***All rights reserved
After last Saturday, grappling with the disappointment of three failed recipes in one night, I was finally willing to accept that instinctive, improvisational cooking is my thing—throwing odds and sods in a pot and trusting that all will be well.
The only dish that really stood out was the one I threw together on the fly: The fennel soup was a Michelin star, the rest was comme ci comme ca.
Anyway, recipe rebellion is my birthright and I shall claim it. When it comes to meal preparation, my mother’s attitude is either casual indifference or reckless abandon. In either case, she rarely plays by the rules, favouring the make-it-up-as-you-go approach. Like me, on the rare occasions when mom does follow a recipe, she usually gets burned.
The kitchen wasn’t pretty—the linoleum was that horrific 1970s faux brick—and the floor plan too snug. The day we moved in, my father, who was not a handy man, picked up the gauntlet laid down by the movers who told him, “The fridge will never fit.”
Armed with a jar of Vaseline he said, “Stand back fellas and watch this!” At which point he greased up the fridge, the floor and the walls and brokered a more intimate threesome than the makers of Vaseline ever dreamed possible.
The only saving grace of that kitchen—besides my mother’s joie de vivre and dad’s sense of the limitless potential of petroleum jelly—was that it had an island. Kitchen islands are the inspiration for so much domestic theatre. They lend themselves to audience and performance, thus the well-stocked pantry of memories.
“What’s the dental floss for?” I asked my mother one afternoon, pulling up a barstool.
My mother is not a timid woman, but on this day her hands trembled as she tried to evenly wrap a long strip of floss around the middle of a cooked slab of cake. The copy of Chatelaine Magazine that she’d been working from was open to a stunning photograph of what was to be: a 7-layer chocolate delight. She’d consulted the glossy pages again and again, flipping back and forth, chewing one corner of her bottom lip in a deep trance—the kind she went into whenever she did math in her head.
“The measurements have to be exact” she’d said earlier that morning, slowly using a butter knife to scrape a small mound of flour from the top of a measuring cup—another too-careful posture we weren’t accustomed to seeing. She’d chaired the Bon Soo Cooking Contest that year and the fledgling gourmand was testing her wings.
Sadly, it was the fretful process of severing the cakes into thin layers that proved to be her undoing.
“Maybe I should have let them cool down more?” she said, disheartened by the crumbling scene before her.
Even if the cakes had been completely cool, the project was doomed from the start. In addition to being hideous, our kitchen floor was slanted and nothing ever baked level in the oven. She’d tried her best, but it was impossible to make straight what was destined to be crooked.
In the end, when the hope of bringing the glamorous Chatelaine photograph to life had faded to black, there was no tantrum, no tears. Mom did what good-natured cooks through the ages have done and made the best of it, assembling broken pieces like a puzzle, gluing everything together with icing and toothpicks.
Always her devoted cheerleaders, my sister and I sang our ‘attagirl’ anthem: “It’s still gonna’ taste great!”
My bottom lip remains sore from the vigorous chewing it got last Saturday. I kept a notepad by the stove to keep track of my 30-minute rotations and other careful manoeuvres that were required at each stage of my superstar dish. The editors of Saveur Magazine’s New Classics Cookbook promised that my pork loin braised in milk and cream was “a culinary art form.”
Culinary art form, maybe, Jackson Pollock style—what a mess! The meat was still pink, never mind braised. I had to butcher the roast and then boil it in the sauce that was not, under any circumstances, supposed to come to a boil.
“Just a few more minutes” I called towards the dining room, in a falsetto voice, trying to sound breezy and capable, hoping the meal I was about to serve wasn’t going to be anyone’s last.
“That soup was amazing!” my husband cheered when I finally brought the pork salmagundi to the table.
“Yes, it’s a keeper,” I said.
Don’t bother asking me for the recipe, though... I haven’t the first clue how to make that again.
Michelle Hauser is a former professional fundraiser turned humorist and freelance writer. She lives in Eastern Ontario (Canada) with her husband Mark and their son Joseph. Please click here to sign up for her monthly Newsletter.