“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.
Yes, I have. The Day of the Rice Pudding Fiasco.
One day back in the Ice Age, my high school faculty scheduled a potluck lunch for the day before Thanksgiving. Usually we celebrated with Tex-Mex, but burritos had become boring, so we chose a Southern theme. For me, that posed a problem.
For several years, I’d been depending on a local grocery store’s rotisserie chicken and Chinese buffet and several restaurants for meals, and I’d forgotten how to cook. I’d also forgotten what to cook. I needed something that wouldn’t tax my vestigial culinary skills. Fruit salad was the obvious choice, but I wanted a dish that would look like I’d done more than peel bananas and open a few cans.
The easiest thing I could think of was rice pudding: Cook rice (leftover is fine). Mix beaten eggs, milk, and sugar together. Add rice. Set a large shallow pan containing about a half-inch of water in the oven. Pour pudding mixture into baking dish; sprinkle with cinnamon. Set baking dish in pan of water (I don’t know why) in the oven. When the blade of a case knife stuck in the center comes out clean, remove from oven. Serve hot or cold (it’s better cold).
I’d watched my mother make it–without a recipe–dozens of times. It was always delicious. It also qualified as Southern.
Granted, certain details had escaped me. Like how many eggs and how much sugar, milk, and vanilla. And whether vanilla was an ingredient at all. And how high to set the oven temperature.
I set to work boiling and beating. I slid a large, low-sided pan into the oven, filled it with a half-inch of water, and closed the door. Then I set an enormous flat CorningWare dish on the 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.
That’s when I saw Christabel.
Christabel LaMotte, named for the poet in A. S. Byatt’s Possession, a big, black, velvety, green-eyed hussy of a cat, heavy as lead. She had an agile mind 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 required to launch her to that higher plane.
“Don’t. You. Dare.”
She dared. Before I could grab her, she achieved liftoff.
But she’d forgotten to factor in the CorningWare dish. Landing off balance, she belly-flopped into the eggy mess. Again before I could grab her, she scrambled off the other side of the table and ran out of the kitchen, down the hall, through my bedroom, and into the living room. I followed, yelling, “Stop,” and, “Come back here,” and, “You’re ruining the carpet.” Things like that.
I finally caught her in the dining room–about three feet from the kitchen door; she’d made a whole circuit–carried her back to the kitchen, closed both doors, set her down, and said, “Bathe!”
Then I went to the living room, flopped into a rocking chair, listened to Dan Rather, and let milk, eggs, sugar, and a trace of vanilla and cinnamon dry and stick to a stretch of long leaf pine and three rooms of carpet.
After Mr. Rather reminded me to count my blessings, I returned to the kitchen and found Christabel sitting just where I’d left her, staring straight ahead, eyes gleaming with repressed rage and resentment, ebony underside covered with goop.
I fetched damp 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.
Damp but clean, she retired to hunt for her misplaced dignity. I cleaned up gunk. The carpet came out in fine condition, but I my Southern dish was gone with the wind.
Still, the makings of rice pudding remained. A miracle–except for a thin film the size of cat paws plus belly, it was all there, in a CorningWare dish. The oven was hot.
No one would ever know. Christabel was meticulous about personal hygiene. Heat would kill any kitty germs she’d left.
I had only to roll back the clock to the second before Christabel became airborne.
But I did not yield to temptation. The stakes were too high. One black hair on one fork, and my pristine reputation would have been history. Nearly a dozen eggs, no telling how much sugar and milk, several cups of rice–I scrapped it all.
The next morning on the way to work, I stopped at the grocery store and picked up a package of Oreos. Good old Southern food.
Now. I started this piece with a question about a day spent getting everything wrong. But then I wrote about one little culinary disaster spanning less than a half-hour out of twenty-four. An English teacher would say I didn’t follow instructions.
But believe you me, the five seconds it takes for a cat to make a hard landing in uncooked rice pudding is equal to a whole week of screw-ups.
And speaking of rice pudding, a while back, I posted about a 1000-word scene I wrote and then scrapped because it wasn’t right. Several people complimented me on my willingness to let it go.
What I didn’t make clear is that the 1000 words, taken as a whole, were pretty bad. They were first-draft, just-get-it-onto-the-page-quality words that resulted in a very bad scene.
They weren’t words I could have revised and revised and turned into a high-quality scene. There was cat hair all over them. They had to go.
But they didn’t go very far. In my documents folder there’s a file labeled Excisions. That’s where the hairy words live.
Because I never know when they might start to shed.
I first posted about rice pudding on Whiskertips. This seemed a good time to share it again. Christabel and Chloe aren’t with us any more, but they’ll never be forgotten.