writing exercise #21: A how-to

Assignment: Write a how-to guide using present tense verbs. (Now I have two stories about pancakes!)

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“Okay, so here’s what you do,” I tell her. “First, you turn the flour container upside-down, then back right-side up. This sort of fluffs up the flour, so it’s lighter. People used to sift it, but you don’t really have to do that anymore.”

We stood in the kitchen, my daughter and me, making pancakes. Pancakes have kind of been my thing. I am an imperfect mother, but I do good breakfasts, and the best ones have to do with pancakes.

“So you scoop out one cup of flour using the flat side of the knife to level the top,” I say, showing her. As I shoved the top of the white mound back into the tub, I remembered her as a toddler wanting to help. I’d station her at the sink, fill it with detergent-laced water she could play in. “Bubbles!” she’d yell, enthused. The sound of splashing meant water on the floor, but at least I could cook quickly while she had fun. Now she wanted to learn for real.

“Now, you can do all white flour, but that’s not the healthiest and it’s also boring,” I say. “I like to use buckwheat and flax, which gives the pancakes a nutty flavor, and if you have walnuts, which we do, you can grind them and use them, too. Or oat flour. Or corn meal. Or hemp seed. Anything you like that adds up to another cup.”

She pauses. Thinks. “Let’s do the walnuts and the buckwheat.”

“Okay,” I say and hand her the jar of walnuts. Thank god for Costco. “You can use the food processor to grind these. Measure out a generous half-cup since when they’re ground, they won’t have so much space between them.”

I watch her pour the walnuts in the half-cup measure, making sure to pile them high. She bites her lip. She’s always bit her lip when she concentrates. Years of helping her with math at the kitchen table. Some nights she’d bite her lip till it bled, then burst into tears. Mostly during algebra and when she was especially tired from playing softball. I hated homework during the spring. Poor kid was hitting home runs and catching grounders to help her team win the game, only to come home and find herself stymied by x and y. Homework caused her triumph to be short-lived. I wanted her to savor it.

She presses the on button. The walnuts rattle in the processor, then turn to dust. She laughs. “So easy!” she says.

“All these kitchen tools sure make things simpler,” I agree. When she was a baby, we didn’t have a dishwasher, much less a food processor. When my dad gave us a programmable Mr. Coffee, I thought I’d arrived. I could set it to have the coffee ready when I woke up? Nothing short of a miracle.

“So add that to the flour and then add a half-cup of buckwheat,” I say. “Plus a tablespoon of baking powder and a teaspoon of baking soda.” I pause. “Always be careful to not mix those up. Baking soda tastes horrible and you can’t fix it.”

Once, when she was five, we made cookies together. I’d just started buying in bulk from the local Co-op and hadn’t been religious about labeling my goods. She’d asked to taste the dough. I said, “Sure,” imagining the glee that would come over her face thanks to that heavenly sugar-butter-chocolate combo. Instead, she gagged, spit the chunk of dough right onto the kitchen floor. “Yuck!” she’d shouted.

I’d stuck my finger into the dough, swabbed the sample onto my tongue. “Yuck!” was right. I spit mine into the sink – apparently I’d put in a cup of salt instead of sugar. We’d had to throw the batch out. I took her for ice cream instead.
“A quarter-cup of sugar and that’s it for the dry ingredients,” I said. “Now for the wet. We have some choices. Apple juice will make them extra sweet and I do love that carmelized taste it adds. Orange juice makes them extra light. Milk is the standard and always good. We don’t have buttermilk, but that’s more for a special Sunday brunch kind of thing anyway.”

We didn’t have family in town, so I’d started hosting Sunday brunches with friends. This investment proved worthwhile when she’d landed in the hospital for a week, inexplicable stomach pains the doctors never fully figured out. Our people rallied, brought food, cleaned the house, provided an endless stream of shoulder to cry on. They might’ve done it anyway, but the Sunday brunches helped.

“Apple juice,” she announces. “Should we put some cinnamon in, too?”

“Great idea.” I smile at her.”Apples and cinnamon are always good together. Go ahead and measure two cups.”

She grins to herself and pours cautiously from the apple juice pitcher into the Pyrex cup.

“Okay, now two eggs.” I watch her crack them, conscientious about letting the shell fall. She’s perfect. Only yolk and white escape into the container.

When I brought her home from the hospital, as soon as I stepped out of the car, the bigness of the world impressed itself upon me. She was so small, so fragile. I swore to the world I would keep her safe. The world wins in the end, but I try, I do try.

“Now a quarter cup of oil.” She measures, then pours it into the Pyrex, nearly full. I hand her a whisk. “Careful,” I say. She twists the whisk right, then left, then right, back-and-forth until the eggs and oil are blended into the juice. “Great job. Now pour that all at once into the dry ingredients. Wait! Add the cinnamon and mix them up first.”

She does, a wanton dash straight from the spice jar into the bowl, then stirs it with the same whisk, floury bits stuck to the metal curves. No matter. She dumps the wet mixture into the dry, stirs it until just mixed and says, “How’s that?”

“One more,” I say. “And… perfect.”

I show her how to heat the griddle to the point where a drop of water just sizzles. She smiles at the sound. We take turns pouring batter, watching the surface of the cooking pancakes bubble. Her face lights up with anticipation. I imagine her imagining the taste of melted butter and maple syrup. The edges turn golden.

The pancakes turn out perfectly.

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