Molly has been pestering me for some time to teach her how to cook. It is knowledge painfully and imperfectly acquired by me, and I get deep satisfaction from the idea of passing on my hard-won technique to my own children: My floury fingers reaching out to help their small, inexperienced ones knead fragrant dough…their rosy faces gazing up trustingly as I explain how best to prepare ratatouille…me showing what it means when a recipe calls for a ‘pinch’ of salt… all of us loving, laughing, learning, woven together in the great Braided Bread of Time…..
Yes. Wouldn’t that be nice.
Unfortunately, I find that the sight of a child anywhere near a bag of flour makes me so twitchy that virtually the only cooking I have let my children do is peeling their own oranges. But Molly is rightly determined to wrest some know-how out of me.
One evening she announces, “I’ll set the table–”
The other children are playing in the dining room. Phoebe is the dog walker. She has Paris and Violet on leashes and they are frisking about noisily.
“Why, thank you,” I reply.
“Grrr…” says a dog from next door.
“–If you’ll let me cook dinner.”
“Aw, Molly, you know–” I stop. I suppose I must yield eventually. Tonight the children’s supper is to be macaroni-and-cheese with broccoli, which is ideal for Molly’s maiden culinary voyage.
“Rowf!” says the other dog.
“Okay,” I decide, “First get out a pot for boiling the pasta. No, not that one, something bigger–not that big–yes, that one, and fill it with water.”
“Water,” she murmurs, running the tap. “There. How’s that?”
“Fine,” I say, but am unable to refrain from pointing out that “it’s a little more water than is ideal, but I suppose it will do.”
Next Molly wants to slice the cheddar.
“No, no, no,” I hear myself say, “you always hack away at it and leave little wax shavings all over the place and they get trodden into the floor and someone else, meaning me, has to scrape them off again.
“Please, can’t I–”
“Not like that, sweetheart, for goodness sake–”
“But how can I learn if you don’t let me–”
“No, no, no–”
“Well,” says Molly stylishly, after this lengthy provocation, “I suppose Little Miss Perfect never made any mistakes? When you were learning to cook?”
We freeze–and then laugh. Molly is an wonderfully polite and gentle child and her unaccustomed sarcasm, matched with her unassailable argument, suddenly brings to mind a Thanksgiving, years ago….
EXTERIOR–BROOKLYN BROWNSTONE IN DODGY NEIGHBORHOOD–NIGHT
Evidence of wild-eyed cooking lies strewn everywhere: An open, broth-spattered copy of Gourmet magazine, a sink loaded with dirty pans, counters littered with bits of onion and carrot. MEGHAN COX, in her early twenties, stands with a bottle of red wine, looking dubiously into a pot of broccoli florets.
Well, the recipe says white wine. But we’re out–
Empty bottle of chardonnay on table. Also empty glass.
MEGHAN shrugging, pouring red wine into the pot, and putting the lid on. She opens the fridge, nods with satisfaction at a massive turkey inside, closes the door again, and walks, swaying slightly, out of the room.
Sound of insistent doorbell. A rumpled MEGHAN appears and sleepily opens the front door.
Throng of visiting RELATIVES bursting gaily in. They are MOM, DAD, STEPMOTHER, STEPMOTHER’S MOTHER, STEPMOTHER’S BROTHER, and STEPMOTHER’S SISTER-IN-LAW.
Oh, were you asleep?
Is the car going to be safe, parked out front?
You did say 9:00, didn’t you?
MEGHAN stands at counter, feverishly pouring glasses of wine. Her face is worried. She has filled a tiny bowl with olives, and at her feet is an open case of Beaujolais Nouveau. The immense turkey sits on the draining board. There is still frost clinging to its wrapping.
Kitchen clock. It is 10:00.
The furniture is sparse, and RELATIVES have perched on every available surface. They’re holding glasses of wine and chatting in undertones.
Is everyone okay? I just need to put the turkey in, and then I’ll join you.
(half-rising from her seat) Wouldn’t you like some help?
No, no, no!
(The relatives exchange glances)
I did most of the work last night. That’s why I was still asleep when you all arrived.
(The relatives exchange glances and sip their wine tentatively–it’s awfully early.)
MEGHAN is yanking furiously at the turkey, wrenching plastic wrapping off legs that are evidently still frozen. The clock shows 10:30.
(panicky, under her breath) I don’t understand… I put it in the fridge to defrost three days ago…
Everyone’s wine glasses are empty.
(Half-rising from her seat) Meg, are you sure you wouldn’t like some help?
(hysterically) No, no, no—!
MEGHAN finishes peeling off the wrapping, and looks down, dismayed.
(despairingly) It’ll never roast in time.
