Robert Marswood – Good Cooking is Good Chemistry
Good Cooking is Good Chemistry
from Book II, Chapter 1 of Out of Zion
by Robert Marswood
Brad began to feel more at home as he cooked his first meals in his Haight Street studio apartment. Except for the flight of a dozen cockroaches the first time he’d used the stove, cooking usually put Brad into a good mood after a hard day at work. As he tenderized the pork cutlets, Brad thought about the lawyers who had requested the last-minute photocopies that had kept him two hours longer at work on a Friday. Imagining their heads under the tenderizing mallet, Brad struck the cutlets harder. The pyramidal spikes on the mallet head tore through the tough fibers in the cheap cuts making them easier to cook and to chew. With each swing, Brad felt a little better about another week of mind-numbing, back-aching work. First dinner, then the dishes and, after that, a run in the Panhandle. Brad hoped he’d be so worn out afterwards that for once he’d quickly fall asleep.
Brad dripped lemon juice over the tenderized schnitzels and then rolled them in peppered flour. As he dropped them into a heated fry pan, the cutlets spattered and their white coats yellowed in the hot oil. Brad quickly wiped up the oil splatters with a dishtowel he kept over his shoulder. He wanted to remove any tasty incentives rouge roaches might have to race across the top of the stove.
When he lived at home, Brad’s mother had always shooed him out of the kitchen as if cooking were some sort of magic. Every Sunday afternoon after church, Brad waited with his father and brothers in the living room for what seemed like hours as his mother and sister struggled to get the weekly roast on the table. If Brad went through the swinging kitchen door to look or to help, however, his mother immediately bounced him back into the dining room. Brad couldn’t understand what she had against men in the kitchen. It was as if she was the guardian of the family’s culinary secrets. Secrets that were to be kept from the men, so they would get and stay married.
It was because of this that Brad never forgot his parents’ surprise the first evening he’d made weenies, baked beans and salad for his younger brothers, who, as usual, had spent hours wrestling on the living room floor and rolling into the sofa and the television set. Brad was supposed to babysit them while doing his homework—50 pages of AP history and a ten-question calculus problem set.
“You’re their older brother,” Brad’s father would roar at him. “You’re in charge when your mother or I aren’t home.” Sometimes Brad’s parents, who both worked at “the store,” known to the rest of the world as Winton’s Pharmacy, weren’t home until after 9 PM even though closing time was 7.
That night his parents had gotten home especially late, around 10. Instead of finding the house the usual disaster with magazines and newspapers smeared all over the coffee table, lampshades askew and the crocheted sofa throw ripped off the couch and on the floor, they saw Brad drying the dishes. His younger brothers had been fed, done their homework and were upstairs in the bathroom brushing their teeth getting ready for bed. The boys’ schoolbooks and bookmarked homework assignments, including Brad’s, were lined up on the dining room table, ready for his father’s inspection. His parents’ mouths fell open and silent. They wondered what sort of coercion Brad had used to get his incorrigible brothers to behave.
He showed them the empty pork and beans can and the plastic frankfurter wrapper. “All I did was open a wrapper and a can, put them in a pan, stir them around and in ten minutes dinner was ready,” Brad said, as if he were trying to justify some wrongdoing. His mother gave Brad a wounded look, as if he had betrayed her. His father for once didn’t go into his 30-minute tirade until his mother got dinner on the table. “I also washed and cut up half a head of lettuce, two tomatoes and two carrots and made a salad.” Brad’s mother went upstairs to his parents’ bedroom and shut and locked the door. For a moment, Brad’s father looked as if he might ask Brad to make him supper. Then he turned towards the door, got back in his car and drove off, probably to some burger joint on Second South.
Many of Brad’s first missionary companions were almost as clueless about discipline, housekeeping and cooking as Brad’s younger brothers. After a hard day of tracting and having scores of doors slammed in their faces, Brad’s first senior missionary companion, Elder Stockton, enjoyed nothing more, once back at their apartment, than wrestling Brad to the floor and farting as close to his face as possible. Brad realized that this yokel, from some obscure corner of Montana, population 5,000, did this to reassert his bruised ego. He just wanted to make sure Stockton didn’t bruise him.
