When my youngest sister started school and my mother returned to work full-time, I became the family’s cook and housekeeper, at age 11. I would come home from school, clean the house, maybe do some laundry, and then make dinner for the six of us. I never questioned this arrangement. I was my mother’s lieutenant. I followed orders.
As the eldest daughter, I had stood at my mother’s side in the kitchen since I was old enough to stand upright, studying her every move: the way she deftly trimmed the fat from meat on the big pig-shaped cutting board my older brother had made for her in shop class; the way she closed her eyes when she tasted for seasoning; the way she artfully fluted the rims of her famous fruit pies. I had sat beside her, too, when she watched Dione Lucas, an early forerunner of Julia Child, giving cooking lessons on our black-and-white Zenith TV.
(My brother behind me, with younger sister and pregnant Mom)
I clearly remember being three or four and sitting close to my young mother on our living room sofa while she watched Lucas in action. I looked from one to the other, as if following a lively tennis match—one woman onscreen, earnestly whisking egg whites into a cloudlike, magical meringue, perhaps; the other one, right next to me, pencil and pad in hand, furiously taking notes.
This is how my mom learned to cook. She was Lucas’s devoted disciple. “Dione says…” became her bywords, and something of a family joke. “Dione says this is how to make [X, Y, or Z],” she’d say to me as I followed her, like a shadow, into the kitchen after the cooking show ended, and she’d prove to me what she’d just learned. Then, when she brought her new creation to the dinner table, she would announce proudly (for instance), “Dione says this is boof borgynone!”
“Looks just like stew to me,” my father would respond. Then he’d take a deep drag on his Lucky Strike and blow the smoke in my direction.
But I don’t remember Dione Lucas ever teaching her television viewers the secrets of using a pressure cooker. This was something my mother taught me privately before she returned to the workforce—a time-saving method that would give the same results, she said, as if the dish had been cooking for hours, as if she (or I) had been home all afternoon cooking, instead of at work (or school).
She explained: “Some women are afraid of using a pressure cooker because they think it will explode on them. But I know you won’t be scared to use it because you are a brave girl.”
I puffed out my flat 11-year-old chest.
She demonstrated: “You just have to make sure the lid is on snugly, like this…. Then, when some steam comes out of the top vent, you put a cap on it, like this…. You turn the heat down and start to time things when the cap starts to rock back and forth.”
I watched the cap rock and listened to its hiss.
“Just be sure not to disturb the cap," she said. "Otherwise the food inside could shoot out through the vent—like a geyser!"
But soon enough, I got the hang of pressure cooking. I produced family favorites such as chili con carne, creamed chicken (made with undiluted cream of mushroom soup), and porcupine meatballs—so-called because the pressure cooker made the rice inside of them pop out like quills. The recipe came from my mother's yellowed copy of The Joy of Cooking. As the meatballs cooked, and the cap rocked and hissed, I kept my fingers crossed that dinner would be served at the table, not on the ceiling.
Bonnie Lee Black is a former caterer whose book How to Cook a Crocodile recounts her experience teaching cooking in the Peace Corps in Gabon, Africa. Her first novel is Jamie's Muse. Her website is www.bonnieleeblack.com.
11/2 lb. ground beef
1/2 c. breadcrumbs
1 large egg
1/2 t. salt, or to taste
1/4 t. black pepper
1/2 c. uncooked white rice
1/2 c. finely chopped onion
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 c. finely chopped fresh parsley (optional)
1 qt. tomato juice (or V8)
Combine all ingredients (except tomato juice).
Roll into 2-inch diameter meatballs.
Place in pressure cooker. Cover with tomato juice (or V8).
Cover pot and pressure cook 10 minutes.
Turn off heat and allow pressure cooker to “calm down” before opening.
Correct seasoning and serve.
Makes about 4 servings.