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April 15, 2024

Place Settings 27

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Twenty-seven: Pork Makes Peace Possible

"I'm going to have this beast sit in the roasting pan for about an hour, let it come to room temperature, and let the seasonings just kind of melt into the fat. Salt, pepper, and garlic powder, that's all. Is that okay with you?"

"Your roast, you season it how you want. Sometimes cumin is good, but not the essential element, maybe if you have it with rice, but not so much with mashed potatoes." Maria picked up the handset to her phone, pressed buttons. "Hey, Francisca, is Rafael around? Can I borrow him for a little while, see if my toilet is okay to use? Good enough, please ask him to call me back."

As Gloria rubbed spices into the outside of the roast, she spoke over her shoulder. "Not trusting us to do it?"

"Eh, we could, but I want a man to blame if it goes wrong. You are doing a big roast. Lot of meat."

"Yes, and I'm doing it early. If it comes out the way I hope it will, I'm going to take half of it and mend fences. My thought is that if I show up on my mother's doorstep with a pork roast memory from 15 years ago, she'll have no choice but to be nice if she wants to eat some of it." She washed the spices and pork fat from her hands. "Mom doesn't talk about missing her sisters, but she paid memory to that pork roast almost every year. We just never thought we had the skill set to replicate it. But now, thanks to the vanity of a million cooks on the internet, I think I've got the key."

"What key?" Maria mumbled. "You just cook at a low temperature, is all."

"Aha, but that's not all. The recipe I'm going to try says to cook the pork to about 175 degrees, then pull it out and let it sit for a half hour, then sear the crust of it for 15 minutes at 475. The chef-person guarantees that when you taste the fat cap after that, you'll try to hog the whole thing."

"I learned that you put the high heat on first."

"That's the way we did the standing rib roast, and it was great. But this is called 'reverse searing,' at least I think that was what it was called." She shrugged. "The picture of it looked good, so I thought I'd give it a try."

"Get the computer, show me this picture. Can you find it again?" Maria's brow furrowed. "Still learning, can't find deedles on the thing."

"That will come with time, be patient. My parents got us computers as soon as they were available, so we practically grew up with them. For my brothers and me, it's just what we expect. For you, it's a big smack from Futureworld, right?"

"You know what I do like? I find newspaper cartoons on the internet, like I remember from Bedencourt's newspapers -- maybe best thing about him -- I go back in time and read an hour's worth of Blondie, with Dagwood and his dog Daisy. You know she hasn't changed since before my sons were born?"

Laughing, Gloria said, "I don't know if she's changed since the 1930s. She was supposed to be a flapper."

"Gloria, I grew up on a dairy with no TV or radio or newspaper. What you talking about?"

"Sorry. A flapper was a popular social girl in the late 1920s, drinking illegal booze and going to dance halls and speakeasies."

"Huh. She sure has aged well. I read more of the comic, find out who her cosmetic surgeon is, or when she made deal with the devil."

Around one o'clock Saturday afternoon, Gloria pulled up by the driveway of Philli and Joe's house. She called her mother's number. "Hello, Mom. I'm outside on the street with a Christmas season present for you. Do you want me to drive on, or do you want me to come inside?"

Before her mother had said more than "Gloria," Ben burst out the front door, arms wide. "You're here!" he cried.

"Come on in," Philli said, dryly. "Did you tell him to do that?"

"No, Mom, I didn't. Be happy, I've got a blast from the past for you."

"What's this?" Ben said, dipping his head to sniff at the cooking pot. "Oh, my god, that smells good, and it's still warm."

"Quit fondling our mother's Christmas present, you little pervert. Hey Joe, how are you?" She held out the pot. "Here, could you carry this to the kitchen for me?" As Philli approached in the entry hallway, Gloria held out her arms. "Mom, it's good to see you. I hope you like what I've made for you."

Left with no other choice, Philli gave her a somewhat tentative hug. When Gloria wrapped her arms around her shorter mother, Philli relaxed a little, and hugged back more happily. "You're an ass," she whispered.

"Yep. You taught me well, Ma."

They stared at each other's eyes, and began to smile at the same time. Philli threw her head back and laughed. "I did, didn't I?"

"Come taste this, Mom. You're not going to believe it."

Ben and Joe were ahead of her, slicing small pieces off the roast with steak knives, piling them into their mouths.

"You pigs, that's my present!" Philli sputtered. "Give me that knife!" She cut a piece of the pork roast with a topping of the crusted fat cap, put it into her mouth. Her eyes shut. She put a hand to her lips, and a tear leaked out down her cheek. "It's like I'm back at Nedda and Gwen's, before Ben was even born, when they got Jack Haskins to roast that ..."

"That's what I was thinking about. I was just little, so my memory of it isn't all that accurate, but I think ..."

"I think you took what Jack did and improved it. That ... is incredible."

"Merry Christmas season, Mom. I love you so much."

Philli hugged her daughter, this time more confidently, more honestly. "I love you, too, Gloria." She dropped her voice to a mutter. "I know I'm a hothead, I'm sorry."