Stockton, just like Brad’s younger brothers, wasn’t too careful about the furniture either. End tables and lamps were knocked over. Then he tried to hide the damage by gluing things back together instead of telling their landlady, Frau Hagen, who was always complaining about something.
Brad had suffered from Stockton’s roughhousing for more than two weeks. Once Stockton had unscrewed the toilet seat and Brad had fallen off and hit his right knee against the bathroom’s hard, cold tile floor. Another time Stockton had stacked canned goods in the cupboard so they fell out onto Brad’s head when he opened the door. But Stockton’s cooking was by far his worst offence. It seemed like he’d learned it on some chuckwagon. All he ever made were pork and beans and sausages from a can and hamburgers that were burnt on the outside and bloody on the inside. Other nights, they ate peanut butter and jelly or cold cut sandwiches. Brad didn’t know if Stockton was running out of money, as many missionaries did towards the end of their missions, or if he just didn’t know how to cook other things. But after three weeks of bad food, Brad decided it was time to start making some changes.
The first was when Brad bought a cookbook on sale at the Hanover, Germany, Safeway.
“You can’t read that,” Elder Stockton quickly objected. “It’s not approved material,” he said reminding Brad that missionaries were only allowed to read The Four Standard Works—The Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price, “faith-promoting” theological tomes like Elder Talmage’s Articles of Faith or Jesus, the Christ, or Elder Richard’s salesman-like tips for missionaries in A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. This ban also included newspapers and magazines whose front covers Brad quickly and surreptitiously scanned as he stood in the supermarket check-out line with Elder Stockton.
“Would you like to eat PB&J sandwiches, sausages, beans and half-cooked hamburgers for the rest of the time we’re together?” Brad asked. Elder Stockton didn’t answer.
“Besides,” Brad continued, “I don’t think there’s anything in here against church doctrine unless they throw in a little cooking sherry every now and then—and I’ll leave that out.”
Brad bought the book. It was about frying techniques since many Germans didn’t have ovens, just a few gas burners set at waist height on top of their half-sized refrigerators. Brad learned all about tenderizing, marinating, breading and frying schnitzels, sausages and other cheap cuts of meat in a pan at the correct temperature.
The first time he ate one of Brad’s cookbook dinners, Elder Stockton gave his companion the same open-mouthed look Brad’s parents had given him when he’d fed and pacified his younger brothers. Using just the basics—water, flour, egg, salt, pepper, sugar, mustard and a little heat under a frying pan—Brad had transformed the cheap, tough, supermarket pork schnitzels, which most missionaries tried to chew and swallow quickly, into something tender and savoury. Soon dinners became something not just to be endured, but to be enjoyed and even anticipated.
It was then that Brad discovered that good cooking was no mystery, just good chemistry. It required following recipes step by step and adding the right amount of heat to create a controlled chemical reaction. He’d set up and monitored much more complicated operations with glass funnels and tubes in the back of his father’s pharmacy—titrations and distillations—which sometimes ran overnight or all weekend to create customized, prescription drops, lotions or pills. Winton Pharmacy was one of the few Wasatch Valley drugstores that still did that.
The cutlets had browned on one side, so Brad turned them in the pan. It was getting warm in the kitchen, so Brad opened a window. Fog-cooled air rushed into the hot room.
Elder Stockton didn’t say a word, when a few weeks later, Brad bought a book on baking, a roasting pan and two, narrow cake molds. Soon they were enjoying chicken and pork roasts with potato, carrot, onion, turnip or celery trimmings twice a week with a banana or chocolate pound cake for dessert. Brad usually put the two cakes into the oven as soon as he took out the roast to save on gas. He didn’t want his landlady, Frau Hagen, complaining about the gas bill again or about the two missionaries’ daily morning showers.
“Sie sind Amerikanen,” the mission president tried to explain to her to no avail. “Das ist gewöhnlich.”
The first cake was for Brad and Elder Stockton that evening and the next day. The second was for the other zone missionaries. Before he went to bed, Brad sliced the leftover meat for the next day’s luncheon sandwiches. The second cake he cut into 2 cm. thick slices and packed them into plastic bags for the other missionaries.
