‘Twas the night before Easter and all through our house, my dear wife’s howls of delight echoed. (After almost 33 years in matrimony I can distinguish her howls — joy, anger, delight, frustration, irritation, amusement — fixed points on her emotional register).
I was upstairs, in my man cave, going over matters pertaining to the season (campaign finance reports) when the intercom buzzed. “Come down here. Right now. I have to show you something!”
I found her at the kitchen counter, tears of ecstasy coursing her cheeks. With a shaking finger she pointed to a tawny, 2-inch thick disc resting on a baking pan.
“Cornbread!” she exclaimed.
“Don’t you see?” she implored.
“It’s the first cornbread I’ve made that wasn’t burned on the bottom.”
It was almost more than she could bear. She caressed the cornbread’s underside, her fingertips barely touching the still-warm crust. She has never touched my cheek, or any other part of me, so lovingly.
I began to resent the cornbread.
An Arkansan resenting cornbread is akin to an Asian resenting rice. We are, most of us, brought up on the stuff. Not a few of us are known to make dinner of crushed cornbread doused with milk (or buttermilk). The best I’ve ever tasted, the best my wife has ever tasted, was the cornbread from my father’s kitchen, one loaf after another dependably firm, reliably done, invariably auburn on the underside and a vivid yellow on top; and the flavor was unsurpassed, buttered or savored unadorned. In the 20 or so years she knew him my wife studied every aspect of his cornbread process from ingredients through mixing through baking, yet never was the outcome at our home satisfactory. She became convinced that his secret was the three or four decades-old pans he employed. Upon his passing, a dozen years ago, she bee-lined from the funeral home to his house in unseemly haste to snatch up the cornbread vessels, passing over what an auctioneer would consider the “good stuff.”
Though I am certain the Old Man would have wanted her to have them, the pans didn’t work. At every attempt to duplicate the Old Man’s cornbread using the Old Man’s implements the result fell short: underdone, even soupy — yet always the burned bottom. Torment.
And now — exhilaration.
With Easter but hours away, my wife’s kitchen had been, well, not resurrected — rebuilt. Having concluded a half-decade or so ago that Pop’s pans and Pop’s recipe were no match for an aging oven, the hints began coming. The hints were followed by pleas and, ultimately, a warning that I should prepare to choose my lawyer. A new kitchen seemed less expensive.
So here it came. But first came the men (they were all men) with the estimates. “Depends on what kind of appliances you want,” each began. “New ones,” she told them all. I negotiated that down to everything new except the refrigerator. But the rest of it went: the cooktop, the oven, the disposal, the compactor, the microwave. Even the sink. Oh — the countertops, they went, too. Everything but the floor, the hardwood floor my beloved had wrung from me not terribly long ago and which since has been refinished twice; its latest treatment would await completion of the larger, dustier project.
Dusty it was. The workmen were conscientious, all. Every morning they sealed each kitchen door — patio, pantry, dining room, den — with new sheets of clear plastic. But as water seeks its lowest level, dust seeks the smallest opening. So every evening after they departed he would vacuum the adjacent rooms and dust as we could. “As we could” because the dining room, especially, was piled to the ceiling with boxes of dishes, glassware and assorted utensils; and the wonder was that it somehow had all come from a single room.
If you’ve experienced a kitchen re-do then you know what I’m talking about. If you’re anticipating a new kitchen then you now have some — some — idea of what to expect. First, expect the project to take a month at a minimum. Buy a small refrigerator and make room for it away from the kitchen. Put the coffee maker atop it. Prepare to eat out a lot, or to bring in a lot of takeout. Tell as many friends as possible that you’re having your kitchen made over and you’re sick of eating out; you’ll learn who your friends are. Stock up on paper plates and plastic forks. And garbage bags.
And prepare to write a check. Think campaign finance.
“This is the best Easter of my life!” exclaimed my deliriously happy, cornbread-contented bride. To give it to her I had to write a check, but not as big as the one I’d have written a lawyer.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.