“Ever had one of those days that no matter how hard you try, you screw up everything you do?”
My niece posted that on Facebook tonight.
As soon as I’d read it, rice pudding popped into my head.
Back in the olden days, my high school faculty had frequent potluck lunches.
Having forgotten how to cook, and determined not to relearn, I always had trouble thinking of a contribution that wouldn’t tax my vestigial skills. That was before I discovered fruit salad (chop up fresh fruit, put in bowl, grab spoon, take to work) or my favorite, paper plates. I thought I had to turn on the oven.
So the day the sign-up sheet read “Southern Food,” I despaired. Southern food, by my definition, comprises fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, rice, gravy, collard greens, black-eyed peas, peach cobbler, chicken and dumplings, peach ice cream, gravy…Nothing I was interested in tackling. Then rice pudding came to mind.
(I think it’s really rice custard, but rice pudding is what my mother called it, so pudding it stays.)
I didn’t have a recipe, but I didn’t need one. Boil rice, drain, and pour into flat Pyrex or CorningWare baking dish. Beat eggs, milk, sugar, and vanilla, and pour over rice. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Set dish into shallow pan filled with water. Bake until case knife blade inserted into middle of pudding comes out clean.
I’d seen it done a thousand times. Whenever rice was left over after a meal, Mother made rice pudding.
Granted, some of the details had escaped me. Like how many eggs and how much sugar, milk, and vanilla. And whether vanilla was an ingredient at all—I might have rice pudding confused with homemade ice cream custard, to which Mother sometimes forgot to add the vanilla, but no one cared. And at what temperature to set the oven.
I set to work boiling and beating. I slid a large, square, low-sided pan into the oven, filled it with a half-inch of water, and closed the oven door. Then I set the CorningWare dish on the kitchen table, near the oven, and poured in the mixture of pre-rice pudding.
As usual, I had made almost more than the dish would hold. Sweet, eggy milk lapped at the sides. The CorningWare was heavy, and its contents made it heavier. I steeled myself for the task of getting it into the oven without slopping liquid onto the floor.
I turned and opened the oven. I turned back around for the dish.
That’s when I saw Christabel.
Christabel LaMotte, named for the poet in A. S. Byatt’s Possession, was a big, black, velvety, green-eyed hussy of a cat. She was heavy as lead and built like Jello. She had a quick intellect and a healthy sense of entitlement. And she was sitting on the floor, eyes trained on the edge of the table, calculating the distance, the angle, the thrust needed to launch her to that higher plane.
“Don’t. You. Dare.”
Before I got to dare, she had achieved liftoff. But she hadn’t factored in the dishes sitting just inside the edge. Landing off balance, she belly-flopped into the milky mess. Surprised, she scrambled off the other side of the table and ran out of the kitchen and down the hall, through a bedroom, and into the living room. I ran right behind, yelling for her to stop.
I caught her in the dining room, carried her back to the kitchen, closed both doors, set her down, and said, “Bathe!”
Then I repaired to the living room, where I flopped into a rocking chair, listened to Dan Rather, and let milk, eggs, sugar, and a hint of vanilla dry up and stick to a length of long leaf pine and three rooms of carpet.
Mr. Rather having reminded me of why I should count my blessings, I returned to the kitchen to check on Christabel’s progress.
I found her sitting where I’d left her, in the same position, staring straight ahead, the same evil gleam in her eyes. The egg and sugar were where I’d left them, too.
I fetched a couple of damp wash cloths and a towel and joined her on the floor. She didn’t like the bath much more than she liked the goop, but she tolerated it.
After being scrubbed, Christabel went away to locate her misplaced dignity. I mopped up spilled gunk and contemplated my situation: I still didn’t have a Southern dish for the luncheon.
I did, however, have the makings of rice pudding. Right there on the table. The oven was hot. All I had to do was pick up at the point just before Christabel became airborne.
No one would know. The heat of the oven would kill any kitty germs floating around in there.
In the end, ethics won out. I scrapped it. Nearly a dozen eggs, a pile of sugar. A few black hairs, the extra-ethical reason to toss the stuff.
The next morning on the way to work, I ran by the grocery store and picked up a package of Oreos. Good Southern food.
Now. I started this piece with a question about a day spent getting everything wrong. Then I wrote about one culinary disaster. An English teacher reading this piece would say I got off the topic.
But you can believe me when I say that one instance of a cat landing in uncooked rice pudding is the equivalent of several days of screw-ups.
And speaking of rice pudding, I need to say something about the approximately 1000-word scene I wrote last week and then realized I couldn’t use. Several people commented about my willingness to scrap the scene.
What I didn’t mention is that the 1000 words, taken as a whole, were pretty bad. They were first-draft, just-get-it-onto-the-page-quality words. They were rife with cat hair.
If I had revised and revised and revised, as I usually do while I’m drafting, and had turned them into much-better-than-first-draft-quality words, I wouldn’t have been so blasé about the affair.
I would have scrapped them, though. They weren’t right. They had to go.
But not very far. There’s a little file in my documents folder labeled Excisions. And even the scenes infected with kitty germs get tucked away there. I never know when they might start looking good.
Thanks to D. G. O. for today’s topic.