For many “liberated” women, the kitchen is a four-walled metaphor for oppression, but not so for Morgana. Nothing makes her happier than being in the kitchen, creating a “Mélange à Trois,” which is her very own term for an improvised “dish” containing any three (or more) ingredients that somehow work together. When they don’t, which isn’t that often, it’s still OK—there’s always some sauce, condiment, or attitude that can be concocted to coax a culinary misfit into palatability.
Morgana’s big problem in life is not that she doesn’t have what she wants, but that she’s generally happy with what she has. Whereas most people would wring their hands in the absence of the one component essential to the success of their present endeavor, Morgana would jerry-rig the underpinnings of potential despair into a reasonable facsimile of the missing item, and, voilà! Problem solved! Well, kind of—her ability to survive and thrive with less, and improvise or ignore the rest, is a strength that so many people lack, but she has it in spades; so much so, to her detriment, that it prevents her from demanding and getting more from life. While she never thought of herself as a passive person, she was surprised by how passive she’d become over the years, particularly in her relationship with Jack. That certainly was not the way she was brought up.
Morgana grew up in a slightly-seedy, but charming, area of Brooklyn, just a couple blocks from Prospect Park. Ever since she could remember, she considered the Park her very own backyard. It was one of the things that always made Morgana feel rich. Morgana’s father, Lester, was a very decent plumber and a clever handyman who worked for Willie, an elderly Jewish man who had survived the Holocaust. Willie owned many crumbling apartment buildings all over the neighborhood, including the also-crumbling, five-storied apartment building in which they lived. Morgana’s mother, Myrtle (who, in so many ways, bore a striking resemblance to Tugboat Annie) ran Willie’s Laundromat, which occupied the ground floor storefront of their building, right there on the Avenue.
Morgana and her sisters were not exactly latchkey kids, since their mother was always just eight flights down and right around the corner in the Laundromat. It was there in their mostly-motherless kitchen that she learned to love cooking. Her mother used to brag that her kids were so NOT fussy that they would eat shit—as long as it was fried on both sides. Held fast to the dented, round-shoulder, dull-white Frigidaire by a neat border of masking tape, a handmade cardboard sign reinforced the kitchen creed: “Eat it up, Wear it out, Make it do, Or do without.” Her mother had made that sign after reading the poem in the “Hints from Heloise” column in one of the dog-eared, disheveled newspapers that the customers would leave forgotten on the aluminum-legged, orange plastic chairs dotted with cigarette burns in Willie’s Laundromat. Maybe that’s how Morgana also began to love poetry and household hints.
They generally ate poor people food, which was so very good, and made all the more delicious by the talking, laughing and camaraderie of her sisters as they invented their own recipes and culinary guidelines: sugar and butter sandwiches made from Wonder Bread and Blue Bonnet Margarine; there was also canned meat like Spam, Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Hormel Chili, and Chef Boyardee everything and anything. Meal preparation was always so much fun and really easy: just round up just about anything left over or languishing in the fridge. If there’s mold or anything on it that doesn’t look or smell too good, just cut or scrape it off, and if you want to get really fancy, just go ahead and run it under the faucet for a few seconds, but not too much, especially if there’s gravy or something good on it. Then chop it all up kind of small and then mix it all up with a can of Chef Boyardee anything with about a teaspoon of salt. If the “casserole” is too dry and tasteless, you’ll wind up with something her mother would have called “asshole cement,” so in order to avoid that, be sure to add ketchup. Oh, but what to do if (as often would be the case) there’s hardly any ketchup left? If there’s time and money, just run down to Mr. Ling’s Corner Grocery and BUY some! Well, there might be time but usually not money, so just put some water in the bottle and shake it up—good and hard if the ketchup is kind of dried up—but don’t uncap it near your face or the bottle will “fah-schitz” a ketchup bomb into your eyes” (as her eldest sister, Jewel, used to say), “that’ll sting like a bitch” (as her mother used to say). It seemed that Morgana and each of her sisters would have to learn that painful lesson the hard way!
As she retrieves a can of black beans from the pantry, she remembers how Jack always used to make fun of her proclivity for cooking with canned food. He once made up a new verse for a Christmas song, which became a family classic: “Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays, so no matter how far away you ro-o-o-oam…If you like to eat food from cans in a million ways, for the holidays you can’t beat home-sweet-home!” How she loved it when Jack was funny—even when she was the object of his humor, just as long as it wasn’t too cruel.
She chops up two big sweet potatoes, four carrots, two inches of fresh ginger, two jalapenos, and four cloves of garlic (and the only thing she peels is the garlic) and simmers it all in a few very healthy squirts each of soy sauce, lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar for five minutes or so. Then she stirs in three good glops of creamy peanut butter, and brings it back to a simmer. In the meantime, she opens up the can of black beans, drains and rinses them and dumps them on top of the whole mixture. Then, just for good measure, she packs in as much raw, chopped kale as she can fit into the pan, covers it, and turns the burner off, letting the simmering mixture warm the beans and coddle the kale. This was a dish she had created on the spur of the moment years before for a Kwanzaa potluck celebration at the church. Everyone had loved it, and it had thenceforth become known as “Morgana’s Kwanzaa Surprise.” She also would internationalize it up a bit by serving it with different bread options, so if one were to serve it with bagels, it would become Morgana’s Jewish Kwanzaa Surprise; with spring roll wrappers, it would become Morgana’s Asian Kwanzaa Surprise; with tortillas, it would become Morgana’s Mexican Kwanzaa Surprise; etc.
