“Walking a mile in another person’s shoes is nothing compared to cooking a meal in someone else’s kitchen.”
—CHARLIE PALMER, Charlie Palmer’s Practical Guide to the New American Kitchen
It is the middle of the afternoon and my phone has been ringing on and off for about ten minutes. I don’t want to answer it—it might distract me from the single most important thing in my life at the moment: hollandaise.
I believe in my heart that I can make a hollandaise sauce that does not split up, like supermarket salad dressing, but stays creamy and smooth and pure like a running yellow river of butter and egg. I believe this, and yet I have not quite accomplished it to date. I feel like today will be my lucky day. Or maybe it already is: I’ve been cooking for hours, and I am only halfway done with tonight’s dish.
The phone starts ringing again. I know who is calling. My great-aunt Midge is the only caller in my life who won’t leave me a message, but instead keeps trying until I pick up. Aunt Midge knows the likelihood of me checking my messages is very, very slim. The likelihood of me returning them is zero. Aunt Midge knows me pretty darn well.
I pick up the receiver, pinning it under my chin as I take eggs and milk out of the fridge to start coming to temp.
“There you are.” It is indeed Aunt Midge, her creaky old-lady voice deceptively sweet. “I tried the bridal salon and they told me you’d gone home.” She is referring to Wedding Belles Too, Iowa’s Premier Bridal Warehouse, where I sew hems and take in busts. “Have you finally gotten fired?”
I sigh. My job at Wedding Belles Too is a good job. I am a good seamstress, and I like the sweet smell of the oil that I use on my Pfaff machine and the blue dust kicked up by my chalk hem marker. I like the swishing sound of poly-satin as it whooshes underneath my presser foot and the methodical work of moving buttons, adjusting a row of sequins, tacking on beads. But I cannot seem to handle talking to the brides about their alterations when things go wrong, and soon, soon it is going to cost me the job.
I take out six eggs, then two more, then decide to just warm the whole dozen. You can never have too much hollandaise sauce. “No, Aunt Midge. I haven’t been fired. They just sent me home to practice my people skills.” Which I am clearly not doing.
“Hmph. Who needs people skills when you can sew so well, I want to know.”
“Me too,” I say, though I know exactly why my job is on the line. On the rare occasions that I come face to face with the brides, I scare them with the crippling social anxiety that causes me to stammer, and wheeze, and say either nothing or something incredibly inappropriate. And I would do anything to be able to change that. It’s just that I know I can’t.
Aunt Midge’s voice cuts into my thoughts. “When are you coming over?”
I sigh as loudly as possible so I know she’ll hear it. “I’m not. I’m cooking fish. You can come over here if you want.” But even as I say the words, I put away my cookbook with the salmon recipe in it. Good-bye, Russian Salmon Pie. This is as far as we go today.
“You know they took away my driver’s license.”
I put the hollandaise-bound eggs back in the fridge. “Yes. Yes I did know that. It makes it that much easier to extend you an invitation.”
That remark doesn’t take Aunt Midge aback at all. She is never taken aback, not even by her hermit of a grandniece. “You just wait. One of these days I’ll just hop in a taxi and show up on your door uninvited and never leave. What do you think about that?”
I smile a little to myself and wish for the four hundredth time that Aunt Midge would do that very thing. Aunt Midge is my oldest—well, my only—real friend. It is very worrying to have her on the other side of town in her little house getting very old and eating strange meats out of the freezer.
“I think…” I pause and try to figure out what to do with an entire poached salmon now, since there is no time for Russian Fish Pie and a social call. “I think that it would be easier for me to just come over.”
“Agreed. Bring food. I’ll provide the drink. And you have to be here by eight o’clock, because that’s when the show starts.”
“What show?” I know of a show that starts at eight, every night, on the Food Network, but I also know that’s not the show Aunt Midge is talking about. As far as I can tell, my aunt has never watched the Food Network in her life. Why bother, when there are so many episodes of Law and Order to choose from?
“The ‘No Place Like Home’ giveaway on the Home Sweet Home Network. You know, that channel that runs House Browsers and House Browsers Global? They are giving away a big gorgeous house on the coast of Maine, and I am planning on winning it.”
My eyebrows pop up. “Oh really? You’re going to win this house in Maine?”
“That’s right. It’s a sure thing at this point. I am very excited, because the house has an endless pool that comes with.”
“What is an endless pool?”
“Only the greatest old-person invention of all time. It’s a tiny pool, only the length of one person—that person being me in this case—and it has a water current that lets you just swim in place for as long as you want. Can you imagine? Swimming … in place!” Aunt Midge really wants to hit this point home. “And the water is nice and warm, to keep your muscles lithe…”
“Mm-hmm.” I’m not really sold yet on the idea, which is fine because I know Aunt Midge hasn’t yet finished her sales pitch.
“It’s great for your health, you know. All that low-impact exercise. For old ladies like me with the frail bones and achy joints. And…” She pauses dramatically, and I brace myself for the punch line. “And the jets are good for massage as well.”
Now my eyebrows shoot up. “Like a hot tub?” I groan. From the last bit of Aunt Midge’s description I now know exactly why she wants this item. My great-aunt is a dirty old bird who once got herself kicked out of a hotel pool area for “indecent use of the Jacuzzi.” It’s not the sort of thing I want to revisit.
“Exactly. A hot tub treadmill. The house they’re giving away tonight has one, and I want it.”
Oh boy. “Well, it’s a good thing you’re going to win it then, isn’t it?” As I say this I realize nothing tastes better with cold poached salmon than potato salad. I have plenty of time to whip up a potato salad, and my fridge is full of fresh dill to boot. This is an excuse to make homemade mayonnaise. Brilliant.
“A very good thing. So I’ll see you at seven-thirty then?”
“Okay. Seven-thirty. I love you, Aunt Midge.”
“I love you, Niece Janey. Go cook.” Aunt Midge hangs up the phone. I hold the receiver by my side, gazing at the oven, wondering if it’s possible to make mustard from scratch in two hours.
It’s not. The phone starts beeping and I hang it up, put on my favorite apron, which is printed with moose and bears, and go to the hallway right outside my apartment’s little galley kitchen, where I’ve precariously balanced a small black-and-white TV on an old collapsible tray. I turn it on and set the volume up loud enough that I can hear it over running water or sizzling oil and smile when I see who’s on the Food Network. Then I return to the kitchen to chop dill and boil potatoes and daydream about a dinner party with Ina Garten.
Copyright © 2013 by Kelly Harms Wimmer
KELLY HARMS is a former editor and literary agent who has worked with a wide array of bestselling and award-winning authors of commercial fiction. She traded New York City for the writing life in Madison, Wisconsin, where she lives with her adorable and sometimes imperious toddler Griffin. The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane is her first novel.