If, by definition, the verb ‘to cook’ includes the ability to raise dough from the dead in much the manner of a zombie rising from a graveyard to stalk its victims, then I was a chef from a very early age, despite my too-wise mother’s vast efforts to keep me out of her kitchen, safely away from the oven’s flames, and thusly out of trouble.

Mom’s key problem was: I was a girl. And as a mother, it was her undeniable duty to teach me the finer arts of cooking – even if aforementioned oven flames in my case too curiously resembled the Road to Hell.

And so it came to be that Mom reluctantly embarked upon the cooking lesson that would cement my early reputation as a budding Julia Child of the Underworld.

Several culinary facts should first be established:

  1. Mom boasted a showy spice rack that in all appearances represented an impressive culinary repertoire. As a point of reality, Mom’s spice rack in fact held only three spices: salt, pepper, and ‘Other’. (‘Other’ was viewed with much suspicion and never left the rack. [According to Mom, Satan’s spawn had undoubtedly left Chili Powder behind on their last visit to the planet. It was the ONLY logical explanation as to why Chili Power even EXISTED…])
  2. Mom’s kitchen was her sanctuary. During our formative years she had defined the term ‘Maginot Line’ as representing that line of demarcation between the kitchen linoleum and its border where the dining room rug met. As with the French version, this Line was a line of many defenses. (…where the French Minister of War Andres Maginot employed fortifications, machine gun posts, tanks and other defenses; Mom employed Dire Threats, deliciously in-depth descriptions of unending punishments, and artillery fire consisting of pots, pans and wooden spoons). As youngsters we were NOT to cross that line two hours before any meal, when said pots and pans were flying in a frenzy of Meal Preparation conducted by the self-proclaimed Goddess of Cooking (Mom).
  1. Dad was a meat-cutter by trade, and owned his own butcher shop. His unshakable pride in bringing home not just the bacon but in depositing the entire pig in his wife’s kitchen for anticipated delicious culinary culminations was legendary.

With all this history, it was no wonder I preferred my murderous rampages with Barbie over any culinary lessons Mom could dare impart from her personal heaven on earth. The Kitchen was Mom’s kingdom, her haven, and despite its attractive Flames of Hell (i.e. The Oven), held as much fear as attraction for The Little Devil (i.e. me). Such is the result of creating (and enforcing) a Forbidden Zone in your very own home.

However, it was undeniable that I was a girl: and as such it was Mom’s god-given duty to Teach Me Cooking; that one day I too might delight a man with my culinary prowess (…THAT notion was always good for a laugh, even at the tender age of 7. I figgered any man I hooked up with had darn well better be COOKING FOR ME, as I’d be waaay too busy exploring space, riding horsies, or scuba diving to the Center of the Earth to waste MY time in anyone’s kitchen.)

One rainy day when Maginot Line complaints of boredom ran high and Mom faced two small children and a dog lapping at said Line like waves threatening to consume a beach, I was invited into her sanctuary to begin my first cooking lesson. My sister and the dog remained banished at the Line, heavily admonished to ‘look all you want, but go no further’. Both whimpered and obeyed.

Now, consider an army in battle. It’s NEVER a good thing if a lone soldier is invited into Enemy Territory for a celebratory culinary experience while the rest of the army is to remain behind sobbing hungrily on the battlefield. Thus, in my head I heard “DOOM-DOOM-DOOM”: a slow and dreadful army drummer’s mournful beat of ‘taps’ as I crossed that forbidden line for what was purportedly my first venture into something that SOUNDED good on the face of it: Baking Toll House Cookies.

You can never accuse my mother of (a) ignorance or (b) not being crafty (a genetic talent likely passed from mother to daughter). She KNEW the one thing that could get me to willingly cross that Line was Toll House Cookies and the promise of Unlimited Bowl-Licking Opportunities.

She had the instruments of battle already laid out on the table: spoons, bowls, chocolate chips, etc. The Fires of Hell (i.e. the Oven) had been pre-warmed (solely, I suspected, to thwart my propensity for turning the dial to 500+ degrees ‘just to see if it would explode’. In my defense: one MUST test one’s kitchen equipment regularly, so yearly Safety Inspections by Moi were a mandatory requirement….)

Mom presided over my mission with the authority of an army officer preparing men for battle. My every move was  scrutinized, every measurement double-checked (especially the salt/sugar ratio: also an area known to be ripe with disaster potential, based on woeful past experience). I was finally ready to spoon cookies on the prepared cookie sheets (…arguing every move took a LOT of time, even when the sergeant was well prepared) when a bomb dropped: the phone in the other room rang.

For those of you under the age of 25, phones in The Old Days were not portable. You gots only one, and its cord resisted travel any further than a foot or two. In effect, the telephone tied you to wherever its portal sat. Which in our case was conveniently located in the hallway near the bedrooms – and out of sight of the kitchen (….out of sight, out of mind, I always say…)

Keeping in mind these were The Old Days, other important facts influenced the (Kodak-like) development of the Bigger Picture:

  1. There were no answering machines. If you didn’t go there and say ‘hello’ quickly…. ya snoozed/ya loozed.
  2. People didn’t chat just for fun. The phone was for ‘quick messages’ often portending disaster, and was not to be blithely ignored.
  3. When the phone rang, you ran. It could be your long-deceased mother risen from the dead, news about your Baad Child, or some other missive of great importance. In Mom’s case, with my father owning and running his own store alone, the news often involved some Business Disaster, like an errant pig gone wild or a brilliant marketing notion (such as Dad’s famous ‘three-legged chicken’.)

