I was carrying bathwater to the porch when the phone rang.
“It’s a case for Mary!” said Cashier Robin, calling from the Food Coop. “A family here needs a cooking teacher for their new diet. No sugar, dairy, wheat, nightshades, citrus, peanuts, or chocolate. They’d like to pay you for a private lesson. Handing over the phone, Babe; you’re on the air.”
Jay and Grania, with their young thirdsome Chad, were endearing people with health issues — eczema, hay fever, indigestion, fatigue, headaches, melancholy, on and on. They took a macrobiotic class or two, bought the textbooks, soldiered on with their boiled millet and aduki beans and kale. “But it’s so overwhelming,” Jay explained. “Meal time used to be fun. Now we look at our plates and say ‘Is that supposed to taste like this?’ Most of all, we miss desserts. Can you make us some healthy desserts with recipes, enough to take some home?”
So we set up a dessert tasting party for the next day, Tuesday evening, at my house. Jay and Grania insisted on the generous rate of $25 apiece for our little expo. Meanwhile, Cashier Robin spotted Chef Roth walking in. Chef actually knew his saffron from his truffle oil, restored an abandoned greenhouse in his downtime leisure to raise herbs for restaurants, and in his high school was probably voted most likely to eat a blowfish. I’d be afraid to invite Chef. But when Cashier Robin got through with him he said “What a hoot! Sign me up.”
To my luck, this was a free day because I’d just turned in a proofreading job. (Sidebar: You know all about that proofreading job if you’ve already read this snippet here.) I poured the bathwater over the porch rail on to my daikon radish patch. Then I curled up on my sleeping bag with a clipboard and recipe books, and in my best printing wrote out detailed class notes for beginners, and recipes like these:
Quinoa cooked in apple juice with dried apricots and almond butter, then patted in a pan to cool and slice into squares.
Baked spaghetti squash with maple sauce
Vanilla soymilk pudding
Oatmeal cooked with raisins and roasted sesame seeds, then formed into nuggets and baked on a little dab of sesame oil like cookies
Trail mix with walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds roasted with a dash of wheat-free tamari, tossed with dried currants and snips of nori seaweed
Writing those out with instructions took a couple of hours. The morning was shimmering with heat, so I tied a dishrag on my hand to keep sweat from blurring the pages. Then I stopped to brush away a shiny black caraway seed that fell on the paper. Before my hand reached it, the caraway seed disappeared and reappeared at the same time, a foot away. I brushed at it again, but the seed was too fast for me. Then there were two seeds, both of them shooed away by the sheer magnetic force of my hand. Interesting. Perhaps the hot muggy weather had built up static electricity in the air? Well, this was no time for amateur science games. I biked my class handouts to the copy center, copied the recipes, and went to buy ingredients.
At the Food Coop I bought a spaghetti squash, four quarts of soymilk, and grains and nuts and dried fruit in paper bags from the bulk bins.
“That’s some lively music,” I said at the register. “New cassette?”
“Yes, it’s Pianosaurus,” said Cashier Robin.
“They sound a little clinky,” I said.
“Yup,” said Cashier Vern. “Rock band that plays only musical instruments made for children.”
Vern and Robin figured that if Pianosaurus could be famous with just toy instruments, then why not set up tofu buckets near the register so customers could play percussion while waiting in line. So people got in a few drum riffs while we waited.
“How about some French green clay while you’re here?” Robin suggested. “Should be just the thing.”
“For… what, a facial?”
“For those flea bites on your ankles.”
“Fleas? I don’t have a dog.”
“Right. That’s why they’re biting you.”
“I’ve never seen a flea in my…” Hey now. “Do they look like caraway seeds??”
So for my bike ride home in the noonday sun, with the other purchases I wedged in some green clay powder and a pump bottle of non-toxic flea soap. If that family had allergy and health issues, then I couldn’t take chances on having any of them getting bitten.
The bottle lost its cap on the way. At home I slipped off the knapsack. Foam came spuming out and overflowing from the now empty pump bottle. The recipe copies were soaked through. So were the paper bags of food. It took about an hour to clean everything up. I drank some kukicha twig tea, took a bowl bath, poured the water on the daikon patch, rinsed my clothes and hung them in the sun, took a half hour nap on the floor, slopped green clay paste all over my ankles, then went back to the Coop.
Manager Kurt rang up all my replacement bulk bin items while Robin and Vern finished unloading a truck delivery. Then, the two of them modeled new summer fashions improvised from their aprons and washrags (turban, bib, jaunty sash, mini-sarong), with the loading ramp as runway while the customers applauded and whistled. For my caraway seed issues, Kurt talked me into a bag of diatomaceous earth.
