During the second week of seventh grade, three students- me and two delinquent, long-haired boys in flannel shirts- were transferred to cooking class from metal shop. Class was already in progress when we arrived, so the teacher, Mrs. L, pointed toward Kitchen 6, at the back of the room, then told a student to explain to us how the class worked.
At the beginning of the week, the student informed us, we would be given a recipe. On cooking day, we were to make a “shopping list” based on that recipe, bring it to the front of the room where we’d get our ingredients, and then cook, eat and clean up. Since our group was new, Mrs. L decreed that we would forgo the list-making and plunge right into the cooking. The day’s assignment was french toast and banana milkshakes.
I knew how to make french toast. I’d also been making milkshakes for a long time because I was a skinny kid, and my mother thought they would fatten me up. I’d never added a banana to my homemade milkshakes, though, because even the scent of one made my stomach churn. (Still does.)
Just as Mom taught me how to cook food, she also taught me not to waste food. So instead of not making the milkshake, I dutifully asked Mrs. L if I could make the milkshake sans banana. She peered over her plump belly and saw that I was the new girl making trouble. “And why do you need to make this without the banana?” she queried.
“Because I don’t like bananas,” I replied. “They make me sick.”
“We are not here to cater to your likes and dislikes,” she sneered. “You will make the milkshake the way that it’s called for.”
I slumped back to Kitchen 6 and to the boys, who were teasing each other with the banana and breaking eggs for the fun of it. I don’t recall how that food got made; I just know I didn’t eat it.
Our second assignment, making a coffeecake, should have been easy. This time, however, the devil was in the details. First, there was the darn grocery list. When I cooked at home, I never had to worry about whether there was flour or butter in the house- those items were staples. And should I need to put an ingredient on our grocery list, I definitely wouldn’t write “1 teaspoon of vanilla” or “1/4 cup walnuts.” Vanilla comes in bottles; it’s more economical to buy nuts in pound bags versus 3 ounces. I assumed Mrs. L would appreciate my impulse- it’s home economics, after all. But, no. According to Mrs. L, instead of a list that read “butter” and “flour,” my list should have read “2 tablespoons of butter, softened” and “2 1/2 cups of flour, sifted,” because that was what would be doled out to us. I goofed again.
But the biggest snafu came when one of the guys in my kitchen stopped playing around and decided to cook. Broad, but not heavy, with a navy blue bandanna tied around his long, layered black hair, Mike walked with a swagger that rattled the keys on the chain hooked to his belt buckle. He had a lazy grin and dark, sleepy eyes, and was the only one who could make our cooking teacher smile. Even I had to laugh when he grabbed one of the ruffled aprons left over from when Home Ec was just for girls, wrapped it around his solid waist and started waving a wooden spoon.
On the day we made the coffeecake, Mike waved the wooden spoon and I made the batter. After I finished mixing, he grabbed the batter from me, poured it into the pan and popped it in the oven. When we pulled it out, it didn’t look bad. The cake had risen; the streusel was brown, but not blackened.
Mrs. L. gathered all the cakes at the front of the room, a judge at her own Pilsbury Cook-Off. One by one she sampled them, making cooing noises, praising the moistness of the cake or the crispness of the crumb topping. Then she came to Kitchen 6’s entry. “Hmmm,” she murmured in a knowing tone, “what do we have here?”
When she put her knife into the cake and tried to cut a slice, it crumbled into bits. Her eyes narrowed as she scrunched up her nose.
“Ewww,” she cackled. “It looks like Benji could eat this! Someone forgot to grease the pan!”
I think Benji, the star of the dog films, would probably eat just about anything, but to call our coffeecake dog food was a low blow. Mike sat there grinning, but I was close to tears.
I don’t remember cooking anything else in Home Ec. In fact, I don’t think I ever went back to class on a regular basis after the coffeecake episode. I hung out in the nurse’s office or stayed home sick on cooking days rather than face Mrs. L. and her desecration of my ego. Thanks to marginally better experiences in other Home Ec areas (sewing and grooming), I got through the semester with a gentlewoman’s “C.”
Luckily, the Home Ec experience destroyed neither my pleasure in cooking, nor my willingness to take risks. Since seventh grade, I’ve attempted many recipes way more challenging than coffeecake, from croissants to pasta dough to mayonnaise. Sure, I’ve had flops, but I try not to get too worked up about them. A kitchen should be a liberating place where it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s only food, after all. You can make more. And you can always feed your flops to Benji.