Mom (dusting off her hands): I’ll be RIGHT BACK.

(…quickly assessing the potential for disaster and in true computer-like Mom fashion, producing a calculation by which the amount of havoc Diane could wreck times number of Minutes Away meant she had like 3 minutes tops for a meaningful conversation).

Mom: why don’t you finish dropping the cookies on the sheets and put them in the oven? (Ominously) DON’T DO ANYTHING ELSE – I’ll be RIGHT BACK.

And she popped out of the kitchen to grab her lifeline to the Outside World, leaving me blissfully staring at a bowl full of Toll House Cookie Batter.

Now, you realize that to my mind, Batter was Better (…than cookies. There’s a REASON why ‘cookie batter ice cream’ was invented a number of years later). Realization #2 stemmed from the fact that my stingy mother rarely let go of more than a mixing spoon or well-scraped bowl for consuming said Batter. Her being a Depression Child, every speck was duly scraped from said bowl, leaving few scraps for The Troops hibernating back on the Maginot Line. Realization #3: I had been left ALONE ON THE BATTERFIELD holding more Batter than I had seen during the entire war. And, I had about 3 minutes to do something about it.

First, I mustered in the troops. I may have been precocious and even occasionally greedy, but when faced with unexpected largess, never let it be said I didn’t share.

I handed my younger sister a wooden spoon, slopped out a bowlful for the dog (who happily ate ANYTHING that hit the floor), and we dug in.

If you do the math you can figure out how many large spoonfuls an 8-year-old can shovel in (in under 3 minutes) times the rate an accomplice 6-year-old could attempt to match, divided by an enthusiastic dog’s hyperactive tongue. In other words: the bowl was nearly emptied in record time (Guinness Book – are you LISTENING? Where’s my category of achievement??)

And speaking of computer-like calculation and logic, I realized my Mom fully expected to return to find sheets of cookies in the oven. Cookies that were now forming an uncomfortable lump in my stomach and in that of my sister, who stood in the kitchen like a little evil gnome spreading batter all over herself and the tabletop and moaning like a zombie with a stomach-ache.

Quick! The cookie sheets!

I authoritatively banned my sister back to the Maginot Line, booted the dog out with her, and did a record job of slopping TEENYTINY fingerfulls of batter onto the sheets, perfectly spaced to fill the sheet and make it look good. I had observed my mother at war enough to know said cookies miraculously expanded (I could only hope they would expand enough to look like a whole bowlful of batter rather than the ¼ bowl I had wrenched from my sister’s greedy hands.)

Mom’s call took more than the allotted 3 minutes – some Store Disaster, I suspect – but by the time she sprinted back to the kitchen the bowl was empty, the cookie sheets in the oven, and aside from some suspicious burping by all involved, to all intents and purposes the Cookies Were Safely at Rest; the oven timer even showing the correct 4 minutes of time left, as I’d been taught.

Relief was evident on Mom’s face as she surveyed the battlefield and found no bodies or untoward distribution of armaments in her absence. Just that suspicious burping on my part….and was that moaning over by the Maginot Line? WAIT – were the dog AND the youngest child moaning in unison?

About the time Mom began to suspect Foul Play, the timer went off.

Me: “whoops – gotta run! Busy, busy!” (…how Mom must have HATED hearing her favorite phrase thrown back at her, albeit completely out of context…)

And I high-tailed it for the backyard, my brave compatriots not far behind, as Mom opened the oven door to discover about 40 cookies the size of  thumbnails bravely marching – if not thinly and with burned edges – across one lone cookie sheet.

The neighbors heard a familiar serenade as I pounded out the back door and headed for the Fences of Freedom: “DIIIANNE – you get BACK IN THIS HOUSE THIS MINUTE!” (Deafness, however, had fallen upon the perp, and no amount of rude hollering back in the kitchen could drag my butt back into what was certain to be Hell with undoubtedly a healthy dose of “just wait till your Father gets home!” thrown in for good measure.)

The later – and obvious – explanation I provided was that the cookies must have FALLEN. There was simply NO other explanation for the diminutive results of a tried-and-tested standard 48-cookie recipe. (Mom baked bread regularly and occasionally the lack of volume would be explained by its ‘falling’ – so I figgered what was good for the goose (being the bread, in this unholy analogy) was good for the gander (…the cookies, in this case).

Mom was buying NONE of it. Especially as she had to spend the next 3 hours feeding TUMS to an aching younger sister AND a dog.

Me? I was STOKED by my achievement, and  “READY FOR MY NEXT COOKING LESSON”. This one having obviously proved SO successful.

After all (as I pointed out to her): I was a GIRL. It was Mom’s obligation to teach me.

And I don’t recall being let back into her domain for another year, at least.

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