[Safety Warning! You must not, not, breathe diatomaceous earth. I didn’t know this then, but it’s a silicon abrasive and is a danger to lungs. Safe handling requires a special ventilator mask — and not the paper disposable mask people wear when they catch a cold. Don’t just schlepp it all over the floor the way I did.]
At home I unloaded the bulk bin items. I swiped diatomaceous powder around the wood floor and kitchen and bath. Then I packed up the sleeping bag and bedding and clothes and towels in a big rope bundle, and walked it on my bicycle to the laundromat and washed everything. During the washing and the drying cycles I biked home and scrubbed the floors. Then I carted home the laundry, put it away, made up the sleeping bag, drank some tea, took my dry clothes off the line, took a bowl bath, poured the water on the daikon patch, changed, rinsed the other clothes and hung them up, ate some oatmeal, crashed to a dead sleep on the clean sleeping bag, and woke up at 6:00.
The quinoa cake recipe sounded better than it tasted. With the nut butter and fruits it just tasted gummy and cloying. It wasn’t the thing for a family retuning their health. I put it in the fridge and rewrote the recipes, substituting a plain kanten gel with apple juice, agar, and tahini.
Then I made the vanilla soymilk pudding with kudzu powder and vanilla and rice syrup. When it cooled I hunkered down with a comforting bowlful.
The pudding was terrible; it tasted spoiled already. But how did that happen? I tasted each ingredient, re-enacted every step of that recipe, thought and thought. Finally I fished a carton out of the garbage and shook the last drop on my tongue. Yup, spoiled. The use-by date was… six months ago.
I took the four cartons and receipt back to the coop, stopping off to make copies of the kanten gel recipe.
Kurt was very apologetic, gave me four new cartons, and pulled all the expired cartons off the shelf. Vern rang up my agar and tahini and gallon of unfiltered apple juice.
By then the sun was lower in the sky. To take advantage of the cooler temperatures I made all four quarts of pudding (it tasted fine) and packed it in Mason jars in the fridge for next day. I tipped over into bed and was asleep in no time.
Some time after midnight there was a breeze, so to crawl into the sleeping bag I shook myself awake and sat up.
There were two glowing eyes in the room.
Now, if you pored over the Reader’s Digest as a kid, you too might have been scared up the wall by that story about the 1970s suburban family who wake up one night and find that they’re trapped in their electrified house. A downed power line and rain and a crossfire of positive or negative charges were flying all about. They try to flee but the electricity drags them down and flips them around, and only the dog figures out how to tiptoe from safe point to safe point and that’s how they escape. The first clue they had of trouble was the eerie eyes floating in the air on the staircase, formed by glowing water droplets. Or something.
After waking up with an unearthed literary memory like that, when the brain is overheated from toting groceries and flea products, seeing eyes by the bed feels like T.J. Eckleburg followed you home. It took half a minute of pulse crashing in my ears for me to puzzle out that they were two fireflies courting and sparking on my wall. How did they get in here?
While I wondered that, something rustled under the little wood frame that held up my sleeping bag. Not good. Not in a town where my friend woke up one day and found the living room full of wee rattlesnake hatchlings. I backed away from the bed, and out popped Velveteen Kitty. Kitty was a feral cat who shied away from humans and indoor living; the landlord left him bowls of cat chow and water outside. He was about 19 years old, a formerly black cat faded to a washed-out rusty color, with a staggering walk and velcro voice and frequent brief little spells where he would fall on the ground with his tongue out. Now he and a younger outdoor cat beelined across my room to the ceiling-to-floor window, swiped open a little hole in the screen that I didn’t know was there, and hopped outside as if they did this every day (which, as it turned out, they did). Outside before bolting into the brush they paused to scratch themselves all over. By then I was scratching too, so I slopped some more clay on my ankles, briefly fretted about the chores for the next day (1. Fix screen…), but soon tipped over and went back to sleep.
When the sun rose I fixed the screen with needle and thread. After a bowl bath (there was no shower; did I mention that? And the old bathtub was so large it would take far too much water to fill it for a decent bath) I changed and bundled up the sleeping bag and clothes for another trip to the laundromat. I spread around the rest of the diatomaceous earth, washed the floors, and put the laundry away. I picked up a new proofreading job at the press. I made pretty folders for the recipe copies, and arranged them on the desk with a glass of wild daisies.
