I like to cook early in the morning. No one's around to distract me. Nobody's telling me what ingredients to add or leave out. Time doesn't exist. I measure, I pour, I beat, I blend. My mind is uncluttered.
And this morning was no exception. I knew that by noon it would be too hot to cook. Sweat already tickled the hairs on my neck, running down the insides of my arms as I whipped up my latest culinary masterpiece. The last time I'd tried making this particular soufflé, it caved in like a crater on the moon. But I knew now what I had done wrong. Soufflés depend on eggs and time. Not one second should be wasted between the beating of the whites and the opening of the oven door. A sudden draft might be deadly.
Well--no danger of that today, I thought. Any draft, sudden or not, would be a welcome change. Mom had told me this heat wave might go down in the record books as the hottest in Clermont Lake's history. And she was probably right. But hot was hot. Especially when your mother was trying to save money on electricity by turning off the air-conditioning.
I'd been hanging around the house since school let out for the summer, "making a mess in the kitchen" (her words, not mine) and being slovenly in general. Chocolate chip cookies with pecans and coconut were my specialty, but I'd baked enough of those in the past few days to fill a moving van. And, to tell you the truth, I was moping a little too. I was bored and hot, nearly as deflated as last week's soufflé disaster. And I missed my dog.
Mousse is a big fat mutt of an animal, sort of a mix between a chubby retriever and a beagle, with some Great Dane thrown in to scare people. Dad was the one who named him. He said that if you let that dog loose during hunting season, someone might mistake him for a moose and try to shoot him. Mousse. A cooking term, naturally.
My father is David Carson, the renowned celebrity chef. He writes cookbooks for a living, in addition to a syndicated newspaper food column called "Carson's Cuisine." He also hosts a weekly television show on the local food channel, educating all of Clermont Lake's early risers on the mysteries of how to separate eggs or grate lemon peels. My dad loves to cook, just like I do. The big difference isâ€¦he's really good at it. Another difference isâ€¦he doesn't do any of his cooking in our house anymore.
Dad moved out about a year ago to live in a high-rise condominium on the other side of the lake. A trial separation was what he and Mom called it. Yeah, right. He was dating his young editor, and everyone knew it. Mom in particular. I mean, how could she not know? Long before Dad announced his departure, it was always "Angie" this and "Angie" that. And, oh, guess who called me the other day? Andâ€¦do you know who happened to be in Toronto when I was speaking at that cooking symposium? More persistent than the flu. That was Angie.
And now Dad was living with her. Married to her, actually. With a baby on the way. But that wasn't even the worst of it. He'd taken Mousse with him. Our dog's abduction was all part of the "separation agreement," although I'd never agreed to any of it. Dad insisted that if Mom got custody of me, then he should get custody of Mousse. It was only fair, he argued. Meaning his thirteen-year-old daughter was a fair trade for a dog? Even a stupendously smart and wonderful dog, like Mousse.
And what about Mom? She'd given up a music career in New York. Now she taught piano to a bunch of tone-deaf kids whose mothers had read somewhere that studying music would elevate their child's IQ. Well, from the noises I heard coming out of our music room every afternoon, those IQs needed more help than my mom could ever give them.
This is not to say that I could play the piano any better. I was also tone deaf. Something else I'd inherited from my father. But as far as I knew, my IQ was okay. I took a career aptitude test in middle school last year and was told I would perform well in sales or animal care. Not a single word about cooking.
That pretty much wiped out my future dreams of Parisian culinary schools, so Mom came to the rescue. She enrolled me in a teen cooking class at the local rec center this summer. And, to make the testing people happy, I pinned up posters around the neighborhood advertising my pet-sitting services: EVIE CARSON: PET-SITTER, PET-WALKER, AND PART-TIME CHEF.
Only one customer called me up. Mrs. Hamilton from next door. That figured. I'd already been feeding her mangy cat for two years, ever since Mrs. Hamilton fell and broke her hip. For a while, the poor woman couldn't walk without wheels attached to her. But she was doing a lot better now. I mostly went over to try out my new recipes on her, and to search for Millie, the fugitive cat who was always sneaking out of the house.
Mrs. H complained about that cat night and day. And the woman hated everything I made for her, though I think she enjoyed the attention. Once I caught her slipping Millie one of my Swedish meatballs, but she denied it, as if I'd insulted her or something. Right. Like I wasn't insulted? Those meatballs were one of Dad's specialties. Of course, I found out later that I'd accidentally added baking soda to the recipe, instead of salt. Still, Millie ate it, so my meatballs couldn't have been that awful.
I was thinking of taking my soufflé next door later this morning, if the whole thing didn't cave in like Mount Vesuvius. Or I could share it with Mom, if she woke up in the next hour or so.
I glanced at the wall clock over the refrigerator. Ten o'clock. Why wasn't she out of bed yet? Then I heard her laughing. Mom was in the music room, talking on the phone. And I couldn't help thinking that it was good to hear her laugh. She used to do that all the time, especially when Dad made breakfast for us. Mom and I would always gag and cough, like the food was really terrible, and then he'd pretend to be offended.
Enough of that. Dad wasn't here. He was across the lake, cooking breakfast for his pregnant wife and serving the scraps to my dog!
Mom walked into the kitchen, sniffing the air.
"Soufflé again?" she said with a smile.
"New and improved," I answered. "I promise."
Mom poured herself a cup of coffee and sat at the table, opening the newspaper. We both knew that this was Saturday, the day when Dad's food column appeared in part four. But she made quite a show of avoiding that section.
