Recipe for Success
“It’s made with butter.”
“To do gravy right, you have to use chicken fat.”
“No, butter. What shtetl did you come from?”
I stood at the door to the Matewan Senior Center lunchroom and listened as four elderly women chatted around a table.
“My stuffing had mushrooms, oysters and onions.”
“I used celery, pecans and figs.”
I looked around the common room with its institutional blue walls with gray trim. Over the sink hung posters on washing hands and avoiding the flu. I felt like I was entering surgery and should lay myself out on the scrubbed metal table.
I downed all but the dregs of the stale coffee from the aluminum urn.
The four ladies turned and looked up at me.
“I’m Carol Ferrall and I am your tea—”
“Don’t ask what happened to our last teacher.”
“She died—heart attack. So young.”
My dry lips stuck between a smile and a grimace. Mother had said, “It won’t kill you to volunteer at the Senior Center.” Liar. But how could these little old ladies be as difficult as my mother? They didn’t know where all my buttons were, so they couldn’t wind me up and then play rollicking chords and trills with them as if I were a hurdy-gurdy. And teaching would help me stop thinking all the time about food. I’d prepared a killer lesson plan with Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm.” I was ready.
“Did you bring us anything?” one asked.
“Yes, some poems—”
“The old teacher brought cookies,” another interrupted.
“I’ve come to help you write your stories,” I said, sitting down at the table.
“We already did. We brought them to read aloud.”
I fingered the pages of my opening lecture on death and the consolation of poetry, then my handouts of mournful poems.
“I’m happy to read, Cara,” the one in the poppy print shirt said. “My name is Rose.” The scent of gardenia wafted from her as she put on her glasses.
“All right.” I could postpone my talk until after her piece.
“This is called ‘Remembrance of Things Pasta.’ When I was young, during the Depression, my mother made salad with dandelions she cut from an abandoned lot, then sliced squash into thin strips she cooked in tomato broth, like pasta.
“When I was fifteen, I went to work in a grocery store. The owner pinched me but I pinched back. Tit for tat. I ate olives and swallowed the pits to hide the evidence, shoved tins of anchovies into my pants pockets and stuffed wedges of Parmesan between my breasts. Once fattened up, the pinches didn’t hurt so much. I made a drop-dead puttanesca sauce.
“Now my grandson is a celebrity chef in a raw food restaurant. I say you’re not a cook if it’s all raw. Last week, he was on TV tossing a wild-foraged mesclun salad—that’s fancyspeak for weeds. My grandson showed off how he makes pasta from squash. He mixed in lots of spices, but to me, it still tastes like wartime.” Rose lowered the page to her lap.
Her neighbor in the yellow cardigan patted her back and then raised her hand.
“Karen, can I go next?”
“OK, and you are?”
“Call me Ruthie.”
She started to read.
“I can’t believe that when we go, all our memories vanish forever. No one will ever know how it feels to be me. How can the sound of Jackie Robinson’s bat cracking in Ebbets Field not exist in the world? Where does it go? Nobody remembers his team as the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers.
“But when we die, the bad memories disappear, too. As long as I live, I can never wash out the taste like chalk in the mouth when I say the name of another young soldier dead in the war. So many just came back to us as a handful of words, the name of a village we’d never heard of and a date, sometimes months past, that we had spent in ignorance, far too casually. We were left with no flesh, no bone, no burial stone, just a lump in the throat.
“One afternoon, the summer after V-E Day, a watermelon appeared in the tub of our kitchen, miraculous as if the baby Jesus had come to our railroad apartment for a bath. We saved the seeds and made watermelon pickle with the rind. To this day, those arcs of pink and green are bridges back to summer, 1945. The bitterness preserves the memory while sugar dissolves the pain.”
A cell phone chirped the “Hokey Pokey” and Rose fumbled hers, poking at the front, but the song went on. She tried to pass it to Ruthie but dropped it.
I crawled on my hands and knees between their thin, stockinged legs. Among the sensible shoes lay another Jitterbug, and it was the one ringing.
When we sorted out the phones, a jingling bracelet alerted me to a woman waving a sheet of paper.
“Yoo hoo, Carly, I want to read.” She shook her bracelet full of gold hearts inscribed with names.
“My name is Doris. The secret everyone knew in my family was that Father had a mistress. Fridays, he came home late for dinner. The silence at the table was like a burnt roast too tough to chew. I still cringe at the sound of a knife scraping china. I like things you can eat with a spoon, like soup.” Doris touched the elephant brooch at her throat.
“What I didn’t realize until too late is that we relive the same year over and over. We get a blank calendar at New Year’s but not a new book of life—we write each holiday over all those that came before.
“Here’s a soup my Nana used to make the Sunday after Thanksgiving with leftover roast parsnips, onions, carrots, beets, and turnips. First, sauté garlic with white beans, puree and add broth. Then toss in roast vegetables and gold raisins. Toast slivered almonds and bread with a bit of salt, olive oil and rosemary and sprinkle them over the soup bowls.”
“You want? Go ahead. But I fed my first husband to death, then with the second I got wise.”
“He still died,” Rose said.
“Well, it wasn’t my fault.” Doris shrugged.
I couldn’t remember what I wanted to teach them—something about loss? I felt forgetful, forgotten and shrunken, as if I’d aged fifty years in an hour. I checked the calendar on the wall, “Compliments of Fiore Funeral Parlor.”
“I’ll read next,” said a woman in a velour jacket with tigers prowling among tiger lilies that matched her ginger hair.
“Sure, go ahead,” I waved my hand and knocked the coffee cup so the dregs drenched the morose poems.
“Those little beans have sailed around the world for us to spill them. I’m Lois. Do you remember the bean dishes of yesterday? No. If you want someone to remember you, carve your name into his heart with a steak or cake knife.
“Nowadays, on birthdays—which seem to come quicker every year—we get a white sheet with blue frosting, that looks the way it tastes, like a gravestone in winter.
“Either I take the recipe for my family cake to the grave, or it takes me. On holidays, my Grandma Lillian in Newark made this. I call it Lady Newark cake, in her honor. First you grind up hazelnuts, then mix them into the buttercream frosting.”
My stomach grumbled—if I’d brought cookies, I would have eaten the last of them right then.
“How do you make buttercream?” I said, scribbling notes in the margin of my lesson plan.
“You have to ask? Whip butter, fine sugar and vanilla. Soak bits of apricot in brandy and then add them to the batter.”
“The frosting batter?” I asked.
“No the batter at home plate. Where were you raised up? The cake batter.”
“What goes in the batter?”
“I told you, drunken apricots.”
“Are you one of those young things with doctorates who don’t know which end to stuff a chicken?”
“Actually, I haven’t gone to college yet,” I confessed.
“You came to teach us and you don’t have a degree?” Doris raised her arms, and her charms rattled in protest.
“The only one I need is culinary,” I whined, lowering my forehead to the drenched, maudlin poems.
“We should be teaching you,” Ruthie said.
“You are.” I lifted my head.
“Make the batter with flour, sugar, three eggs and salt.”
“How much salt?” I asked.
“Look, honey, what’s your name again? Salt is like sex. If you don’t know when to put it in and how much, you’ll never keep a husband.”
Holly Woodward is a writer and artist. She wants to thank Victor LaValle for his wise advice on writing. “Recipe for Success” is a short scene from her novel, Tale Told by an Idiot.