Velveteen Kitty appeared at the window, clawing at the screen. Then he fell over with his tongue out. I hollered upstairs to Glen, who worked nights and rested by day, to come running with the Healing Hankie.
See, Glen had a catalogue of 500 Free Things that you can send for by mail order. One free goodie in his extensive collection was a healing cloth from a very famous television evangelist. Apparently the minister was eating lunch in a restaurant, when someone rushed in with news that a patient far away was gravely ill and needed laying on of hands for healing. The evangelist couldn’t go to the bedside, so he took a napkin, traced his handprint on it (like we did in school to make turkeys — those Thanksgiving cards for Mom’s fridge magnet), signed his name, and sent the messenger in the name of Jesus to lay the proxy napkin on the sick person. (Flash! St. Paul was “a man whose handkerchief healed people. They used to snitch his handkerchief, and it would heal people.” Mother Angelica says so at 4:33. So that might be where this evangelist got the idea.) Anyway, after the miraculous long-distance healing broadcast from that restaurant, requests poured in for personal handprint copies. Soon the evangelist was making these napkins available upon request. Did those words of blessing really work? To prove that, we would need two double-blind control groups, one treated with a handprint from just anybody, the other with the real thing; preferably our human subjects should be people who never heard of the evangelist, or at least never heard of Jesus. All we know is, whenever Glen laid it on the cat’s little head, Kitty would snap right out of it and go on with his day.
While Glen took care of Kitty and got him to his water bowl in the shade, I baked the oat cookies and set them on the table on towels to cool. For the trail mix I picked through and sorted the pumpkin and sunflower seeds. I roasted them and the walnuts separately over a very low flame, stirring constantly with a shake of wheat-free tamari. It cooled in a big cast-iron skillet on the stove.
Next I heated up the apple juice and melted in the agar and the tahini, and poured it in a Pyrex dish. When it stopped steaming I popped it in the fridge.
The fridge light was out. Huh. The food felt warm. How long was it off? I opened the freezer to put the kanten in there; that would melt off some of the ice for the weekly defrosting. But the freezer and the food in there were warm too, leaking water on the floor and under the stove. To blot it up I batted under there with dishrags bundled on a broomstick.
Our landlord lived right in the next apartment. “Sure, Mary. Probably just a fuse in the basement; everybody’s running their fans today. I’ve got to run up to campus and teach now, but I’ll be back by 6:00 and rummage around down there.”
My class was at 6:00, so there was no point baking the squash until then; it would just spoil in this heat. Meanwhile I took the kanten out of the freezer and put it in the fridge. The quinoa was already spoiled, so I had to throw that away. Wait, how about the soymilk? Was the pudding still ok?
The pudding was not ok. It was spoiled and souring. The power must have been off for a while. I threw it out, washed the dishrags, hung them on the line, and headed for the Coop for some ice and four more quarts of soymilk.
Robin and Vern were on break, practicing fancy synchronized shopping carts for the Coop’s annual role of honor in the town’s summer parade. They were very good too, with Rockette kicks and spins and stunts on two wheels. I gave them a big round of applause and went inside for four quarts of soymilk and a bag of ice. I put the ice in a wooden apple crate from the trash, one with pretty orchard pictures on the sides, lined with fruit wrappers on the bottom. It looked like a good box for the family to carry home their leftovers.
A handsome man ahead of me was a red-haired long distance cyclist from Scotland. We got to talking, and I told him about my cooking class.
“At this point in the trip, I could certainly use some home cooking,” he laughed. “Could you take on another customer?”
“Hey Mary,” said Kurt. “Back again? How is your flea problem at home? Are they still biting your ankles?”
The cyclist gave a nervous look at my feet of clay, picked up his packages, and left.
“That ice is too much for you to carry,” Kurt said. “Put your bike in my truck. Let’s go.”
Kurt drove me and the box home.
I put the kanten on the table to gel in an ice bath, and opened the fruit crate.
A mouse burst out of the fruit wrappers. He raced along the edge of the kanten pan, charged through the cookies, off the table, and under the refrigerator.
I walked out of the kitchen and lay down on my sleeping bag.
It was time to face facts. This was no way to entertain a couple and child with health issues or a real Chef with a spotless certified kitchen, not here at the Ark of Vermin.
Glen was getting in his car when he saw me at the dumpster, throwing away the cookies and crate and half the food in the fridge.
“You look beleaguered,” he said. “When I get home I’ll get you the Hankie.”
I took a bowl bath, watered the daikon, changed, and called the family.
