Summer Bird Stories

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Family Recipe: Monsters

I’m starting a new project: putting together a family cookbook, one recipe at a time. This recipe is one that my husband grew up with. My family cooked something similar, but I prefer his family’s version. It’s called Monsters because it puffs up in strange ways when it’s cooking. I like to experiment with this recipe. It’s pretty forgiving. When we cook it for our family now, we double it and cook it in two cake pans side by side in the oven at the same time.

The Alchemist’s Garden

Once there was an alchemist who was scanning through the real estate listings hoping to find the perfect home. Apartment buildings are not really well-suited to alchemy. People kept knocking on his door and interrupting his experiments to say things like,

“Can you stop all the sulfur smells and explosions? I just got the baby to sleep.”

He needed to get away from all the sleeping babies and grumpy telecommuters so that he could get back to his life’s work. And, if there was room for a garden so that he could save money on ingredients, that would be even better. He circled the most promising listings with a smile.

It took weeks of touring homes and meetings and paperwork, but finally the alchemist had a new home with a lovely yard that bordered on the forest. It was far from the center of town, and there were no neighbors close by to be disturbed by silly things like smoke or smells or loud noises. It was perfect.

Except that the previous owners said that deer lived in the forest and would probably come eat his garden. Luckily, he had a solution. He would grow a magic hedge around his property. The deer would be repelled by the magic in the hedge and stay far away from his garden.

During the terrible drudgery of house-buying, the alchemist had spent many hours concocting an extra rapid plant growth solution for his garden. He bought the seeds for the hedge from his favorite apothecary before he left town. Before he unpacked a single box, he dipped the seeds in the potion and planted them. He had a tall magical hedge in place by dinner.

The next morning, the hedge was gone. The alchemist raced outside in his slippers and pajamas and crouched down in the empty space, looking for clues. The hedge had been chewed to the ground.

Deer were supposed to be repelled by magic hedges. He must have been sold nonmagical seeds. What an outrage! He called the apothecary and complained just as loudly as a neighbor who was woken up at 3am by an explosion of twenty glass beakers.

Within an hour, he had new seeds, guaranteed to be magical. He dipped them in potion, planted them, and his hedge was in place by lunch time. In the morning, it was gone.

Perhaps it wasn’t the seeds, after all.

He used the last of the seeds to plant a third hedge. Then, that evening, he waited out by the hedge in the dark. When he heard chewing sounds, he shook the corked vial of light solution. It glowed brightly, showing his hungry visitors. They were much larger than deer.

Dragons? Why were dragons eating his hedges?

He went inside and pulled a few books off the shelves to read in the morning. The next day, after a lot of reading, he learned that dragons liked to eat magical hedges. Of course. It would have been nice to know that before spending a fortune on magical hedge seeds. But, how was he to know that there were dragons in the forest? The previous owner never mentioned that.

He hired someone to build a non-magical fence out of wood. The deer and dragons had plenty of wood in their forest to eat, so they certainly wouldn’t go out of their way to eat his fence. Sure enough, the fence was there the next day. And the next. And the next.

Once he was certain that the fence was going nowhere, the alchemist planted his ingredients and set up his workshop. He had so many ideas to try! It would take months just to go through the first pages of his notebook where he jotted down ideas.

The garden grew quickly and well. It grew so well, that he had more ingredients than he expected. The magical beets were especially prolific, and he had more than he could turn into potions or eat. He developed a new potion that turned beets into chickens. Soon he had a yard full of chickens that all wanted to eat his garden full of potion ingredients.

He hired someone to build a chicken coop. The garden recovered, the chickens laid boiled eggs, and he was able to get back to his notebook. The alchemist had time to experiment as much as he liked.

And then winter came. The garden stopped growing. The hens stopped laying eggs. During a particularly long storm, the road to town was blocked for weeks.

Deprived of the sun, the chickens finally turned back into beets. The alchemist ate them. It was a nice change from eating canned food and food substitute potions. When he ran out of firewood, he burned the coop. Then the fence.

Finally, the storm ended. Winter ended. The alchemist stepped into his backyard and looked around. No plants. No chickens or coop. No fence. He was back to the beginning.

Yet, he wasn’t. Not really. He had survived the winter. He knew what to expect. And, he knew what to do next.

He hired someone to build a non-magical fence out of wood. Then he called the apothecary to order some more seeds.

Charlie’s Room: Chef for a Day

“I want to make something for mom,” Charlie said. “Something special. A surprise.”

“Well, we have lots of materials for all sorts of crafts in the closet.” Isaac started counting things off on his fingers. “Colored paper, yarn, googly eyes, glue, glitter…”

“No, no, no.” Charlie waved his arms. “I want to make something in the kitchen. Something yummy, like on the cooking shows.”

“Ah. What recipe would you like to make?”

Charlie frowned. “I can’t tell you. Then it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

“I thought it was a surprise for mom?”

