Chapter Forty: Start of the Tough Week
"This is the tough week," Maria noted to her assistant. "Seven damn days in a row. First thing, we get lunch dessert going. Bakers have Thanksgiving fever and want cranberry sauce over ice cream."
The recipe was simple: cranberries, water, sugar. At the end, when the cranberries had popped open, Maria carefully sprinkled a little sea salt over the boiling pot and stirred it in. "What?" she said to Gloria, who had expressed a bit of surprise at the seasoning. "You don't know a little salt makes sweet better? Why do you think all cake recipes call for salt?"
This is the tough week for her, Gloria observed. This is the week she relinquishes her hold on the kitchen, then goes off to have a major operation. Both of those things are traumatic.
Lunch was to be a kind of quiche with spinach. Gloria thought it would be fabulous with a bit of Italian sausage in it, but Bakers ate no meat on Fridays, which was, to Gloria, kind of quirky, but of course, well within their right.
Shortly after the cranberry mixture was put in the refrigerator to chill, a rap came at the kitchen window. Steve was there, with a package. "You go," Maria said. "It's you he wants to see. Tell him he better have the right number of scallops or he's a dead man."
Gloria washed her hands and went to the window. Steve's mild face greeted her with a gentle enthusiasm. "Here are the scallops for supper, and the catfish for our lunch. How are you today?"
"Thanks. I'm well," Gloria replied. Is this the best we can do? "And yourself?"
Steve just looked at her. He wasn't making weird eye contact, didn't appear to be trying to give her the eye, so to speak -- he just looked at her, a half smile on his clean shaven face. When, after a few seconds, Gloria raised her eyebrows at him, he said, "I was trying to think of something to say that wouldn't sound boring or stupid. I've failed. I'm well, too, like you. And I'm not dead yet, Maria!" he called past her shoulder.
Gloria couldn't restrain a grin. She picked up the parcels of scallops and fish. "Thanks."
As she turned away, he said, "See you later."
She was oddly heartened by that.
Maria counted the scallops into a large glass bowl. "He's lucky," she muttered, then poured lemon juice over the scallops, and some of her sea salt. "We put this into the chiller until time to cook. Now we get started on this quiche. You want to cut spinach or make bread crumbs?"
"I'll cut up the spinach, unless you want to. Are you going to grate bread?"
"Yep. Wash that spinach good, remember. Yesterday they have ham sandwiches on pumpernickel for lunch. I use the pumpernickel -- Thomas left it out to get dry. I chop them up in food processor."
"Here, let me get that out for you. It's heavy."
"You are such a caregiver, Glory. Thank you."
Gloria moved to the far side of the island as usual, so that she could work with the spinach and keep an eye on how Maria did things. It was simple to press a button and watch the dry pieces of bread turn into crumbs, but then the cook added a teaspoon of oregano, a teaspoon of chili powder and a teaspoon of black pepper, whirled the breadcrumbs again. She poured the crumbs out into a bowl, changed the blade from chopper to dough blade, and poured the crumbs back in. To this she added a stick and a half of margarine, cut into tablespoon-sized chunks. The food processor turned it into a gooey dark mass. "You try this at home, it's pretty good. Get me a dozen eggs, the block of cheddar, and the half and half, also new bowl for processor and the grater blade, okay? I'm sorry I make you do all this."
"Don't worry, Maria. When you get back in December, I'll let you pamper me a little." She helped her boss cut the cheese into pieces that easily fit in the feeder of the food processor.
"Now we make assembly line," Maria said, sitting in her chair. "I break eggs one at a time into this bowl, if they're good, you dump them in that bowl and whisk. Last batch of eggs I get from Kikkert, I find three ugly eggs, with blood in them. I don't want to have to throw out ten eggs just because one is bloody."
"Does that make them poisonous, like with salmonella?"
"No, no, just ugly. Bakers don't want to eat ugly eggs, husbands and sons don't want to eat ugly eggs. Ugly eggs you feed to your dog or cat, or back to the chickens. Unless you're really hungry, then you don't care, just shut your eyes. They don't taste different." She wagged her head. "Maybe just a little strong."
They added three cups of half and half into the eggs, whisked them with a little white pepper, salt, and paprika. Then Maria pushed one large pie pan towards Gloria. "Flour your hands. Easy to make the crust." And it was easy. They just pressed the crumbs against the sides, forming a dark crust. Gloria had done it before with graham cracker crumbs, but the pumpernickel crumbs really looked good, and would be a gorgeous contrast to the eggs.
"Time for our food. We chop onions, celery, into tiny pieces. We're going to melt butter, cook first onions and celery, then fish -- take about fifteen minutes. Here, I show you what happened with the fish head and tail." She made her way to the walk-in refrigerator and picked up two mason jars of broth. "See? No fish eyeballs. Just good stuff."
"Did you just throw the head and tail out, then?"
"Oh, no. Someone on the dish wash staff wanted them, I don't know what for.
"This package is what was left over from the fish we trimmed last week. I froze it, all little strips and pieces. Plus we got the catfish pieces. You cut them up, too, into little pieces, just right for on a spoon."
