I developed no regular cooking habits over the years, cultivated no special dishes, unless you count chocolate-chip cookies and spinach salad. When people had potluck parties I immediately volunteered to bring the plasticware, and when that failed, chips and dip or a couple liters of Coke. When my money got thin, I would cruise fast-food 99-cent menus rather than break down and get groceries. I hated everything about grocery stores - carts rattling sideways against my will, insipid music, the fluorescence that exposed everybody as shuffling and sallow and ordinary. Supermarkets had the smell of defeat; we might as well all have been wearing bathrobes. Still, in the last year, I began to open my refrigerator door with more and more longing. I wanted to see more density in there, something besides a can of Pet milk (for coffee), the odd bottle of barbecue sauce and the foil-wrapped doggie plate from a restaurant I couldn't quite recall. I was no more inclined to cook, but that didn't stop me from imagining packets of lunch meat, chicken thawing, several kinds of vegetables, something marinating in Tupperware. I wanted the glorifying end result, not the work, which is exactly why I loved piano, the grand sweep of performance, but never got very good at it because I didn't practice.
Thoroughly underpracticed now, but a bit wiser, I settled on one of my mother's recipes that was glorious all right, but not a main course on which the balance of a whole evening might hang, something bold yet delicately rendered, essential to my food psyche but wonderfully frivolous: lemon meringue pie. It was the dish that, next to file gumbo (far too difficult to consider as a maiden effort), most reminded me of Mama, holiday, home. Lemon pie was sprightly but also steeped in an alchemic kind of allure that had people hovering over it as the finishing touches were being applied, a trifle for which my older brother would drive from his job in the Valley to my parents' house in Inglewood without stopping once he'd heard, via the family grapevine, that a pie or two was in the offing.
When I made my pie-making intentions known, my mother was acquiescent, even approving. Over the years she had gotten much less proprietary about cooking; she may even have realized that banning me from the kitchen was a mistake. At any rate, she not only gave me her original typewritten recipe, she gave me a starter kit she happened to have handy: a can of sweetened condensed milk, a small box of a mysterious substance called cream of tartar that made the meringue suitably stiff, and a frozen pie crust. I noticed that the recipe didn't include directions for the homemade crust she always used, and was secretly relieved. Lemon custard and meringue were probably all I could handle in one session. "But it's very good frozen crust," she assured me. "It's Marie Callender. I got it from someone at work who buys them in bulk, I think." A crust off the Amway circuit - that was good enough for me.
At home, I climbed up on a chair to retrieve the electric mixer from a high shelf above the stove. It was a birthday gift some years back from my older sister, who explained that she wanted to give me something besides the usual earrings or blouse - something bigger, and against type. I was touched and confounded. I didn't use it, but put it out on the counter for a while because I loved the way it looked - a sleek hybrid of plastic, glass and metal, with disarmingly pink and blue control buttons. It suggested what might happen in my kitchen, if I only took the time. It stood next to a blender that was also a gift, and that was displayed for the same reason.