“Nope.” Charlie folded his arms. “I know better. The best way to keep a secret is not to tell anybody. Besides, if I tell you what I want to do, then you’ll want to help. If you help, then it won’t just be from me.”

“I could be your helper. Real chefs have helpers in the kitchen. They chop things and use the stove and such.” Isaac smiled. “It would still be you in charge, so the surprise would come from you.”

“I’d be in charge?”

Isaac nodded. “Of course.”

“And you would listen to me and not try to change things?”

“Unless it was something dangerous,” Isaac said. “I am a dad, and safety rules are important to dads.”

Charlie sighed. “Fine. You can come. But it’s my idea, so I’m the chef.”

“Okay. Let’s go.” Isaac and Charlie went to the kitchen. Isaac took two aprons off the hook. He gave the smaller one to Charlie and put on the other one. “What are we going to make?”

Charlie took down the family recipe book. “Hmmmm.” He flipped through the pages. “None of this is special. We’ve tried all of it before. I’m going to make something new. Then it will be a big surprise.”

“Making up a new recipe can be difficult,” Isaac said.

“I can do it.” Charlie tugged on his apron. “See, I’m wearing an apron. I’m a chef. I’ll just look at what ingredients we have. Then I’ll decide what to make.”

Charlie found eggs and butter and cocoa powder and peanuts and oranges and celery. He found flour and pepper and salt and cinnamon sugar and chili powder and milk. He found an onion, but he put it back. “No onions,” he said. “Not today.”

He looked at his collection of ingredients. “I think I’ll make a cake. You can peel the oranges. I’ll start mixing things.”

“Do you want me to preheat the oven first?” Isaac asked.

“Yeah. Put it to cake temperature. I’ll get out the mixing bowl.”

“We should probably wash our hands,” Isaac said.

“I was going to say that. I didn’t forget.” Charlie turned and headed to the sink instead of the cupboards.

In the big plastic mixing bowl, Charlie mixed the flour, milk, cocoa powder, peanuts and spices. The eggs didn’t crack very well, and he spent a lot of time trying to get the bits of eggshell out. “I can’t see the eggshells in all this flour. You should have cracked the eggs.”

Isaac looked over his shoulder. “I think you got them all.”

Charlie frowned and pushed his wooden spoon around in the batter. “I guess so. What’s next?” He looked at the ingredients. “Did you peel and mash the oranges?”

“I just peeled them, but I didn’t mash them.”

“Could you mash them? And chop up the celery?”

“Of course.” Isaac started mashing and chopping. Charlie found the cake pan and smeared the inside with butter. When Isaac was done, he brought them over to Charlie. “Now what?”

Charlie pointed to the plastic bowl. “Put them in there. After I wash my hands again, I’ll mix it all up.”

Charlie stirred the batter energetically and poured it in the pan. Only a little bit spattered over the sides. “Okay. You put it in the oven and set the time,” Charlie said. “When the timer goes off, we can check it.”

“After it’s in the oven, we can clean up a bit,” Isaac said.

It took a little time after the cake was brown for it to stop being jiggly. It puffed up a lot, but then deflated pretty soon after they took it out of the oven. Isaac set it on a potholder on the counter.

“Should we taste it?” Isaac asked.

“No, it has to be a surprise,” Charlie said. “We’ll wait until Mom gets home.”

“Let’s make dinner while we wait. What should we make?”

Charlie grinned. “Spaghetti! I’ll go get the noodles.”

By the time Marianne came home, dinner was waiting on the table, the dirty dishes were washed, and Isaac was lighting candles. “What’s the occasion?” she asked.

Charlie jumped up from where he was sitting and hugged her. “It’s a surprise for you, mom.” He looked up at her and grinned. “Do you like it?”

“Of course I do. Let’s sit down and eat, and you can tell me all about your day,” she said.

“We have cake for later, too. It’s my recipe, because I was the chef today.”

“I’m sure it will be wonderful.”

It wasn’t. Not really. The flavor and the textures just weren’t very cake-like. Charlie took one bite and spit it out. “Don’t eat it,” he said. “It’s awful. I’m sorry.” He looked close to tears.

Isaac and Marianne each took a bite.

“It’s different,” Isaac said. “But it’s not awful.”

“It’s my surprise cake, and I love it,” Marianne said.

Charlie frowned. “You don’t have to eat it. I know it doesn’t taste good.”

But Marianne ate every bite. Isaac hid most of his in his napkin. Charlie threw his away and ate a Popsicle.

“Did you have fun being a chef?” Isaac asked later at bedtime.

“Yes. But next time I’m going to taste what I make before I give it to someone.”

“Or you could use a recipe that you know will turn out well.” Isaac sat in the chair by the bookshelf in Charlie’s room and opened up the book they were reading.

“I think I’ll be fine. I’m a chef,” Charlie said. “But next time, you can crack the eggs.”

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