(she glances towards the living room with all the expectant RELATIVES, and has an idea)
Eureka! I’ll thaw it in the microwave and then roast it!
MEGHAN hauls the giant fowl to a microwave oven that is just a little too small and begins wedging the bird in. From the living room comes the sound of vinous conversation and laughter.
VISITING RELATIVES (over)
Thank you, just a touch more–
I think it’s very courageous of Meg–
–I mean, I’d be happy to help–
Do you think the car will be safe out in front? This neighborhood…
I’m sure it will be delicious–
When do you suppose we’ll eat?
Here, have an olive.
With a tremendous effort, MEGHAN jams the plucked monster into the microwave oven, presses the door shut, and turns a dial.
The RELATIVES are all simultaneously taking a sip of wine, when there’s a sudden, loud zapping NOISE–
Aargh! Help! Fire! Dad!
Sparks are whizzing around inside the microwave oven, illuminating the huge turkey like fireworks seen through fog. MEGHAN is hopping about ineffectually in front of the oven, flapping her hands. DAD comes into the room, moves quickly to the oven, and pulls the door open. The other RELATIVES surge in after him.
Metal. The legs are tied together with wire.
MEGHAN (she is mortified)
Kitchen clock. It is 11:15.
What time were you planning to serve, dear?
Oh, my, is that the turkey?
It’s not very frozen.
Can I help?
I’m sure it’s going to be delicious
More wine, anyone?
Kitchen clock. It is 2:00.
MEGHAN sits with the RELATIVES, chatting with only an occasional nervous glance towards the kitchen. STEPMOTHER’S BROTHER moves about the room dispensing fresh gouts of Beaujolais.
STEPMOTHER’S BROTHER (apologetically)
It must be five o’clock in the world somewhere…
(sotto voce) Gosh, I’m hungry.
Ooh, it’s starting to smell nice–
–Is it? I can’t smell anything…
Well, it’s been in the oven a while, I mean–
Should we check on the car?
Just a touch more, thank you.
(clearing her throat) Ahem! (the room falls silent)
(bravely) Thank you for coming, everyone. I’m afraid this is the first official meal I’ve officially cooked, you know, an official dinner party, with–
RELATIVES murmur kindly. MOM leans over to give MEGHAN an ostentatious kiss.
I think this daughter of mine is pretty wonderful.
(applause and laughter. MOM leans over again and whispers)
Are you sure you don’t need any help?
No, no, no!
The clock reads 3:30. Beneath the counter is the carton of wine bottles, much depleted. MEGHAN opens the oven and pokes at the turkey, the skin of which is still alarmingly pale and raw-looking.
(to the bird, with alcoholic dignity) This is just terrible.
The RELATIVES sit listlessly. One forlorn olive remains in the tiny bowl. DAD leans towards it hopefully, and looks around. The others nod assent. DAD eats the last olive.
Kitchen clock. It is 5:00.
Sousa soundtrack begins to swell, signaling optimism.
P.O.V. sizzling, handsome turkey, as the oven door opens to reveal the jubilant face of MEGHAN, surrounded by happy, empurpled, famished RELATIVES.
(variously and eagerly)
Ooh, look at that crispy skin–
It looks delicious–
I could eat the whole thing–
–Worth the wait!
MEGHAN lifts the magnificent roast from the oven, and as she passes the kitchen window, we see that it’s now dark outside. She capably transfers the steaming bird to a platter, carries it past many admiring faces through the kitchen, and places it in the middle of a long table set student-style with mismatched plates and cutlery.
P.O.V. stove. MEGHAN stirs a pan of sizzling last-minute something and with relish inhales the rising scent. RELATIVES mill about in the background.
(a little boastful now that the crisis is past) Ok, everyone, here’s the fancy broccoli dish I spent hours preparing last night–oh, boy, this is going to be good–
The music reaches a crescendo. MEGHAN removes the lid from that long-ago-assembled pot of broccoli–and as the steam rises, her expression changes from gloating satisfaction to open horror. The music stops abruptly.
(aghast) Oh, no! The broccoli is pink!
The Sousa march resumes joyfully as we–
FADE TO BLACK
“Wow,” Molly breathes respectfully, gazing at me. “What a disaster.”
“Oh, I get it–because you put in red wine, instead of white?”
“Exactly,” I tell her, “The broccoli tasted nice, but it looked like flesh.”
“And what about the car?”
“Grandad’s car. You kept mentioning it.”
“We went down next morning,” I sigh, “Two windows were smashed and the radio was gone.”
Paris bounds into the kitchen, panting with his tongue out. Phoebe trots in after him, followed by Violet on hands and knees.
“Bow-wow,” Paris barks doggily, “What’s for dinner?”
–Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist. Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family will permit. Her NRO column, “The Fever Swamp” appears weekly.