For the last year or so, I've had some vague inclinations to attempt a few of my mother's recipes. Before you say Big Deal, know this: I don't cook. I never have. In the last year, I might have cooked dinner in my kitchen half a time – meaning I went to KFC, bought a six-pack of chicken in the drive-through and continued home to put juice in a plastic tumbler and throw some corn in boiling water for that sit-down-meal effect. (Not, as you might imagine, very effective.) But cooking isn't something I ever longed to do. As a child, I was perfectly happy with my assigned culinary duties of setting the table and making Kool-Aid. I was good at it. My mother clearly saw no need to spoil a good thing. The closest I ever got to food preparation growing up was being sent to the market occasionally for a rump roast or a can of Crisco. My mother praised me duly when I returned with the goods in my bike's handlebar basket and the correct change in hand. “You're a good little shopper,” she'd say with satisfaction, peering into the depths of the paper bag, and my 9-year-old heart would swell. I had this food thing licked; without me, the messenger, the napkin folder, the peerless beverage mixer, it wouldn't happen. I happily wheeled my bike into the back yard and thought no more about it.
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.
Unpacking the mixer, I felt excitement beginning to stir in the pit of my stomach. When I dumped the condensed milk into the glass mixing bowl and saw a pale-yellow pool that already felt like lemon pie, my spirits soared – I was halfway there. I set the oven and snapped the beaters into place on the mixer with a hum and a flourish. I added in the grated lemon rind, egg yolks and lemon juice, and the whole thing bloomed a deeper yellow; I was ecstatic. This was simple, and so fulfilling. This was the kind of work Marx said was society's backbone, its soul – labor that yielded fruit that you clearly had a hand in shaping, that you could see. As the lemon filling blended on a high whine, I thought that even writing, something I thought I was born to do, didn't make me feel as great a sense of triumph. I tussled with writing, kneaded it like so much bread dough, never entirely settling on a working mix of ingredients. I took only fleeting satisfaction in a curious, perpetual sort of dissatisfaction, and even getting to that point was so haphazard a process it was easy to miss the point altogether. I needed more endeavors like lemon pies, things that allowed for rampant creativity within the parameters of a bowl and 20 minutes' baking time.
The filling lay smoothly in the crust, awaiting the meringue before going into the oven. This final step seemed the easiest; it only required two egg whites – left over from the yolks – some white sugar and that odd ingredient called cream of tartar. Aglow with my success thus far, I turned the mixer all the way up to a shriek. After five minutes, nothing happened. The concoction was foamy but hardly resembled meringue. I set the mixer on whip for another five minutes. Still nothing. It looked like dishwater. A tiny spark of panic hopped across my chest. I broke into a light sweat and yanked open the louver windows to let in the night air. Maybe I was watching too hard. I turned the mixer back on and wandered into the living room to check out a little television, peruse a magazine. I did this kind of thing when the Dodgers were losing or Tiger Woods was blowing a tournament; I assumed myself to be the jinx and simply took myself off the scene. It worked more times than it didn't. When I came back 15 minutes later, the stuff in the bowl looked thin and exhausted. No meringue. I conceded defeat. Eyes dewy with a couple of tears, I shoved the naked pie into the oven and went to lie down on the sofa. My head was pounding. No wonder Marx never mentioned the bitter fruit of labor gone wrong, no wonder people cushioned the shock of life's thousand disillusions with the mountains of paper they pushed for a living.
My mother was sympathetic about the failed meringue. “You probably didn't separate the whites completely from the yellows,” she offered. “If you get the least bit of yellow in there, it doesn't come out. Or the bowl was a little damp. That messes it up, too. I should have told you that.”
Really? I felt vastly better. These were the tricks of the trade I was hardly privy to. And in the light of morning, the pie sitting on my refrigerator shelf didn't look too bad. I sliced a piece off; miracle of miracles, it tasted good – tart and firm, creamy, lemony, the smallest bit grainy, like Mama's. It was only missing the top, and I decided right then that I never liked meringue anyway – it was nice to look at, grand and pillowy, but beside the point, a mere decoration. I dubbed my creation Lemon Tart Supreme. My brother didn't drive down for it, but my younger sister, only 10 minutes away in Koreatown, did stop in for a sample. As we watched Jeopardy, I tried not to appear anxious as she cut a mouthful from the plate in her lap. No telltale pause in midchew. “Uh-hmmm,” she said, not taking her eyes from the screen, a trace of surprise in her voice. “This is good.”