiled, her eyes twinkling.

Weird. I like the way she thinks, too. When I first met her, I thought she was a blob. Now I can hardly wait to hear what she says next. Scooping the cooked onions out of the pan, she began to put the pieces of brisket in to brown. Putting aside a worry that the staff would get only a cube of browned pork for lunch, she let herself sink into the sound of the sizzle and the scent of cooking, her work, her house's hope, and ... her delight.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-12-21
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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