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If You Can't Stand the Heat...

by Rose Madeline Mula

My mother was a terrific cook. Despite that fact--or maybe because of it--I am not. While she was alive, I could always count on wonderful meals, without ever having to go near a stove. So I didn't. I figured that I could learn when it became necessary. Nothing to it. All I'd need would be recipes. Anyone who can read, I reasoned, can cook--which is true, up to a point. But how well? Ah, there's the rub.

Living alone, I did not have in-house critics to provide feedback for my culinary efforts. Nevertheless, and not to brag, when I invite friends and most kin to dinner, they invariably lavish praise on every course. "Why not?" some of my other, less kind relatives point out; "it's one less meal they've had to prepare for themselves." Such remarks do not inspire confidence.

It was with considerable trepidation, therefore, that I entered the kitchen of my hostess, the legendary actress, Joan Fontaine, one long-ago Thanksgiving morning, to offer my assistance. Acting is not Miss Fontaine's only talent. Not by a long shot. She's also a hole-in-one golfer, a prize-winning fisherwoman, a hot air balloonist, an accomplished horsewoman, and a pilot. "When you've had as many husbands as I've had, Darling," she quips, "you learn all their hobbies." And one hobby all hubbies shared in common was a love of good food. No problem. Joan is also a gourmet cook who studied at the Cordon Bleu in Paris.

No wonder I was intimidated that day. But though my mother did not teach me to cook, she did teach me good manners, so I asked, politely, "What can I do to help, Joan?" "Can you cook?" she asked. "Not really," I said truthfully, "but I should be able to manage some simple tasks." "All right," said she. "You can section the fruit for the salad."

She handed me an apron and sat me down at a table in front of a large bowl, a bag full of oranges and grapefruit, and a paring knife. I figured, how hard can this be? I found out. She stopped me as I was mangling orange No. 1. "No, no--not that way--this way," she said demonstrating. Within seconds, she had removed the skin expertly, in one long piece, and then cut into the orange. With one swoop, she sliced into a segment and up the other side, removing a perfect orange slice and leaving behind only the membrane from both sides. In less than a minute, she had repeated this feat until all that was left in her hand was a complete "empty" orange-only membranes and core.

I tried to imitate her. Disaster. "Never mind," she said, "I'll do it. It will be faster." "See, that's why I can't cook," I wailed. "That's what my mother always says." "Good God, I don't blame her," said Joan. "The woman should be canonized just for letting you near her kitchen!" She then banished me to the den to write place cards.

I have never lived it down. Thirty years later in a phone conversation, after her usual, "How's your love life, Darling?" (which she knows never compared to hers, even in my wildest dreams), she twisted the knife: "Are you having any more success in your kitchen than in your bedroom these days?" This, in spite of the fact that a mutual friend who had dined at my home a few years ago and claimed to enjoy it (again, he didn't have to cook it himself) wrote her a glowing review of the meal. Instead of a letter, he inserted the message in a large mock-up of a front page of the show-biz bible, "Variety." Echoing "GARBO TALKS," the historic headline touting Greta Garbo's first talking picture, his headline read, "MULA COOKS!"

Unfortunately, his praise gave me a false sense of security. Shortly thereafter I committed a culinary catastrophe that made all my past disasters look like Julia Childs (or Joan Fontaine) triumphs: I'd had a busy day. I was ravenously hungry, but too tired to cook something from scratch, so I decided to make a little pasta topped with some leftover tomato sauce I had in the fridge. I boiled some linguini, warmed the sauce in the microwave, and poured it on the pasta. Strange. It looked quite pink. But I thought that was because the lighting in my kitchen isn't very bright. Also, I figured that the thin, flat linguini didn't hold the sauce as well as the lined rigatoni I usually use. So I piled on some grated Romano and dug in. It tasted sweet. Strange. I never use sugar in my sauce. But, I really was starved, so I kept wolfing it down.

As I got to the bottom of the dish I remembered that I had put onions and a little red pepper in the sauce. This definitely had neither. Then I thought that possibly I had inadvertently used plain crushed tomatoes since when I don't use a whole can, I save the remainder in a bowl. But as I kept eating, I finally realized that it really didn't taste the least bit like tomatoes.

Then it hit me: A couple of nights before, I was looking for a container to take to my watercolor class. I remembered pouring something out of a half-filled jar in my refrigerator into a bowl so I could use the jar. What I had poured into the bowl was cranberry/apple sauce. Can you imagine that on pasta? With grated cheese yet? Some say it was probably better than my homemade tomato sauce.

I worry that they might be right.

 

Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.

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