I rummaged around in the fridge for some orange juice and gave the carton a hefty shake. Then I filled a glass and sat down next to her.
"Doing anything special today?" Mom asked with a yawn.
"I might go over to Mrs. Hamilton's later."
Mom grimaced. "Take her something sweet."
I grinned. "She'll probably feed it to her cat."
The timer went off, and I opened the oven door a crack. So far, no Vesuvius. After putting on a pair of oven mitts, I carefully lifted the soufflé from the rack and set it on the counter. Mom walked over and peered down.
"It's puffy," she said encouragingly.
"That's the crown," I informed her. "The soufflé is supposed to be eaten immediately, before it falls." I'd picked up that piece of information from one of my father's cookbooks. And not only his. I'd been reading cookbooks since I was ten. Famous chefs offer lots of great advice on cooking. And on life too, if you think about it, since their kitchens are their world.
Mom examined my creation. "I'm ready, if you are." She grabbed two clean plates from the dishwasher and I carried my soufflé to the table. I let it rest for a moment between us, thinking how great it would be if Dad could be here to see this. It was his own recipe, after all. And he'd be so pleased to see that I'd pulled it off.
"Not bad," he might say. Or, "Soufflés can be tricky." Which is high praise, coming from the creator of "Carson's Cuisine." Because my father always insists that no recipe is perfect.
The phone rang. Mom frowned. I got up to answer it.
"Hello? Evie? Is that you?"
"Yes, Mrs. Hamilton. Is everything all right?"
"Well, that's just it. I don't know. I can't find Millie. Could you come over and look for her?"
I snuck a peek at the soufflé. Good, still puffy. "We're having breakfast. I'll be over in about twenty minutes."
I could sense her scowl, boring into me through the telephone. Mom was right. That woman did need something sweet.
"She's been gone since last night," Mrs. H said angrily, as if Millie's disappearance were somehow my fault.
"Okay, I'll be right over," I said. "Would you like me to bring some of my soufflé?"
Silence. She had already hung up.
Turning, I caught sight of my mother's expression. Deflated now, sort of like the newly sunken mess on the table in front of her.
"I'm so sorry, honey," she said, eyeing the caved-in soufflé. "Can we still have some?"
I suddenly felt caved in too. Maybe it was better that Dad wasn't here to see this, after all. "Might as well," I replied. "Mrs. Hamilton's cat doesn't seem to be around to eat any of it."
By the time I got to Mrs. H's house, the temperature outside must have reached ninety-eight degrees. Sweat trickled down the backs of my legs and into my sneakers. Maybe I'd call my friend Karyn later. She lived in an apartment complex with a swimming pool.
As I entered the yard, I surveyed the area for Millie the cat. Not up in the oak tree. Then I inspected the front of the house. No cat on the roof or in the eaves. I listened for cries of distress. Once I'd found Millie caught in the rain gutter, hissing angrily, but she wasn't there today. That crazy cat was meaner than its owner. And older. She was probably on her ninth life already. Oh, well. Maybe Millie had found her way back home since Mrs. H's phone call.
There was no response when I rang the bell, but Mrs. Hamilton was nearly deaf, so I figured she simply hadn't heard. I knocked on the door. Loudly. Still no answer. Carefully, I cracked the door open. It groaned in protest.
"Evie? Is that you?"
Mrs. H was calling from somewhere in the back of the house. Her voice sounded funny. As if she were talking through a tin can.
"Evie!" she called again, with more volume this time.
I hurried into the back bedroom, where I found Mrs. Hamilton sitting on the floor, breathing heavily.
"Well, what are you staring at? Help me up!" she demanded.
I bent down and grabbed her by the elbows, but I was afraid they'd snap in my hands. I reached for her shoulders, and her ice-cold fingers gripped my arm as I lifted her onto the bed. She was as light as a potato chip. Lighter than her cat. And I was scared.
I sat on the bed next to Mrs. Hamilton and waited for her breathing to slow. "Are you all right?" I asked. Talk about stupid questions.
"Of course I'm all right," she grumbled, smoothing the skirt in her lap with trembling fingers. "I thought I'd look for Millie under the bed. But once I got down there, I couldn't get back up."
"Maybe I should call my mom."
"You'll do no such thing. I'm fine. Fit as a fiddle."
I knew better than to argue with her.
"Did you bring any of that whatever it was you were making with you?" Mrs. Hamilton asked. The old woman's breathing was back to normal, along with her nasty disposition.
"No," I said apologetically. "I can run back home and get some."
"Never mind," she barked. "Just find my cat."
I had no idea where to start. "When did you see her last?"
"How should I know? My memory's not that good. I fed her last night, though. I remember that." But Mrs. Hamilton didn't sound as if she remembered it at all. She sounded unsure, and frightened.
"Okay," I said reassuringly. "So Millie hasn't been gone too long."
I helped Mrs. H stand up and then led her into the kitchen.
"Can I get you anything? Some water, maybe?"
"Just find my cat!" she repeated, and I could see that her rapid blinking was barely holding back tears. How long had that cat really been gone, I wondered?
I opened the back door and a gust of hot air stung my face, like steam. The lake's surface rippled in response, and I wondered if the cat had somehow wandered in and drowned.
With one hand shading my eyes, I scanned the yards along the shoreline, then stepped outside.
"Millie!" I yelled. "Millie! Where are you?"
No answer. All I heard was the soft rhythm of water lapping against sand.
EGGS OVER EVIE Copyright Â© 2010 by Alison Jackson