He’d also trained Elder Stockton to share the household chores—cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the living room and taking out the rubbish—in exchange for a warm evening meal, though he still made remarks to try to redeem his wounded manhood.
“Oh, you’ll make some woman a good wife some day,” or “You’re such a sweet spirit,” he taunted.
Brad liked to think that Stockton regretted it, though, when he was transferred to Bielefeld two months later. Elder Bergamo, as Brad was called, had two more senior companions who were prone to the same wrestling matches and practical jokes as Elder Stockton. This time, however, Brad initiated the food reward/response mechanism within the first days of their assignment. Thus he avoided, for the most part, the rough and tumble and bruises he’d gotten from Elder Stockton.
As Brad began to rise in seniority in the Northern German mission, he became shocked at how little some of his fellow missionaries had saved for food or received from home to eat. Before Brad had even left for Germany, his part-time farmer/full-time banker uncle in Ohio had transferred three thousand dollars to a Deutsche Bank account so he wouldn’t run out. None of the other guys had the ways or the means to put away such a financial cushion. Many could barely save enough for two, wash-and-wear suits, aeroplane fare and the first few months of groceries before they left the States. In addition, the Hanover ward members had been instructed by the mission president not to feed the missionaries because he was convinced that time spent having warm lunches or afternoon Apfelkuchen and ice cream with older members kept the elders from getting their baptisms. And the Hanover mission was going through a particularly long dry spell. There hadn’t been any baptisms in the last quarter.
Seeing his fellow missionaries poverty, Brad quickly organized what he referred to as the United Order. Joseph Smith, Jr. had used the same term to define a method of consecration in which the predominantly poor converts of his fledgling church, gave what they had to the bishop, and received what they needed in return. Although Brad’s “Order” wasn’t communist, the missionaries saved at least 20 per cent on their grocery bills through buying in bulk. Brad bought fruits and vegetables at the twice-weekly farmers’ markets, and meat and bread from neighbourhood butchers and bakers. In addition, these tradespeople were so happy with Brad’s regular business and charmed by his upper-level German that they gave him little extras. The fruit and vegetable vendors threw in extra produce after they’d weighed and Brad had paid for what had been on the scale. The butchers gave Brad free, special cuts like cow’s tongue or Blutwurst—things too exotic for the other missionaries, but a challenge for Brad to cook and an unexpected treat for his companions. And the baker threw in a pastry every week with the bread and rolls like Bienenstich with its yeasty dough, cream filling and almond and honey topping.
The pork cutlets were brown on both sides now. Brad took them out of the pan and put them on a paper towel on a plate to drain. An express bus lumbered down Haight Street momentarily rattling the apartment windows. He put the plate with the cooked cutlets immediately into the refrigerator. He didn’t want any of the apartment’s wildlife getting to his supper before he did. He set “the table,” which was a built-in ledge underneath the china cabinet in front of a wavy, funhouse, reflective mirror probably from the 1920s when the building went up. Brad still didn’t have any money for furniture. He had rescued two chrome-framed, ’50s style, red padded kitchen chairs from a construction dumpster down the street and brought them home. Rust had permanently scarred the bottoms of the chair legs, but the padded seats and backs were intact and the frames. Though irreparably corroded at the bottom, the chairs were still strong and springy. Brad, however, still needed to get a frame for his mattress and springs to get them off the floor of his studio’s livingroom/bedroom.
Brad took a head of lettuce out of the refrigerator and washed it in the kitchen sink, watching to see if anything washed or jumped out. Then he sliced up a tomato, shaved a few carrots and poured some store-bought, blue cheese salad dressing, the only thing he hadn’t made from scratch, onto the salad. He took the cutlets out of the refrigerator, poured himself a glass of cranberry juice and sat down. He said Grace aloud with his eyes wide open so he wouldn’t be caught off guard by the roaches, hoping also the sound of his voice would frighten them away.
Brad began to eat. He was tired and hungry, but happy with how everything had turned out. The cutlets were crunchy and sweetly caramelized on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside and not the least bit pink. Sometimes if he got the pan too hot, the cutlets browned too quickly and were tough. As he sat there eating, the door to the Victorian Pub across the street opened and Brad heard piano music and people singing Happy Birthday. ‘They must be having a party,’ Brad thought.
