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Cheryl Hughes: In the Kitchen

My Career As A Woman

The kitchen has always been my favorite room in the house.  I like to cook, I love to eat, and I enjoy the activity that both involve.  When I was a kid, my step-mom cooked huge meals, morning and night—there were nine mouths to feed, after all.  I can’t imagine the challenge of cooking for that many people every day, especially since she had so little to stretch so far.

I remember watching the stress along her clinched jaw line and side-ways glance on the occasions when Dad would come home from the sawmill, with a timber-buying stranger he had invited for supper.  To her credit, she wouldn’t say anything, just set an extra plate at the table and offer what she had.

The place settings at our farm table were perfect.  My step-mom worked at the Blue Boar Restaurant in Louisville in her early twenties.  She learned, and taught us, that the knife and spoon went on the right side of the plate and the fork went on the left.  Once, in my early marriage, I was pulled aside by my mother-in-law, Agnes, and told to set all of the flatware on the right side of the plate, because my father-in-law, J.D., complained that he couldn’t find his fork when I set the table.  (There were two possibilities: right side or left side of the plate.  How hard is that?)

My step-mom was pretty much the “Soup Nazi” of our kitchen.  We girls (5 in all) were allowed very little input when it came to cooking meals.  We did other chores like carrying in firewood, hanging out clothes, ironing and mowing, but we weren’t involved with meal preparation.  My husband, Garey, is actually the person who taught me to cook. 

Garey’s mom, herself an excellent cook, passed on her skill to Garey and his sister, Charlotte.  Because Agnes and J.D. worked public jobs while their children were growing up, it was up to Garey to feed the livestock, and up to Charlotte to cook the evening meal.  Each afternoon, they would get off of the school bus and get started right away on their chores, except during the times when Charlotte had a headache.  She would lie on the couch to wait for the throbbing to subside before she put on the peas or green beans or potatoes or whatever else was planned for dinner.

On one such occasion, Charlotte fell asleep and woke to find it was much too late to get the green beans sufficiently cooked before her parents arrived home.  She had seen her mom rush beans into readiness by putting them into the pressure cooker, so she figured she could do the same.  It might have worked if she hadn’t overfilled the cooker then placed it on a red-hot burner.  The pressure inside the cooker mounted until the lid could not contain the contents, and the result was an evening meal that had to be scraped from the kitchen ceiling.

The green-bean debacle seems to have followed Charlotte into her adult years.  On quite a few occasions, her home alarm system has summoned the fire department to her smoke-filled, green-bean burned kitchen.  My daughter, Natalie, has often tried to follow in her aunt’s footsteps—be it admiration or heredity—with similar results.  We don’t have the particular sort of alarm system that calls the fire department at the first detection of smoke, but I have found that our air-filtration system works quite handily when Natalie is cooking beans.  In defiance of my head-shaking and eye-rolling reactions, Natalie has placed a spoon rest on our kitchen stove that reads:  MANY PEOPLE HAVE EATEN MY COOKING AND GONE ON TO LEAD NORMAL LIVES.  (I believe the jury is still out on that one.)

Many of the fond memories I have of my children involve the kitchen.  Nikki embraced cooking from the start.  At twelve years of age, she could make biscuits, mashed potatoes and chicken & dumplings as well as I could.  Natalie wasn’t interested until years later.  The delay in Natalie’s interest, however, gave me the chance to interact with the girls one-on-one.  They each had my undivided attention, and the memories they have are theirs alone…unless I decide to write about them.

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