"Of course I'm not, and never have been," Gloria assured her. "So I wouldn't know anything about that."

"Recipe," Ben interrupted. "Give."

"Yes, do," added Joe. "I've never tasted pork like that."

"It's been seconded and thirded -- wait, that sounds somehow unsavory -- but anyway, how did you figure out how to do this?" Philli lifted the pork roast out onto a platter, put the butter dish on the table, got forks for everyone and a couple steak knives. "Here's a loaf of French bread I got this morning. There are pickles or cheese or pepperoncinis in the fridge, get what you like. Have at it, this is not an occasion you stand on ceremony for. I'm certainly not going to."

Ben jumped up from the table, his mouth still full. "I'll slice up some of the oranges from our tree. Perfect side, perfect California meal."

"Are you guys junking out on the food channels?" asked Philli. "I've cooked for longer than Gloria has been alive, but Ben and you are ... you guys are breaking ground that I never taught you."

"Yes, we are, I think. You gave us all the fundamentals, taught us the basic moves, but then ..."

"But then, the recession hit us all like a train whipping through downtown, and we had to adapt. It was like, This is all you got left, what are you going to do with it to feed yourselves?"

Philli bit into a slice of orange, then followed it with a carved piece of pork with the crispy fat cap. "Shit, that's incredible. Yeah, once I took that night job, I kind of went into a robotic get-up-go-to-work-get-it-done mode. I didn't even care if what I ate was good, food was just fuel, I didn't even wait to get home -- if one of my co-workers brought fast food in, I just ate it, and chipped in a few dollars. Too tired to think, too tired to even appreciate what you were doing, Glory."

"That was obvious, Mom. Thank you for what you did to keep us alive." It's what you have to say. You can't say, well, you weren't too tired to be on the hunt, now were you?

As though reading her mind, Ben redirected the conversation. "Give us the secrets, Witch-head, or I'll hack your damn computer and find out your browsing history for myself. How did you do this?"

"Ben!" Philli said. "Knock it off!"

"Chill, brother. I'll send you all the link to the recipe. Bottom line: 300 degree oven, 40 minutes per pound. When the roast gets to 175 degrees, take it out of the oven and let it sit on the counter for a half an hour."

"What?" Philli shook her curls. "It'll get cold."

"Not cold enough to mess it up. After the half-hour, you throw it back into a 475 degree oven for 15 minutes, let that seasoned fat cap scorch. You all tasted it, you know it's good."

They sliced and snacked for an hour or more, then Joe stood, and asked Ben to help him with some computer problem he had. Gloria understood that Joe was giving her and Philli a little time alone.

"Mom," Gloria said after some long silence, "I love what I'm doing so much. I had no idea that cooking would be so much fun, so rewarding -- it's like I got the chance to explore a food jungle, complete with artifacts and directions I never knew existed."

"You thought it would just be a make-do job."

"I did, and I was wrong. At first, it was overwhelming, so many little rules to follow, but they weren't hard, and once I got the basics down, it was like an explosion of possibilities. Still is. And yes, I junk out when I'm off-duty, looking at food stuff online, or on TV -- now that I've got TV at my place -- and I can't wait to apply it to my work."

Philli sighed. "Do you need to go to culinary school? We can help with that."

"No," Gloria assured her. "I don't. I can handle the Baker kitchen repertoire, it's not overly complicated. And while I don't rule it out somewhere down the road, I can't afford to take the time to do that for a while. Maria is finally thinking about taking something like ten years' worth of vacation this summer, and that will put me in the Head Cook seat while she's gone. I can do it. And when she goes -- she's talking about going to Portugal to discover her roots -- her house will be in my charge, too." She raised her arms in the air. "I will become the Maria-Surrogate."

Philli seemed to shrink a little, not a relaxing, maybe more like a relinquishing. "Okay. I guess I was ... jealous ... that Maria was a Mother-Surrogate."

"Not at all, Mom. Never for a minute."

* * *

After Gloria had put away her coat and purse, and returned to the downstairs, Maria turned the TV off and raised her eyebrows. "You seem happy. All went well?"

"It was good, Maria. My mom tasted that roast and backed down off Dragon Mountain."

"Terrible thing to say about your mom," Maria responded. "But I can understand. I snitched a whole sandwich worth of it while you were gone. I buy you another one."

Gloria laughed. "You don't have to. It was a cooking experiment, and there's still plenty to make into chili, even after I put some by for some sandwiches for Steve when he comes over this evening."

"There you go. You give him some of that roast and he won't forget you while he's off in wine country."

"I'll say to him, here, Steve, here's a little something to remember me by ..."

"He'll take a picture of it with his phone, look at it every night before he goes to sleep."

"Well, Maria, that's not quite what I had in mind, but it wouldn't be a bad idea ..."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-06-07
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
03:13:00 PM
Food, I think, is the major metaphor of this story. There was the struggle to put food on the table, to acquire money to buy food, to prepare food in order to make a living, to set cooked food down among a family and have a dinner and conversation around the meal. The world of each of the characters seems to begin and mature woth the preparation of food.
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