As was to be expected, the mission president eventually got wind of the weekly meetings Brad had organized at his apartment to get the zone reports done, divide up some the week’s food and receipts and give the elders a taste of his cooking.
“Elder Bergamo, what’s this I hear about you having parties at your apartment?” the short, balding man snorted at Brad as he waited for an answer. The tense silence was broken only by the ticking of an old mantel clock above the fireplace in the president’s office. On the same mantel was a picture of a thirty-year-younger version of the president with a full head of blonde hair, standing next to President David O. MacKay and his wavy, white mane.
“It was a zone meeting not a party,” Brad said. “We got a lot of work done—tracting schedules, contact reviews and German scripture memorization.” Brad left out the part about the weekly food distribution. The only additional thing he admitted was feeding seven hungry, overworked young men. Brad knew immediately who had complained. It was his landlady, Frau Hagen. He hoped he would be out of her apartment soon. A few nights before, it had been very cold. Nonetheless, at 10.30 PM, just like clockwork before she crawled into bed, Frau Hagen cranked off the heat to Brad’s and Elder Wilhelm’s attic flat. In a few hours it was so cold the two men had to get up and get dressed, even putting on their raincoats in order to be warm enough to finally fall asleep.
The president shook his head. “I don’t want any unauthorized meetings of missionaries. You are here to work—not have a good time!”
Brad promised there’d be no more meetings at his apartment. That week, Brad went out and bought the biggest saddlebags he could find for his bicycle and his companion’s so they could transport and transfer “the goods” away from the prying eyes of any ward sisters or the mission president. Brad felt like a Cold War spy making the transfers in the park. Brad’s addition of a batch of cookies and some slices of pound cake as hush money only added to this feeling.
The bar’s door opened again. This time Glenn Campbell’s Galveston seeped out into the windy, foggy evening. Brad remembered when his mother had taught him the refrain’s rising chord progression one afternoon after school. He also remembered the sheet music’s colour photo of the attractive, blond-haired singer with long sideburns, a cleft chin and his head tilted back, eyes closed. Brad and his mother sat in front of the big, carved, dark mahogany upright piano his mother had played in her father’s family band when she was a teenager. No matter how bad his day had been at school, Brad soon forgot his troubles as his mother patiently and competently taught him how to transfer the notes on the sheet music to the keys. Soon, Brad didn’t even have to think about where his fingers had to go. He could sight read and the keyboard seemed to become as extension of his body. His mother was a great teacher. Brad wondered why she hadn’t gone to music school or taught her own students.
Brad ate the second cutlet and his salad. About halfway through his mission, he was transferred from Hanover to Berlin. Here in the walled German metropolis, surrounded by East Germany, it had been even harder to get baptisms. But his assignment proved to be a godsend when the ward’s 78-year-old choir director, Schwester Hauptman, a stalwart who had remained active even during Nazis, suddenly had a meltdown during sacrament service one Sunday because she felt the ward no longer followed her direction.
“Lauter! Schneller!” she shouted, tapping the podium with her baton as the ward members tried to follow her. The problem, however, wasn’t the ward’s volume or its tempo. Schwester Hauptman just couldn’t hear or see that well anymore even though she’d been told for years to get a hearing aid and have cataract surgery.
In the middle of sacrament service, after conducting a hymn and becoming increasing red-faced, she left the podium and walked out of the chapel even before the 16-year-old young man carrying the silver tray with the bread got to the rostrum. After the service, one of the president’s counsellors took her aside for a talk. The next Sunday it was announced that Schwester Hauptman had been released, which the ward confirmed with a quick, unanimous show of raised hands. It was immediately announced thereafter that Brad had been “called” as the new ward choir director, which was also confirmed with another quick, unanimous show of hands.
Brad was pleasantly surprised. Most of his mission, he’d hardly spent any time at the keyboard. It would be nice to practise and play regularly again.
