Monday, September 16, 2013

Seventeen Going On Eighteen

During my senior year in high school, I took home economics with Mrs. P. The bulk of my repertoire at the time included banana bread and its many variations, but I came eager to learn how to transform eggs, butter, and sugar into cake, ground beef into meatballs, or flour, water, and yeast into bread. A teenager is always starving and I was no exception. There was no limit to my appetite and the 6th period class came late in the afternoon when I would've eaten my binder if it weren't for the promise of macaroni and cheese or shredded carrot raisin salad with honey mustard dressing.

Our co-ed class met in a big airy room with a cheery light that came through the windows. It felt like being let out of prison. Finally, in this space between the deep sinks, four burner stoves, and Mrs. P's pantry, I felt free. I didn't know it at the time, nor did I have a word for it--the closest image I can draw for you is that of Julie Andrews on the green Alpine pastures, breaking into song. Most of my classmates weren't there to learn how to feed themselves. Let's face it, it was an easy A and despite her stern expression, Mrs. P was a sweetheart, a P-for-pussycat who had been teaching for thirty years and passed the A's like a platter of snickerdoodles--more on her generosity later. Her curriculum focused on comfort food, dishes I turned to again and again in college. Except for her wonderful bran muffin recipe (the only one I've ever had that didn't taste like tree bark), there was no back-to-the earth, holier-than-whole buckwheat and barley gruel. She started each lesson by handing out a recipe or two, three-hole punched for our Home Ec binders, then walked away, leaving us to gather the ingredients, to weigh and measure. Oh, how I wished she wouldn't turn her back because the moment she disappeared around the corner into her office (more like a cubby in the back where I think she took the edge off with a pony of sherry), the first raisins followed by a scoop of ketchup (yes, we made our own) flew across the kitchen to land at your feet, if you were lucky, but often on your neck. This business of a "food fight" and its battle cry was as alien to me as pink hair and punk rock. Call me prudence, but this was where you could single me out as the foreign student. Throwing food was not only unthinkable and barbaric, but my mother would've yanked the hair from my scalp if I threw a grape in the air and tried to catch it. I had no choice but to appoint myself as the class monitor, at first begging them with Come on guys, stop it please, to emphatic cries of Children are starving in Ethiopia! Of course, it was useless but little did I know that trying to maintain order in a kitchen full of teenagers would be my first step to becoming a chef. Bless my friends for taking it well and girding the area around me, but they weren't about to stop. After all, what better place to offer their affection to the person they fancied?When you're young and savage, you show your love with a lump of baking chocolate and butter slipped into an unbuttoned polo shirt. A juvenile be-my-valentine, but effective.

Mrs. P emerged from her cubby, tall and teetering a little on her sensible heels, to praise our efforts, refusing a taste with an elegant wave of her hand, Oh no dear, I couldn't possibly digest that! She had sampled enough meatloaf and quick bread, knowing the good ones from the bad at a glance. We were dismissed lovingly and allowed to take home the remains of our cakes and custards. 

One March afternoon, upon receiving my first college rejection letter, I went to class with a lump in my throat. One of those lumps that a tap on my shoulder or a simple Are you okay? would have me dissolve into a puddle of tears--you know the kind. At five feet three inches, I came to Mrs. P's waist and she folded in half to look into my eyes before shooing me to her office where I wept on her shoulder and she brought me a glass of cold water and actually said there, there. When my hiccups subsided, she suggested I stop by her house for a chat one evening. I rode my bike to her little bungalow and she greeted me at the door in the same belted knee-length dress she wore to school (did I expect she'd be wearing sweatpants?) and ushered me to "the parlor" for a little glass of sherry served in a doll size cordial glass. I smelled almonds but tasted figs. Less than an ounce, but enough to overcome my awkward disposition so I could sit on a beautiful old chair across from her. She didn't offer me a cigarette (that would've blown my mind), it was a thrill just watching my teacher light one in front of me-- a smoke signal that graduation was near and we would part friends. Mrs. P spent the next hour asking me about what I expected to do with my life. No one had ever asked before. She didn't realize that I was straw in the wind, that she had given me the confidence to shape my longings into food, to tide over that gnawing hunger. 

It all started in a home economics class that is no longer offered in high school. I thought of Mrs. P after reading and commiserating with Jim Sollisch's article, Cooking is Freedom, in the Sunday Times. He reminded me of my Julie Andrews moment.

Mrs. P's Snickerdoodles

4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

-Preheat oven to 350'.
-Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
-Add the egg and mix thoroughly.
-Fold in the flour, baking soda and salt. Mix just until combined.
-Chill the dough for 15-30 minutes before rolling into 1 inch balls.
-Combine cinnamon and sugar in a bowl.
-Toss the balls in cinnamon sugar, not at each other! 
-Place 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake 8-10 minutes until golden.