While waiting to hear Lara Logan apologize for that debacle that was her Benghazi report, I listened to a profile of a surfer who became a millionaire. NO it's not the Food Stamp surfer that Fox news model John Roberts dug up. Surfer Nick Woodman, invented GoPro, a little, wearable camera that has become the best selling camera in the world and has made Woodman a billionaire. What caught my attention was Woodman's description of a failed product launch caused by a software glitch. Woodman blithely admits that he had no idea there was a problem till after the launch. Customers complained that the cameras just stopped working. After some tweaking they re-launched. It's a good thing he doesn't work for the government. Our Congress, the one that closed the government because they couldn't pass a budget, does not tolerate such lax standards.
My own son is in the middle of several product launches and won't have time for cake on my birthday this Friday. He's busy tweaking his recipe. For me it all comes back to cooking - creating, writing, governing, inventing - all cooking. The ability to tweak a recipe is the difference between a great cook and a good one.
This is another story from a collection of stories called the Anorexic's Cookbook
A good cook can follow the recipe and recreate the original dish. A great cook takes the same recipe, tweaks it to make it her own and makes a great dish. My mother was a great cook. When I was growing up, she worked long hours as a waitress in fancy restaurants. Every night she’d hoist large trays of hot food on her shoulder and carry them to tables full of hungry diners. On her breaks she’d hang out in the kitchen with the chiefs. She’d watch them prepare gourmet meals as she smoked L&M cigarettes from the doorway. Sometimes she’d scribble notes about a dish she liked on the order pad she kept in her apron. Later she would try to recreate those dishes in our kitchen. To her, recipes were simply suggestions and she’d add a bit of this, a dash of that or a drop of something else. She would work her magic and tweak the recipe till she made it her own and made it delicious. My mother was a great cook.
She didn’t settle for cooking either. She hated the layout of our old farmhouse style kitchen. It was built long before electric appliances or even indoor plumbing. The stove was next to the back door and people were constantly tramping through as she tried to bake. The refrigerator opened into the table on the other side of the room.
One day she took out the toolbox and started remodeling the kitchen. My grandfather was a furniture maker and my uncles are all in construction, so you know she had the gene pool working for her. She built a center island and installed a gas stove facing the sink and cabinets. She moved the refrigerator where the stove once stood and finished it off by sewing red and white candy striped café curtains.
I am not a great cook. If I have a good recipe, I can be a good cook. I learning to cook using my mother’s Good Housekeeping cookbook. I use it the way a Fundamentalist uses the Bible. I cook like I’m doing a chemistry experiment. I measure, time and test all exactly according to the cookbook instructions. I never waver and leave no room for nuance or interpretation. I follow the recipes with precise devotion and can make adequate food. As a result my food is Sunday school teacher dull.
When I married the California Carpenter I discovered a whole new way of looking at food along with a new vegetable alphabet, starting with asparagus, artichokes, and avocados. Then I leaned recipes from Diet for a Small Planet and the Vegetarian Epicure. I made Eggplant Parmesan Russian Vegetable Pie that were both healthy and adequate. Later I tried to copy my mother’s recipes and imitate her best dishes. I can make her Chestnut Turkey Stuffing, her Oven Pot Roast and Cast Iron Skillet Fried Chicken. It’s technically as good as hers.
I am a creature of habit and I repeat the same procedures over and over even when the results are as foul tasting as Garlic Powdered Deviled Eggs. One year I spoiled an entire batch of Deviled Eggs because I copied the recipe wrong and instead of a pinch or a teaspoon of garlic powder, I added a full tablespoon. I was trying out a new recipe because I wanted to break out of my routine and spice things up. But instead of adding Dijon Mustard or sweet pickle juice to the basic Deviled Egg recipe, I tossed an entire tablespoon of garlic powder into the mix. I ignored the dill and the cumin and I even forgot the paprika for the garnish. Instead I grabbed the garlic powder. I forgot that garlic powder doesn't taste like garlic but tastes like some odd garlicky chemical that overpowers everything. I forgot that if a dish doesn't deserve real live garlic cloves, then it doesn't need garlic at all. And it certainly doesn’t need garlic powder. But of course I forgot that I knew any of that and the Deviled Eggs are now garlic eggs and uneatable. But because I am now in the habit of making uneatable eggs, I will repeat this process. I will trust thieves with my wallet, liars with my heart and I will cling to those who have a history of abandoning me. I am a creature of bad habits.
