Wednesday, March 5, 2014
My childhood home was not a religious one. Because of that, religion always fascinated me. My friends all complained about church, and had wierd pre-meal rituals. At my house, the ritual was simple. Sit and be quiet. Wait. Once my mother took her first bite, we could all begin to eat. Before that, you'd be told "Put your fork down" in no uncertain terms by my father. Despite the total lack of any religion, every year on a Tuesday my father took over cooking the evening meal. And it was a doozy. My mother might be sitting at the table with us chatting about our days, or be somewhere in the house doing a mom thing -- sewing, tidying, reading a book. My dad would take out the plastic mixing bowl with the spout -- which in its later years sported a melted spot at its front where someone ("not me!" we would all say) left it too close to the electric griddle. Which of course was out on the counter, so super-simple for him to turn on medium and get warmed up. We never washed that griddle -- is that terrible to admit to? -- it was wiped with paper towel. Well-seasoned, and seldom needing extra grease because of it, my mother used to say. Whether it was pancakes, hamburgers, french toast, or my least favorite, liver. Just a good wiping was all it needed. He would also take out the smallest saucepan -- oh it might hold two cups of liquid -- and put it on a burner, turning the knob to medium. My father could have been the dad in "Cheaper by the Dozen" -- every move was efficient, both hands in use as much as possible. One hand putting the saucepan on the ring, while the other hand turned the knob to medium -- that was my dad. He would cut chunks off a stick of butter and drop them in -- half the stick had the now-emptier butter paper folded around it, and was pushed back into its lidded cubby in the fridge. He broke 4 eggs into the mixing bowl, cracking their sides on the edge of the bowl and levering them open from the crack, dropping their golden and clear contents into the bowl. He'd wisk them up with his favorite cooking tool -- a fork. He'd take his melted butter off the stovetop at that point, so it could cool. Then he would stir in a cup of milk, and using the same measuring cup, a cup of water; it rinsed out the milk, don't you know, so not a drop was wasted. Then he would stir in the melted butter, pouring it in while stirring in that age-old method of avoiding cooking the eggs by keeping it all moving. Next came the flour -- two cups, and a pinch of salt, stirred in with that fork of his, somehow avoiding lumps. He was a master at avoiding lumps, my dad -- to this day my gravies and batter sport lumps a'plenty. His crepes were always lovely smooth creations. My dad would test the griddle with a drop of water -- it would dance across the surface, showing it had the heat he wanted. He would pour the batter from his spouted mixing bowl, using a circular motion to spread it out in that large crepe round shape. Our griddle would only fit one healthy-sized crepe at a time, so that's what he cooked. Once the first side was done, he'd lift it with his favorite pancake turner and flip it over -- always a clean flip, never folded or ripped. I'm still working on that one, too. Again, a master of efficiency, while crepes were cooking he would get a pair of lemons from the fridge and slice them into wedges. He'd flick the seeds out of each wedge with the tip of his knife. Once done, he'd put the wedges higgeldy-piggeldy on a saucer; some on their backs, rocking as he moved the saucer, and some on their sides, at rest for now. Once done, he would take the crepe from the pan and put it on a plate. Crepe, crepe, crepe -- he'd cook them all up while directing us to set the table. Like all meals, knife on the right, fork on the left, dessert spoon above. Plate centered in between them all. Drinking glass above but visually between knife and dessert spoon. For us, his children, we had teaspoons instead of dessert spoons, and salad forks instead of entree forks -- but to us, they were the kids' spoons and kids' forks, not re-purposed cutlery. He'd remind us to take that saucer of lemon wedges to the table, and the sugar bowl. As an English house, we always had a lidded sugar bowl, half full, in daily use. You could say, "it was always tea time somewhere" was a house rule -- tea and cookies were made available for scraped knees, good news, uninvited guests, pretty much any time something wet and sweet was called for. Funny how our parents' voices echo in our heads -- "wet and sweet" will always mean tea and cookies to me. So, all the crepes done, he'd call my mother "Fan! dinner's ready!" and she would pop up from whatever had kept her busy -- and absent for this cooking frenzy of my dad's. We'd all sit at the table. My dad would take a crepe, and the plate would make its way around the table -- my mother, my brother, me, my sister -- coming to rest in front of my father again. Behind it, the saucer of lemon wedges went around -- my dad, my mother, my brother, me, my sister. And then that bowl of sugar, but more slowly this time. In turn, like a slow wave, we'd each squeeze that lemon onto our flat crepe, shake a teaspoon of sugar onto the puckery wetness, roll the crepe up like a sleeping bag, squeeze more lemon, and shake another teaspoon of sugar over the top. It didn't matter how fast you moved, as you had to wait for Mummy to start. So usually we were just finishing our sugar and keeping an eye on her ... the warm rush of happiness I'd feel as she cut her first piece and lifted it to her mouth was akin to Pavlov's dogs. It meant: dig in! We were not slow eaters in my family, and we would all tuck in to those crepes. Each year I'd ask, and each year I'd get reminded -- this was something we did only once a year. After a few years, the name of this special meal stuck as well "Shrove Tuesday" -- though I really didn't understand that until I walked through the Lutheran rituals during the failure of my first marriage, and had them hammered home with the Catholic rituals of my second husband. To me it was "Crepe night" and I couldn't ask for it, I had to wait for it to show up once each year like Christmas and Easter. I had always wondered where this religious ritual came from, how something that significant had crept into my blatantly a-religious household ... but it wasn't until I was long grown and gone that I learned it came from my mother's family. My father learned to make the crepes from her own father, a dapper and serious Swiss man. I can just imagine why -- he wanted to engage Grandpa Meier in conversation, and what better than to ask about household traditions. And then to bring such a sweet, simple tradition forward into his own family -- surely a tribute to the man that raised his wife, a nod to her own upbringing. I am glad for traditions, and though I started having random breakfast-for-dinner nights in my family's cuisine, this is one that gets reserved for that particular Tuesday.