Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kitchen Nightmares or Why I am not a Cook

The Bishop’s Wife

My mother was never a good cook on her best days but when company came for a meal she pulled out all of the stops and tried her best to deliver edible hot food to the table in a timely fashion.

This was of course complicated by the fact that more often than not these company meals were served right after church on Sunday and folks expected to walk in the door of the parsonage and take a seat at the dining room table. Mom was expected to be present at the church service, of course, and yet there was this meal she was supposed to be preparing from scratch.

The meals were usually based around roast chicken or roast beef. Mom had those two down pretty good – she could throw in potatoes with the meat and over boil up some green beans or carrots pretty fast when she made the mad dash to arrive home before our guests. Her best dessert consisted of store-bought angel food cake, layered in chunks with great dollops of vanilla ice cream and blobs of chocolate syrup and then re-frozen in an angel food cake pan and served with Ready Whip. No baking, no cooking – only assembly required – mom loved recipes like this!

Methodists don’t have a lot in the way of a church hierarchy – the men my mom lived in fear of having to feed were the District Superintendent (DS) or horror of horrors, the Bishop. The DS was more of a regular fellow and had a closer relationship with the ministers – saw them more frequently, perhaps because he oversaw smaller territories than the Bishops.

One day the Bishop and his wife were scheduled to visit our church – the Bishop would preach the sermon that morning and then they would eat Sunday dinner with us, and they would be off to their next function.

Mom had foolishly decided to venture outside of her established repertoire of roast beef and roast chicken – she told dad to buy steak. Dad was not very pleased with the cut of the steak that was available but mom became determined to serve this. It was not a really expensive cut of meat and after her usual routine of a lengthy and low temperature cooking procedure, the steaks ended up very much akin to shoe-leather.

During the meal there was little conversation as everyone was occupied with the cutting and the attempts at chewing and then swallowing this very dry steak. My mother was mortified by all of this and tried gamely to move on to dessert by clearing away the dinner plates. The Bishop’s wife was still sawing away at her steak and my mom gently told her, “That’s OK, you don’t have to eat that.” The woman stubbornly hung onto her plate and said, “I’m going to finish this if it kills me.”

I remember that the Bishop and his wife beat a most hasty retreat right after dessert that day.

Breaking the Mold

My grandmother (mom’s mother) was a fabulous cook – her specialties were just about everything – roasts, pies, cakes, cookies, and casseroles. She had her written recipes but she was a “pinch of this” and a “dash of that” kind of cook – running on sheer instinct.

This instinct skipped my mom’s generation (as well as mine!). Mom suffered mightily for this imagined flaw in her character: after all, she was a Minister’s Wife and she felt she was expected to possess many talents to serve each parish as the preacher’s helpmeet. Other preachers had wives who played piano or organ, sang in or led choirs, taught Sunday School – but mom’s health and her shyness precluded any of these.

Mom struggled with cooking – she had the decorating and clothing aspects of entertaining down cold but the food part eluded her. Church food committees soon learned that it was best to just ask her for a nice Jello salad. Of course in her unceasing endeavor to make a good impression (for the sake of my father), she usually made the attempt to create a Jello mold.

Lime Jello, green grapes, banana slices, canned pineapple chunks – these were the main ingredients of the Jello mold. That part was doable. The tricky bit was the unmolding of the ring. Manys the time when mom resorted to slipping the pan into a sink full of warm water – to encourage the Jello ring to depart the mold. Of course the pan would sink into the sink and water would dissolve the Jello and green grapes and banana slices and the pineapple chunks would be found floating lazily in the sink full of green-tinged water. And mom would be found flung across her bed, weeping.

The Birthday Cake

Dad and I arrived back home in Albion very late one evening – we had been out visiting hospitalized church members all the way over in Rochester. It was Dad’s birthday, October 13, and we had been gone all day – we had pretty much forgotten about celebrating.

We entered through the back door into an almost completely dark house (most unusual since my mother usually kept every light on in the place when she was alone). Mom was nowhere to be found but there, in the corner of the kitchen, on top of the chest freezer and illuminated by one gooseneck desk lamp, was a cake.

This was not just any cake: this cake had a rusty orange zinnia with a broken stem drooping in the middle of it. A large white candle kind of angled out of the cake like a cannon. The white frosting was flecked with chocolate cake crumbs; the frosting was all over the cake plate. There were little birthday candles stuck here and there into the cake’s frosting and we also found several egg shells and a spoon wedged into this amazing creation. A few pieces of the cardboard cake mix box were also sticking out of the frosting.

Mom soon emerged from the darkened dining room and related the story of this cake. As usual, it was a layer cake that she had tried to bake. And as usual she had encountered problems removing the layers from the pans. When she had finally succeeded in prying the chunks of cake out of the pans, they really weren’t in “layers” anymore so she tried to “glue” everything back together with frosting. A few toothpicks inside to hold everything in place – voila!

Mom always had trouble with layer cakes because the layers never came out of the oven flat or even – they always dipped in one direction or the other – that is why she had to use toothpicks to hold the layers together. It was many, many years later that I discovered that ovens came with leveling feet – and that my poor mother’s years of problems over unlevel cake layers was not her fault but the fault of unleveled parsonage ovens!

But on this day in October this particular birthday cake was not cooperating with her and soon crumbs were in the frosting and frosting was everywhere. First she got mad - then she got creative. And because enough time had elapsed between when she made the cake and when dad and I came home, we all had a good laugh over the cake and cut it up and ate it. We just had to be really careful and watch out for those toothpicks!