“Great, now I’ll never get my baptism,” Elder Swensen, Brad’s new junior companion, complained as he sat at the back of the chapel during the choir practice since they always had to stay together, instead of “on the hunt,” as Swensen called it. All that tall, thin, blond kid ever talked about was hunting and fishing in some forest or stream in Idaho or how much he wanted to get his baptism so he wouldn’t go back home empty-handed. In Latin America, he complained to Brad, elders baptized at least one person a week. Here, elders were lucky if they baptized one person their whole mission.
“Just wait,” Brad tried to reassure him. “It’ll happen. Besides, I think people here would rather come to us instead of us bothering them.” Going door-to-door looking for converts hadn’t yielded anyone who was more than vaguely interested in joining the church. Most respondents were elderly men and women with time on their hands who were just curious about the well-mannered, well-dressed, young American men standing on their doorsteps or behind a table in the open-air markets. Most had pleasant memories of the Allies who, during their youth, had saved them from the Russian soldiers who had raped and murdered as they advanced block-by-block to the city centre and Hitler’s bunker. These people, out of curiosity and/or nostalgia, took the discussions, but all finally declined to be baptized.
Brad worked with the ward choir so that they could begin to enjoy singing together. He had twice as many women as men. That was OK, though, since the ward’s brothers and sisters, most of whom were over 50, couldn’t hear half the high notes any more. Brad used warming-up exercises to help build up the choir’s vocal power and range. Breathing, articulation and phrasing exercises also helped put the drama back into what had previously been monotonous hymns. In addition, he added some familiar German hymns, which were in the LDS hymnbook, such as Luther’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, but which Schwester Hauptman, for some reason, had never used. Brad also added some newer hymns like Ich bin ein Kind von Gott. Brad guessed these had been added decades after the older members had joined the church.
Best of all, Brad praised the choristers when they did something well, and corrected them separately, not in front of the group, unlike Schwester Hauptman. After a few weeks of positive reinforcement, the choir really did sound better and five ward members had asked to join. After practice, there were also cookies or cakes Brad had baked along with hot chocolate, warm, anise-flavoured milk or cool, sparkling Sprüdelwaßer.
A few months into his “calling,” Brad was in a mission president’s office again, but this time he had asked for the meeting. He wanted President Zimmerman to hold an open house with food and a concert to try to get people from the neighborhood interested in the church.
“Das ist nicht möglich!” Zimmerman insisted, pounding his fist on his oak desk, his white eye brows raised and the blue vein on the right side of his forehead throbbing.
“Warum nicht?” Brad argued. “Going door-to-door just makes people angry, information stands in the town centre don’t attract anyone except nuts who want to argue for hours or people who have pleasant memories, but don’t get baptized. The free English lessons also haven’t drawn any converts, just parents too cheap to pay for tutors. Why not give some public concerts? At least it’s a way to get people into the chapel—of their own volition.”
The big, tall man leaned back in his high-back leather office chair, his arms behind his head, his eyes closed, thinking about Brad’s proposal, trying to get his pulse back to normal.
“Ok, … nur eine Konzert!” he said gesticulating with his index finger towards Brad’s face. Brad, at first, couldn’t believe his luck. He left before Zimmerman had time to change his mind.
The ward brothers and sisters invited their family and friends to the concert, excited about how good the choir sounded and how much happiness and fellowship Elder Bergamo had brought them. Schwester Käks, or Sister Cookie, as she was affectionately called by the missionaries because she still invited them over for afternoon ice cream, even brought two neighbors from her Seniorenheim. One was Frau Meindert, a short, rather fat women with white-blue hair who had a bald patch on top. The other was Frau Dressler, who was taller and thinner and who always wore some sort of butterfly broach. Brad started the concert playing Bach’s Jesus, bleibt meine Freude on the organ. The choir started by singing, Ich brauch dich jeder Uur. In the middle of the concert, Brad accompanied himself on a solo and the concert ended with Luther’s Ein feste Burg is unser Gott.
Brad knew he had been hungry. He looked down and realized he’d eaten everything on his plate in just ten minutes. It had taken three times as long to cook the meal, but that was what happened when you made and ate supper alone. Now, there was nothing left to do but clean up—wash the dishes, put everything away in double Tupperware keepers so the roaches couldn’t get at them and take out the trash on his way down to run in the park. He turned on the hot water tap, waited for it to run from cold, rusty brown to steamy clear, and then put the dishes into the hot water and suds.