This year, I learned that even a bad mother is better than being a motherless child during Christmas. And as much as we all like to think that we are the one exception, the one good mother, we are all less than the Madonna. For me, I have been missing my Mom for weeks and remembering how she loved Christmas. I catch myself thinking that I smell her cooking. I still love her chestnut turkey stuffing better than any other and she made candied yams that tasted like pie. Lately, it seems she’s standing behind me and I ache to feel her lean down and wrap her arms around me. I ache for things I never appreciated and things that never were. My wisdom came too late to make those mother daughter hugs real and my memories are distasteful with regret, like garlic eggs.
I reluctantly returned a phone call from my ex-mother in law. This woman was like a wrecking ball to my marriage. Each time she could find a way to insert her superior judgment into my marriage she did so viciously. I was often the target of her sharp wit because I had committed the unforgivable sin of marrying her favorite son. Now, decades later, and only because he seems to have divorced her shortly after divorcing me, she has found me to be an acceptable wife. Now, after his children, her grandchildren have grown up orphans, she gives me her blessing. Her wisdom comes too late and the children have a bitter taste when it comes to family. Maybe the taste of garlic deviled eggs.
I see the messages on the phone. I am boycotting Christmas. I am so deep into the lonesome blues that not even George Bailey can save me. Even the seasonal favorite “Love Actually” falls flat. Nat king Cole only makes me weep. I am lost. The last thing I want to do is call the woman who ended any hope of my happy ending. I refuse to comfort the woman who made my life one of "making do, picking up the pieces" and not one of living the dream. I do not want to comfort her. In fact, I want her to suffer.
Garlic Eggs, I am making garlic eggs again. I pick up the phone and dial. Pleasantries exchanged, she begins in her gruff voice to detail that latest meeting of her rock collector club. In spite of myself I chuckle. She’s not a funny woman but she does have an unvarnished view of life that is amusing. It can be callous to a child who wants Mommy’s approval. She’s no milk and cookies and story time hugs Mommy. She’s the shoulder to the wheel, peasant stock Mother. She’s a Will Rogers funny. As we talked I forgot myself and 40 minutes into the conversation she was telling me goodbye – her dinner would get cold. Nothing but nothing comes between my mother-in-law and dinner. Not a sick child or an ailing husband. Only the strong survive was a lesson the Depression era woman learned early.
Later I stood at the door looking out on the Christmas lights of the city. I watched the shoppers below as they hurried home. I could hear Nat King Cole, city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday cheer. I’d been having a case of the mean blue lonesomes. This is not the future I dreamed. Not even the one I settled for when the dreams didn’t come true. I dreamed of him and me on the porch in our rockers. I dreamed of scores of grandkids and love and laughter. I dreamed of family. In spite of dreams and miles, I am still a solo act, a grandmother without children, an orphaned child. The loneliness sears my heart and I lash out at my son.
One child alienated, I reach for the other. When I’m desperate, I read my daughter’s blog. She never fails to deliver a knife wound and she hit her mark this time. Then I realize that my mother-in-law and I have taken different paths to arrive at the same place. They don’t have time for us. They have built their lives around avoiding us, of not being us. Then I find myself remembering my own Mother. She was alone at the end too, abandoned by her children and grandchildren. She didn’t cook anymore but had cupboards full of tiny newspaper clippings recipes. At the end, she was abandoned by me, vilified by me and kept from her grandchildren by me.
I’m beginning to understand how much she had sacrificed to bring her children from the ignorance and brutality of her childhood to a life with so much more opportunity – especially for her girls. We backhanded her on our way out and never looked back. But being my Mother, she just made do with what was left. She created a new life for herself. She went to college, changed her job, bought a condo, joined a church, moved to another state and never stopped learning. Not until the end when illness took away her determination. When the pain killers took her ability to tweak the recipe.
My mother was a great cook. She would bring home the fancy recipes from the restaurants where she worked and make those dishes. But she could look in the cupboard and make dinner with whatever she had on hand. She knew how to tweak a recipe and make a meal. She knew how to feed a family.
It is time for me to move on. Time to tweak the recipe. Or as Tom Robbins
says, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
I first heard the term tweaking from an engineer I worked with at a defense contractor. The Washington brass was in town complaining that the prototype was not performing as anticipated. He shrugged and said, “Everybody knows the original design always needs a bit of tweaking.” It’s true. We all know about the Wright Brothers failed attempts and I’m sure that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison had to do some tweaking as well. In politics, the Constitution came after the failure of the Articles of Confederation and even then the Constitution had to be amended with the Bill of Rights. Social Security, Medicare and now Obamacare will need tweaking till someday folks with signs that say “Keep your government hands off my Obamacare” will picket the White House.
We can live in fear of this new century, dig ourselves a bunker and wait for the End Times. We can hang on to our muscle cars and our transistor radios and stay ignorant. Or we can be as brave as my mother was and tweak the future till it fits our needs. We can learn to be great cooks.