While Gloria did so, Maria put the remainder of the container of half and half into a glass measuring cup, and added tablespoons of corn starch, Gloria missing how many in order to keep from cutting her own fingers off. While she continued to cut the little strips of catfish -- she knew from her shopping that frequently the catfish nuggets were a lot cheaper than hamburger -- Maria put a huge soup pot on the stove and dumped two sticks of butter into it, set the burner on low.
"Bakers don't like butter, but we use it for us?" Gloria asked timidly.
"You bet. Margarine is good for some frying, like our chicken, good for cookies, good for basting on the outdoor grill -- oh, boy, you wait till next summer when we get barbecued chicken -- but in fish soup, butter is better." She dumped the mostly-thawed package of frozen fish bits into the pot unceremoniously.
Under Maria's direction, Gloria put her cut-up catfish pieces into the pot, and let them sizzle gently in the butter, onion, and celery. The frozen fish had thawed. She stirred it carefully, coating each piece with the melted butter, curious about what was to come.
In the mean time, Maria was tossing the spinach with the shredded cheddar cheese. "Set oven at four twenty-five!" she shouted, and Gloria did so. "Fish done yet? Good! Pour in one jar of fish broth, and the half and half, make sure you stir the cream and get all the corn starch off the bottom of the cup!"
The aroma of the fish and broth was making Gloria's mouth water. She moved her wooden spoon around, knowing the corn starch was going to thicken the soup considerably. As Maria returned from the chiller with the quiche crusts, she swooped by the stove. "Oh, good, thickening nice. Other jar of fish broth, please."
Thickening nice? This stuff is like glue with fish chunks! It smells so good, I hope we're not ruining it. The second jar of fish broth cut the thickness somewhat, but it was still more like a topping than a soup.
Maria had sprinkled the cheddar cheese and spinach mixture into the pie dishes. Just as the oven temperature alert went off, she poured the egg and cream mixture into the pie shells, over the cheese. Gloria took one and Maria the other and put them into the oven. "Set timer for 15 minutes. That go off, then we cut back the heat to three fifty. Reset timer for twenty-five minutes. Then we just check until it's done. You know how to check?"
"Knife blade in the center has to come out clean."
"You do good. Let's look at the fish."
Maria stirred the pot. "See how thick it is? We going to make it thicker. Get bag of frozen hash browns from the freezer."
Concerned with the ease of the dish, Gloria added the bag of cubed potatoes to the pot. "That's going to cool it down a lot."
Nodding, Maria said, "That's why there are two of us. You can stand here and keep an eye on it, keep it from sticking on the bottom. When the potatoes are all thawed and hot, then we add milk, a little at a time, until we have a nice thickness. Got it?"
"I sit on my fat ass and cut up little tomatoes for garnish and vitamin C."
Gloria grinned and shook her head. She loved this kitchen already, and far from the trepidation she'd felt at meeting Maria originally, her opinion of the woman had grown tremendously. She had an urge to know more about her, her history, her own opinions, what her household was like, what she thought about life.
I'm falling in love, Gloria thought. What is it I'm falling in love with? She was not having romantic feelings for Maria, of course, nor did she wish that Maria was her mother. But there was a steadiness to Maria that Gloria envied, a solidness, a presence. Maria would not be moved if she didn't choose to do so. Maria would put up with no guff, and she had the territory in which to do so. Aha! That's part of it! The kitchen belonged to Maria in a way that no place belonged to Gloria. Here, she was Maria's minion, and at home, even though she more or less ran the place, she would always be the child, not even the minion. The minion has a place in the hierarchy of tyranny, the child does not. The child is perpetually someone who is expected to get their aging ass out the door and make a place in the world.
Her relationship with her mother had been fine as long as Gloria had been going to school, preparing to flee the nest. Ben was still a dependent, so he was completely welcome there. Will had been borderline, still a kid, and expected to follow Gloria into further schooling, after which time he was supposed to get off his duff and make a life for himself. But since Gloria had dropped out of school, fallen back and retrenched in their household, with Will and Ben in partnership, things had been tense. Gloria's shock at her father's marital transgressions and her outrage at Philli's acceptance thereof had stretched the relationship with her mother very, very thin. We've challenged Mom's territory, Gloria thought sadly, stirring the pot of fish and potatoes. I didn't realize that. But if we had asked her permission, she'd have tried to keep us all children, and now -- how weird is this -- we're not. We've gone from Leave It To Beaver sitcoms to a wolf pack, bringing home the prey and sharing it in our cave.
The potatoes were thawed, and the pot had begun to bubble thickly again. Gloria picked up a spoon and tasted a potato to make sure it was heated through, which it was, and went to get milk. She began to add it, right from the jug, a little at a time, stirring, letting the soup reheat, a little more, a little more. Finally she said to Maria, "Could you please check this? I think it's done."
"Yep, that's good. This pot, see how high the liquid is. This tells you there's enough for the staff to eat. You taste it? Why not? You have to taste every thing you make, make sure it tastes like what you wanted to make. There, how is it?"
"Insanely good. I love it. I want to marry it."
Maria threw her head back and laughed. "That is good! This fish soup is better than a lot of men, that's the truth! Keep an ear out for the timer on the quiches, you make me laugh so hard I have to go to the Ladies."