The word “surprise” often found its way into the names she would give to her invented dishes. When people would ask her what the “surprise” was, she would tell them the surprise was that people would (1) eat it, (2) like it, and (3) go back for more. She had a few standard criteria for her cooking. She didn’t like to use the oven unless she was using it for several dishes at the same time because she considered it an inefficient use of energy. She also didn’t like to overcook vegetables because she thought the best way to eat them was just at the point where they could no longer be deemed raw. Meals had to take less than a half hour to put together and they had to taste good. There also had to be enough because surely, someone, if not everyone, would go back for seconds, and also because, you never knew when there might be an extra person or two showing up unannounced for dinner. Her family had gotten used to random people at the dinner table. Whoever was around when it was dinnertime, was always welcomed and made a fuss over, whether it was a neighbor, one of the kids’ friends, door-to-door religious zealots, or magazine salespersons.
She sets the table for two, both chairs facing the kitchen window, then heads to the living room, flops down on the couch to watch the news while waiting for Rocky, and promptly falls asleep.
She snorts herself awake as Rocky calls her name. She shuts off the babbling news reporter and leads Rocky into the kitchen.
“How’d it go, Rocky?”
“I know what the doctors are saying at this point, but I’ve got great plans for Jack. I can see his color getting just a bit better every day. Sometimes I can feel just a little resistance from his muscles, a little bit of tone that I didn’t know was there. I still think this is not a permanent condition.”
“Do you really, Rocky? Or are you just saying that to keep me hopeful?”
Before he can answer, Morgana sets a heaping plate of something green, orange and steaming that is decorated around the edges by artistically cut-up corn tortillas.
“Dig in!” she says, and without further ado, he does.
“Wow! This is great! What is it?”
“This is what we’d call ‘Morgana’s Mexican Kwaanza Surprise.’ It’s one of my favorite dishes—it’s got carrots, sweet potatoes, black beans, and kale!” she replies as she herself digs in with gusto.
Rocky pauses to answer her previous question. “I really think Jack’s got more of a chance than the doctors are saying, and as far as the hopeful part of it goes, it can only help.”
They both notice the red-orange haze of the deepening sunset at the same time and share a moment of quite reflection.
“I guess you’re the poster child for hope, right?” she says, without a bit of rancor in her voice.
“Absolutely! Even though being born in the wrong body isn’t exactly like having a stroke, I’m well acquainted with hopelessness. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do and I couldn’t be who I was. I was paralyzed by the fear of losing the respect of everyone who had ever loved me. I was so depressed, but I managed to hide even that from everyone around me. Hiding the real me was the one thing I was really good at. The one saving grace was that it’s more acceptable for a girl to be a tomboy than it is for a guy to be feminine.”
“When did you realize you were really a boy?”
“I guess when I realized that I hated being a girl! It started before I can remember, and it was gradual. Whenever I would get a doll as a present, the first thing I would do would be to rip the head off. My parents thought I was some kind of psychopath. I hated little pink sweaters, and wearing ribbons and bows in my hair, and anything with cute little buttons. The worst was Easter dresses and little Mary Jane shoes!”
“So clothes were an issue right off the bat?”
“Yeah, pretty much so. And then it was the hair. In second grade, I had long, curly black hair, that my mother used to love to brush. I loved it, too, because it made me feel so pampered, but then she would make all kinds of cutesy pony tails and pigtails out of it, and that would set me off on a rampage. The morning we were supposed to have our school pictures taken, I found my mother’s big shears that she used for sewing, and I went into the bathroom, stood in front of the full-length mirror on the back of the door, and cut off all my hair.”
“Whoa! What did your mother do?”
“My mother is a kind person—she drives me nuts, but thank God, she’s kind. Any other mother would have screamed and smacked the kid from here to kingdom come, but my poor mother just stood there and cried her eyes out. I felt so bad that I went over to her and hugged her and told her to look at how much better I looked. She couldn’t see it, maybe because she was still crying. I ran into my bedroom, peeled off the little pink dress that my Mom had put me in that morning, and I put on my little, brown corduroy pants that I fished out of the clothes hamper, which were still dirty from my playing outside in them the day before. I managed to pair them with one of the more boyish pullover shirts I had. Then I took my homework, my notebook, my vocabulary and math workbooks, and my pencils and erasers out of my pink backpack, and crammed it all into a smallish black bag with twine handles from a men’s department store that I found with our stock of other paper bags in the kitchen, and announced to my mother than we’d have to leave soon because I didn’t want to be late for the school pictures.”
“So how did everyone else in your family react to that?”
“They already knew I was a tomboy, so other than the hair incident, no one seemed very concerned, but school was the tricky part.”
Morgana knew from experience how cruel children can be. “How bad was it?”
“The boys made fun of me and called me ‘Girly Man,’ which I didn’t mind that much. Even though some girls agreed with them, most of the girls told me I looked cute, and after that, a few of the girls actually followed my lead. So at that young age, I felt a little bit like a trend setter. After a while, everyone just kind of got used to who I was. I was still considered to be a girl, and that was OK. In high school, things got a little more difficult, but I did have to kick a few asses here and there. I held it all together for what seemed like forever, and then, five years ago, I began looking into transitioning, and here I am. Never did I think I could feel so at home in my own skin. So, see? There’s always hope!”
“So, what about people who have no hope? Then what?”
“There’s always faith and charity.”
“How does that work?” Morgana gives Rocky seconds without asking if he wants any. She also fills up her own plate again.
“Well, Morgana,” says Rocky with his mouth full, “you have to make it up as you go along, don’t you? Maybe you have to have faith that somehow, everything, or mostly everything, will be OK, and then you have to be charitable enough to let yourself believe it.”
She took another bite of “Morgana’s Mexican Kwanzaa Surprise,” and savored the different flavors.
“Yes,” she said, “Just like my ‘Mélange à Trois,’ isn’t it?”
Music Credit: UB40 – Many Rivers To Cross
Photo Credit: http://www.tenement.org
To be Continued in Chapter 7: Waiting for Rain