Hot vanilla

Because it was cold and rainy, I decided to stay inside cooking and cleaning all day instead of going to the big parade our city hosts every year on the first weekend in May. My idea of cooking is trying to make hot chocolate “from scratch” using soy milk, cocoa powder, and sugar. Sadly, the cocoa didn’t dissolve properly, so I had to dump the final product and invent an entirely new drink instead. But more on that later.

My next culinary endeavor involved reheating some chicken we’d picked up at a drive-through the night before. Thinking some of my family members would need more for lunch than a piece of microwaved chicken, I pulled a bag of frozen potato chunks out of the freezer, put them in a bowl with milk, butter, and garlic salt, and started the microwave.

If you think about it, it’s really pretty amazing that anyone ever makes real mashed potatoes anymore. It seems like it would require weeks of planning.

You’d have to buy the potatoes, peel and chop them, boil them …

This would take half a day, at least, for what most people still consider a side dish.

The microwaved mashed potatoes evoked a memory that for some reason has stayed with me since early childhood.

My mother had three kids of her own and two that she was babysitting in a small log cabin located in the woods in Frederick County, Virginia. On this day, in the early 1980s, my mother was serving mashed potatoes for lunch. Each child had a small plate of potatoes to eat, with water to drink.

I don’t remember feeling ashamed of this meal so much as I found it unappetizing. I think the other children felt the same way because I seem to recall several lumps of mashed potatoes left intact on the plates when one of the boys Mom was babysitting asked to her a question that she didn’t understand because of his toddler pronunciation.

He kept repeating the question and Mom kept saying, “I’m sorry, honey, I don’t have any juice.”

The boy looked at her quizzically, not moving from his seat at the table.

“I think he said he wants to be excused,” I proposed hopefully. I was 5 at most, and we weren’t in the habit of asking to be formally excused from the table in our household.

“Oh,” Mom said gratefully, “yes, you may be excused.”

The boy ambled off, leaving a cold little lump of potatoes at his place.

Whenever I discussed the memory of that miscommunication with my mother in the years since then, she reflected on how poor we were at the time, that we only had the potatoes for lunch, without even any juice to wash them down.

Now, back in 2017, at age 38.9, when I serve microwaved mashed potatoes with reheated drive-through chicken, I can say experience has made me rich enough to be grateful.

After I finished making the potatoes, I returned to the idea of a sweet, warm soymilk-based drink, but this time, I decided to leave out the uncooperative cocoa powder that had ruined the hot chocolate. This is how I invented the beverage I’ll call “hot vanilla.”

To make it, you simply microwave a cup of soymilk, add a half-teaspoon of vanilla extract and sugar.

I took a sip that wasn’t quite sweet enough, and heard a voice inside my head.

It said, “Be sure and stir it well, so the honey will dissolve.”

I hadn’t thought to add honey.

This was the voice of the lady who ran the tearoom we frequented as teenagers, before my town had a franchise coffee shop on every corner. This tearoom was open to the public, but it wasn’t for travelers or tourists. You had to know where you were going to find it.

It was located on the first floor of the owner’s home in a run-down section of town. Everyone who had lived in town for more than a decade knew of the tearoom’s existence and many had been there, but most of the regulars were teenagers and college students not yet old enough to socialize in bars.

This was in the 1990s. We’d go there wearing black velvet skirts and dark red lipstick to smoke clove cigarettes and sip vanilla tea while Ella Fitzgerald played on a jukebox. If memory serves, the wallpaper was a red satin and black velvet brocade. The room was lit with white Christmas lights.

The feeling was slightly clandestine. A lot of the kids who went to the tearoom were part of a network of smug wannabe literary types and self-proclaimed misfits who had accepted the fact that we would never make the cheerleading team or be homecoming kings or queens. But if one of us brought along, as a guest, an athlete, or perhaps the child of a Republican, then you treated that person with decency and respect and you didn’t laugh at them for gagging at the smell of secondhand clove cigarette smoke.

The tearoom was owned and operated by a tiny black woman on the verge of being elderly. From what I understood, she owned a good bit of property in town, but I was too young to care about real estate.

The woman who owned the tearoom was a stickler for manners and would correct you on improper etiquette. Like, don’t forget to wipe your muddy Dr. Martens at the door, keep your big black velvet hobo bag out of the walkway, and be sure to leave your spoon on the saucer, not in the teacup.

She offered several rotating varieties of tea and would recite them to each table upon seating. The cost of a cup was around $2.50, and it went up with the price of honey. Apparently she also served food, but no one ever ordered any.

She spoke at a volume just above a gentle whisper and had one of those voices that tickles, almost hypnotically. I had the sense that I could have listened to her talk for hours on any topic, but she seemed to be a woman of few words.

Most every time she served a cup of tea, she left you with this advice:

“Be sure and stir it well, so the honey will dissolve.”

She must have said those words to hundreds of us, thousands of times.

I wonder how many women who used to be girls in black velvet skirts and coffee-colored lipstick sipping flavored tea in that room still hear that voice on occasion as we stir hot drinks in kitchens and restaurants and tearooms all over.

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