AQ 2014 Featured Student Writing: “Burnt Toast”, nonfiction by Rachel Plotkin

Flour danced around the kitchen, painting it white, as scents swam around my five-year-old pigtails strategically maneuvered into a mustache against my top lip. The house creaked each time the wind carried over from the Volga, sending the gooseberry bushes whistling against the wooden shed. My grandmother was meticulous, each fist precisely kneading the dough before pinching at the goop and flopping it onto a pan. Her eyes would never leave mine; her hands worked on their own as she told stories I wouldn’t remember, my mind too focused on the masterwork occurring before me.

Что ты готовишь?”
“Подожди, маленькая. Подожди.”
“Но бабушка…”
“Перестань. Еда будет готовa скоро.”

When she was done, she would throw the dought into the oven and shoo me away to the garden while she cleaned. My greedy hands picked at berries, bare feet running me through each aisle of fruit as I all but forgot about the pies inside. Cherries stained my dress, hiked up to my belly into a cloth bowl to carry them indoors. The kitchen, warm from the oven’s flames, always full of baked goods, greeted me with new smells as I dropped the cherries into a bowl. Hopping onto a counter, white flour residue still hiding its surface, I’d grab hold of a pie and my grandmother would laugh and clap her hands. “моя маленькая! Ешьте много,” she’d say. My little one! There’s plenty.

Watching my mother cook was like watching a general prep for war. She matched her mother’s love of cooking with a duteous need for perfection. As I watched her, I was careful not to make any unnecessary noise. It was a more serious occasion than baking with my grandmother. On those days, the sun crept in from between the shades and cast golden stripes on the counter where she worked, the bustle of New York outside drowned out by the sounds of her knife against the cutting board. I was motionless, my knees tucked against my chest as I watched her efficient transformation of simple ingredients, the kitchen filling with their aroma. The apartment, always sterile and uncomfortably cold, felt like home with a quick lift of a pot cover. When the oven door opened up, smells flooded the rooms: lasagna, matzo ball soup, fish (which made my nose crinkle, every time) and cakes, plus endless desserts that were nipped and picked at before they had a chance to cool down. Every night, no matter how tired or angry she was, she’d whisk away at something and I’d curl up to watch, trying to keep as much of that version of her with me as I could.

“Welcome to Casie’s cooking show!”

My sister claps her hands together and flails her arms toward an imaginary camera, giggling and grinning as she pulls fallen strands of hair behind her ear. Her tiny fingers point to each ingredient, describing it in the most matter of fact way, as if cooking an omelet is revolutionary. Egg splashes onto the granite and she goes on mixing, dropping sliced baby tomatoes into a yellow milky goo and then sprinkling cheese and basil on top of it all. Her approach is neither meticulous nor precise. She doesn’t measure or think about the end product; she mixes with gusto and looks constantly at me as I roll a fist in the air as if holding an old Super 8 in my hands, capturing each moment of her Food Network debut.

“And now my assistant, Tata, will help me use the stove.” She waves frantically for me to come over and with an exhausted motion I slowly put down the heavy imaginary camera and bow to the applauding audience. She manages to go to commercial only seconds after I start.

When he cooks I find myself in the doorway, bottle of beer in hand, picking at the paper label. The fan sprays my hair against my shoulders. I’d put it up in a ponytail if he didn’t like it so much when it was down. He’ll stop mixing to kiss me and I’ll feign annoyance, complain that the food will burn, smirk when he finally pulls away. He cooks to make me smile, when I’m stressed from a bad day or just because he knows I like watching him. Bites of food sizzle in the pit of my stomach, making my toes curl when I steal mouthfuls too hot for my tongue. He laughs, shaking his head while I pout; distracting him becomes my goal. I rest my chin on his back, my lips at the nape of his neck, and wrap my arms around him. Suddenly, it’s no longer about the food.

A glass of merlot in hand, I relax into my kitchen. Spices shake with each opening of a cabinet door, like the sound of maracas echoing through the bare walls. Little attention is given to the rest of the space but the kitchen is painstakingly organized. I am careful to place complementary scents together—rich lavenders and vanillas, sweet enough to make your teeth sting—wishing for the kitchen to always hold the smell of home. Sprawled onto my countertop, head dipped back to finish off the last drop of wine I mix the melting chocolate with my free hand, leg warmed by the stove’s heat. No one watches. No one sits in anticipation. There is no one there trying to capture the secret to culinary success. There is no show. It’s just me and my store-bought cherries, dripping with bittersweet dark chocolate as they cool on waxed paper and my memories float through the warm, sweet air.

Rachel Plotkin, originally from New York City, is a Senior English: Creative Writing major at DePaul University. Her favorite book, at the moment, is Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’. In her free time, when not writing, Rachel enjoys visiting Chicago’s theater scene and dancing like no one is watching.