The concert drew an audience that nearly filled the 200-seat chapel. Frau Käks’ two neighbours became interested in the choir. They accompanied her to the twice-weekly rehearsals and sat in the back of the chapel knitting and listening to the choir until it was time for refreshments when Brad then invited them to join in. After about a month of “visits,” they came up to Brad at the end of one rehearsal and asked if they could join the choir.
“Daß müße ich an Präsident Zimmerman fragen,” Brad said.
“Only if they join the church,” was Zimmerman’s answer.
And to Brad’s amazement—after three discussions and their first baptism charge—they did. Schwester Käks and the other ward sisters helped the two women sew their white baptismal dresses. They both wanted Brad to baptize them, but Brad persuaded Frau Dressler to let Elder Swensen baptize her, because as Brad’s junior companion, he needed the experience for his Lehre or apprenticeship. She agreed, though Zimmerman never understood why Brad gave his second baptism to Swensen.
“With two baptisms, you could have driven the Mercedes to conferences for the remainder of your mission,” he chided. The mission presidents in Germany, along with those in other places in Europe, gave missionaries perks if they baptized more than one person. Two baptisms got you the driver’s seat for three months to mission conferences. Three or four baptisms got you an extra free day with your companion. Brad had even heard from a high school friend on a mission in Norway who had gotten a week away from his companion in the countryside after baptizing a family of five. During the day, he could travel on his own as along as he returned every evening to his LDS host family and their summer cabin.
“I don’t really enjoy driving that much,” Brad had said. ‘What kind of queer American is this?’ Brad imagined Zimmerman had thought and he wasn’t wrong—about the queer part.
The bar’s door across the street opened again. This time Brad caught a bit of Debby Boone’s You Light Up My Life—his mother’s favourite song. She had taught Brad how to play it when he was 10. She had also hummed it to him as she taught him how to waltz seven years later in their Salt Lake living room in the weeks leading up to Brad’s senior prom. Unfortunately, they’d had to leave his grandfather’s piano in Ohio before they’d moved West. Brad still remembered how his father broke the news to his mother.
“Too heavy…too big,” he said. His mother gave his father first a puzzled and then a hurt look. Then she sat down in the nearest chair.
One of the movers, however, had walked in and overheard part of his parents exchange.
“I think we might….” Brad’s father turned and glared at the man, stopping him in mid-sentence. He also flexed his biceps and shot the mover one of his famous ‘I’ve killed a man with these hands’ looks that froze Brad in his tracks. The man stepped back and stumbled into the sofa. Then he quickly walked out the back door. He spent the rest of the day outside loading the moving truck.
Fortunately, for Brad, his new school in Salt Lake had its own music wing with a piano in every room so he was able to keep up with what he’d learned at home in Ohio. He even arranged to continue his lessons with Brother Friedman, his high school choir teacher. His mother, however, sometimes sat at home on the sofa staring at the empty space along the staircase where her father’s piano had stood in their house in Ohio. There hadn’t been enough money to buy a new one, his father had said, once they’d gotten to Utah. Besides, they needed all their savings to start up “the store” down the street at 9th and 9th. Brad’s father suggested Brad’s mother could practise at the meetinghouse just a few blocks away, but she said she was too tired after working with him all day and then making dinner.
Brad wanted to call his mother. He knew it was hard on her not knowing where he was. But he also wanted to keep the Utah State Police off his trail. What if his father had agreed to have the phone tapped? That was one of the reasons Brad hadn’t gotten a phone installed. The other was because Ma Bell wanted a $500 deposit for the first year since so many people left San Francisco without paying their bills.
Then Brad thought about writing his mother. Not from San Francisco, of course, because the postmark would reveal his location. He remembered a new store on Haight Street called Air Male. It sold men’s clothes and postcards from around the world including those from New York City. He remembered seeing cards of the Empire State Building’s silver spire and Times Square’s neon signs. Brad decided to send one of these to his mother, but to have someone else mail it from another part of the country. ‘How can I find someone to do this?’ Brad thought. Then he remembered he knew someone in the Castro who could certainly arrange it.