“How about if we meet at your house?” I asked. “My fridge stopped working, and the kitchen is too hot for comfort.”
“Here?” Jay sounded baffled. “At our house?”
“Would you mind?? Otherwise I won’t be able to manage here; the desserts won’t really set properly.”
“Like, make a house call? Would you? You’d deliver the desserts over here? Why we’d love it! Say, Honey — Mary is offering to come right here!”
They sounded delighted. So I called Chef Roth and asked him for a ride.
“Sure,” he said. “That way we’ll get to chat. I need to pick up some things at the Coop after work; let’s meet there and hit the open road!”
I went out and pulled up six daikon radishes with their greens, washed them off, and packed them in paper. I packed the squash and trail mix, and carried it all over to the Coop.
This time I bought ready-to-eat stuff: a loaf of wheat-free sprouted bread, apple butter, brown rice cakes, soy mozzarella cheese, unsweetened carob chips, and two kinds of candy (umeboshi plum sourballs, and brown rice syrup taffies). Also a mouse trap, and some more French green clay.
Robin rang me up and looked outside. “Holy smoke.”
Everybody ran to the windows. The overcast sky was darker, with a quilted patchwork look. The individual quilt squares were sagging. One sagged lower and slowly began to turn in a circle.
“Funnel cloud approaching. Cellar, folks!” Kurt ran in and locked the cash register.
We all sat downstairs with the bulk bins, listening to hail ticking at the little basement window until Kurt checked and sounded the all clear.
“You look worn out,” Robin said to me.
“My fault. Maybe God is annoyed,” I told her. “For this cooking class, I wasn’t driven by the pure motive of helping people. Instead, I was driven by money. It was that $75; that’s more than I ever earned cooking, and it just felt so crucial to meet people’s expectations, and deliver the best goods and services for the money.”
“Don’t look now,” she said. “But for two days we’ve watched your selfish money-grubbing ambition. And Sweetheart –”
“You kinda forgot to factor in parts & labor,” Kurt chimed in, patting my back as we trooped upstairs.
Roth and I drove up the country road to the family house. In a lighted window there was a small pale boy with a wistful anxious look. But when he spotted the car we could see his little face light up as he yelled for his parents and waved at us. My heart just melted. I hoped so much that somehow this would all work out.
Jay and Grania rushed outside and ushered us in. The three of them just about broke the sound barrier trying to make us feel honored and welcome.
Their farmhouse kitchen was small but cozy and clean, and stocked with everything we needed. The only thing missing was the recipe handouts, still in folders on my desk at home.
“We don’t need recipes now,” Chad piped up. “Because our cooking teacher makes house calls and lets us try all by ourselves!”
“This is great,” Grania said. “See, the cooking classes were in these perfect kitchens with all these nice gadgets, and then we’d come home and try to duplicate it all and just can’t. What works for us is somebody to just come spend time with us, showing us what we can make right here together.”
We baked and cut the spaghetti squash, and Chad had fun combing it into strings. Then we added coconut oil and cinnamon and maple syrup, and after a taste I tried something risky and mixed in a little white miso broth and ginger. Jay’s kanten gelled like a dream. Grania’s soymilk pudding set perfectly. Chef Roth could not have been kinder, skating around whipping up oatmeal carob chip cookies. Chad did a little of everything. With a team of five we soared through the chores and had a blast. Then we couldn’t believe how delicious everything tasted. It was a mystery, compounded from this family’s enormous love for one another, their faith that somehow their lives just had to get better, and their profound gratitude to their two guests.
Sitting at the table, we heard the family beagles whimper outside the screen door.
“They love company,” Grania laughed, “but we can’t let them in now, the poor little guys. They track in fleas. We’re so bit up already; doesn’t mean our guests have to be scratchin’ too.”
So I took out my green clay, and we mixed some up as ankle daub for everybody and face paint for Chad.
Roth and I drove back to town through cornfields under the stars.
“Look at that moon,” I said, reaching in one of the bags for an oat cookie.
“Perfect ending,” Roth said, “for a perfect evening.”
“They are lovely people. Really appreciative.”
“They are, and your spontaneous cooking class was great. You literally brought it all home. You made it all look effortless. It lets people know,” he knocked his knuckles on my knee, “that what happens in your kitchen can happen in anybody’s kitchen.”
I thought about the things that happen in my kitchen.
“What are you laughing about?” he asked, laughing himself. “C’mon: gimme a cookie and tell me about it.”
“Well… Yesterday I was carrying some bathwater to the porch…”