lemon juice

I wrote many drafts of this story based closely on a real conversation with my father some years ago. I workshopped it a few times, but the fascinating thing is that the original had more life than the rewrites. So this morning I went back and recast it and I think this is what it is, a piece that gives you my father scarcely edited, doing what he did best, amazing his children even as he pushed all of our happy assumptions off the shelf.

At our house, we gloat over velvety chanterelles from California oak forests, we nurture artisan-style loaves with our hoarded sourdough culture, we brew our own hoppy ales, and we dissect the relative merits of rival lemon varieties in passionate terms at the dinner table. The farmer’s market looms in our minds as an event, glowing with the orange and scarlet globes of tomatoes, redolent with basil, vibrant with dark strawberries. I mention these things to give you context for the conversation I had yesterday.

My father called, and since I suspected that he might be lonely house-sitting for my sister Marie up in Oregon, I pulled the gray cat over my lap and settled in to talk.

“What’ve you been doing while they’re gone?” I said, stroking the cat’s fuzzy chin.

“Well,” my father said, “I decided it would be nice if I made cookies, because neither your sister nor Cole seem to cook much and those commercial things they call cookies are full of fat and stabilizers and are terribly over-sweetened. But you know, Marie doesn’t keep brown sugar in her house.”

What I remembered was my father holding forth on the pretensions of brown sugar, accusing it of merely being refined white with molasses added back in. Posturing, in his opinion. Worse, the refinery raised the price for this bit of masquerade. If Marie possessed brown sugar I bet she’d hid it somewhere in the back of her pantry before our father arrived.

“I decided I’d add some molasses to the white sugar,” he said, before I could respond. “But you see, Marie doesn’t keep any molasses, either. So I thought I’d add lemon juice.”

“Lemon juice?” I had sent some lemons up to Oregon seven weeks ago.

“For the acidity. You know baking soda won’t work in cookies without something acidic, and if you don’t have the acidity of the molasses in the brown sugar you need something else. I was lucky. I found your lemon here in the shipping box. She had exactly one left; it was a little soft. At first I thought she must be saving it but I realized I needed to use it up or it would go to waste.”

Waste was the ultimate sin where my father was raised in a fine Yankee community of farming New Hampshire.

“It looked a little gray but I’m sure it was all right.  I squeezed some juice and put it in my bowl. Next I found out that we had one egg in the place and I needed two for this recipe. So I added extra milk. There wasn’t any vanilla, but Marie does have cinnamon. What with one thing and another, the dough really came out rather runny.”

He sounded confident, but I was picturing ‘runny’.

“Then I couldn’t find a single cookie sheet. I even looked in the basement and discovered that Marie and Cole haven’t finished unpacking. But I could hardly open up all those boxes…. Fortunately I remembered Marie has a Teflon coated muffin pan.”

“Did you…?”

“I simply poured the batter in. You realize I saved a lot of time. I’d already spent a while just assembling the ingredients so I really appreciated how much faster this went. Though I’m not sure what to call the result — they don’t look exactly like cookies. I was afraid they might stick to the pan, so I tried tipping it, and do you know, they fell right out. It’s a pity– because I’d taken them onto the porch to cool, so several fell on the porch. I didn’t worry; since it was raining, the porch was perfectly clean. But I shouldn’t have stacked them; the cookies didn’t stick to the pan but they sure stuck to each other.”

“So are they like little cakes?” I said helpfully. The cat shook its head as if I rubbed its ears too hard.

“Hmnn.” He wasn’t going to commit. “When I finally finished this up,” he said, “I did something else. After all, the dishes needed to be washed and I figured why wash them twice? Might as well mix up something else first. You know, I haven’t much chance to cook in recent years. Mother doesn’t like it when I cook, though I find it quite enjoyable. I don’t know why she feels this prejudice. I used to bake bread, and all types of things.”

“Yes, I remember. I baked a cake with you, back when I was in high school. We experimented.”

My father always approached life experiences such as cleaning, repairing, and cooking as he did the scientific research he used to conduct. You might call his investigative sense, if not his appetite, insatiable.

“So I made an apple pie,” he said. The cat pressed its face against my fingers, reminding me of its claims.

I responded to the pride in his voice.            “You did? Great!”

“Well,” his voice took on an apologetic color, “I was taking a walk and I found apples. You know how some people never harvest their own fruit — and it has snowed here, so I couldn’t feel too guilty. The apples had fallen onto the sidewalk from branches overhanging a wall. Still, I guess a stickler could say I stole them. The apples had some rotten spots, quite a few, and they were pretty scabby….

“I cut out all the bad spots and sliced those apples up. It was quite a job — took much longer than I’d expected. I was afraid I hadn’t quite enough apple bits when I had cleaned them, so I added some others. Marie forgot three on the windowsill and they’d gone cottony, or mushy, so I squeezed in more of that lemon juice.

“Then I started on the crust. But Marie had no shortening in the house, only oleomargarine and butter. I wanted Crisco. I remembered that you can’t use butter. My mother used to say butter made a tough crust.”

“You want unsalted butter,” I piped up helpfully, “and you chill the crust before you roll it.”

“Oh yes, I remembered the chilling. That may have been what saved it,” he said with satisfaction.

“But what did you use for shortening?”

“Well I looked through the refrigerator. I found some olive oil, but I didn’t remember anyone using that for pie crust and it smelled like garlic. Do people ever flavor olive oil with garlic? Then I found the bacon. Marie cooked up a lot of bacon before they left; I’m sure it isn’t good for Cole to eat so much;  and she’d kept the fat from it in a small bowl.”

I did not dare interrupt at this point. Surely he was pulling my leg. He’d always maintained that my husband and I cared too much about our food.

“I carefully took off the top, the white part.”

“But you didn’t…?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “It seemed by far the best solution and I thought it would help the flavor deficit. And I must say everything seemed to be working very well indeed as I collected the grease. Except that I made one big mistake.”

“What happened?” The cat decided I did not have my mind on my job and rose with decision, leaping down and stalking away, its tail held banner-wise.

“You know I put lemon juice and cinnamon on the apples with the sugar, but no nutmeg because I really don’t like nutmeg even though the recipes call for it, but then I did a completely absentminded thing and put all the flour for the crusts right in with the apples. When I realized what I’d done, I scooped up as much flour out of the apples as I could. But you know how apples emit juice when they have sugar on them? An awful quantity of the flour stuck. When I got to rolling out the dough, it was wet and glued itself to the counter. I had a dreadful time getting the crust loose. But then I did a truly smart thing.”

“What?”

“I pre-baked the bottom crust. For a long time. Maybe eighteen minutes. Then I finished the pie off and put it into the oven. The bad part was that after all the apple trimming and the looking for things I only got that pie in the oven at half past midnight and I was exhausted — but I had to stay up until the pie was cooked. In the end since I couldn’t really tell if it was done yet, I just shut off the oven and left it in.”

“How does your pie taste?”

“I don’t know yet. But I have to say it smells delicious. I’ll save it for Cole’s birthday party when he and Marie get home tomorrow. We still aren’t sure how many people are coming so I think I better bake a cake. After all, I still have the last of that lemon juice to go.”

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