My mother was a fine cook, sticking mainly to Southern fare … heart-stopping vegetables steeped in pork fat, meat cooked OK except for steaks that would double as floor mats. Her fried chicken to this day remains the standard by which I judge all other fried chicken.
One day, while I was watching my mother cook, it came to me that I was perfectly capable of cooking too. It couldn’t be that hard. After all, she just flipped open her cookbook to a grease-drenched page and did what the directions said.
I was ten.
I should not have been allowed to be within a hundred yards of that cookbook. I had about as much skill in the kitchen as I did with a branding iron, and each was equally painful. I’ve never been branded, but careful observation in western movies clearly showed that there were a lot of things the cow would rather have been doing than have some sweat-infested cowboy slap a hot poker into his butt.
Late one afternoon, while my mother was away doing important mother things, I marched confidently into the kitchen and got out the sacred cookbook. I passed on chicken, especially since I had just been to my Aunt Margaret’s house and watched her ring a chicken’s neck and then cook the hapless creature for a lunch we had to eat that very day.
Finally, I came across recipes for a favorite food and easily one of the four basic food groups: doughnuts.
There were two recipes for doughnuts on facing pages. On the left was a long recipe with a list of ingredients and then all these boring instructions. On the right was exactly what I was looking for: a list of ingredients only. The choice was obvious: I chose the recipe without all the annoying instructions.
Like I had seen my mother do, I got out all the ingredients in advance. We were missing a couple, like baking powder and some sort of spice, but I figured leaving out a couple of ingredients wasn’t going to make a big difference anyway, so why worry about it?
To make up for the missing ingredients I threw in some extra sugar, and I doubled the amount of something called Cream of Tartar. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded important so why throw some more in?
I dumped everything into a big mixing bowl, including the powdered sugar that was the last ingredient on the list. I do remember thinking that there was a lot of powdered sugar compared to some of the other ingredients — like vanilla extract – so to balance things out I put in some more extract.
I mixed the ingredients but could never get the lumps to go away. Every time I popped one with the wooden spoon it would explode into a little puff of powdered sugar, sort of like a volcano erupting. I popped a few but got bored. Looked mixed to me.
It was time to cook. I poured a bunch of vegetable oil into a big pot my mother used for boiling potatoes and turned on the stove.
I knew that doughnuts were round and had a hole in the middle, but I was in the dark about how to make mine look that way, so I decided to make doughnut balls.
I had just enough dough to make six doughnut balls. Each was about the size of a tennis ball but not quite as round. When the oil was hot I dropped the balls into the hot oil. The first one I dropped splashed a little hot oil on my hand, so I decided that I would have to drop the next ones from a higher distance … like a foot or more. Of course, the higher the drop the more oil splashed out, so I kept dropping from higher up. Doughnut ball number six was dropped from a distance of little over five feet. You should know for future reference that a doughnut ball dropped from five feet into a pot will splash hot oil further than you might think.
I had to add more oil to replace the original oil that was now all over the stove, counter, me, and a large part of the kitchen floor. The dog had decided he wasn’t being paid enough to be in a war zone, so he evacuated early and went into hiding.
After the Great Doughnut Ball Drop the doughnuts began cooking merrily along. As the balls browned, they sank to the bottom of the pot. I decided that they were done when their outside color was a dark chocolate brown. I turned off the stove and let the doughnut balls sit in the pot for a couple of minutes just like I had seen my mother do with vegetables.
I got a clean dish towel and put it on that part of the counter that hadn’t been overrun when the hot grease sloshed over the side of the pot as a result of the dropping of doughnut balls five and six.
I wasn’t about to fish around in all that grease with a spoon looking for doughnut balls, so I took a large fork and speared each one and put them on the towel to drain.
It was at that precise moment my father walked into the kitchen.
The kitchen was a disaster area. Details are not necessary for those with a semi-vivid imagination.
My dad didn’t say anything about the mess. Instead, he looked at me, smiled a fatherly smile, and said: “Whatcha cooking?”
“Doughnut balls. I got the recipe out of one of mom’s cookbooks.”
His smile did not fade.
“My recipe didn’t have directions, just ingredients. So I just mixed everything up and cooked. I didn’t know how to make them round with holes in the middle, so I made doughnut balls. Pretty smart, huh?”
Instead of answering a statement by his only child who had clearly had a seizure and was now standing in front of him wearing a flour mask and holding a large fork dripping hot grease, my dad leaned over, picked up doughnut ball number three, and bit into it.
I have been writing since I was 10 years old, and I still can’t find the proper words to describe the expression on my dad’s face.
He took a large bite. He chewed for awhile, much the way you would chew a mouthful of fish oil and leather cleaner-flavored salt water taffy. Finally, when he was able to swallow, he looked at me and said: “Chewy. And interesting.” Then he turned and left the kitchen carrying the uneaten portion of doughnut ball number three with him. He never mentioned the doughnuts again.
I love him for that. Clearly doughnut ball number three, which had been dropped from a little over 2 feet and was not responsible for the grease on the floor, was a ball of toxic glop with little volcanoes of powdered sugar sprinkled throughout.
I’m sure he didn’t eat the rest of it. I heard the front door open while I was cleaning up the kitchen, and I guessed he had gone out on the porch and heaved the remains of ball number three into Mr. Cantrell’s yard next door.
I tasted one, probably doughnut ball number four but I can’t be sure. It was then that the clouds parted and I received a message from on high: I was instructed to 86 my hopes of being a doughnut entrepreneur and pick something that’s harder to screw up … like beet farming.
It was an hour later that I found the dog. He was hiding in the closet in the guest bedroom, curled up behind my old pirate costume. No amount of pleading, bribery or threats would make him move. He didn’t even want doughnut ball number one.