I needed to cook bacon for dinner last night. Not because its best-before date was up. Not because I didn’t have anything else. But when I knew I wanted eggs, I knew I needed bacon. Bacon and me, we go way back. It’s possibly the first thing I learned to recognize by smell. That, and Folger’s coffee.
Every weekday of my life as a child, my mother made bacon and an egg, white toast and coffee – for my dad. We had cereal sometimes, toast most days, but my dad, he loved bacon and an egg. And I am sure it was because of the way my mother made them.
Strips of bacon laid flat barely touching in a copper bottom, Revere Were pan. Cooked low and even, turned a few times, bacon comes out, egg goes in, smack in the middle of the grease left behind by the bacon. Spatula flicking hot grease over the top of the egg to cook it while the bottom of the egg cooked on the inside of the pan. Then slide out onto the plate like a short order cook – the one thing my mother always swore she was not. “What do you think, I’m a short order cook? Eat what’s in front of you.” And most days we did.
After I was labeled “gifted” in Grade Five, I skipped, and was unceremoniously assigned to Grade Seven without the inconvenience of showing up for a Grade Six. Over the summer after Grade Five, I was assigned to the care, and ultimately feeding, of the nun who taught grade six during the school year, a powerhouse named Mother Josetta. When we both tired of my Math and English lessons, she taught me how to do things – like fry an egg. I remember watching her flick grease just like my mother did. I could see a wonderful, unspoken camaraderie come alive: with eggs, with nuns, with my mother, with women in the universe throughout history, if we could all execute the same flick, if we all knew how to fry eggs. I did not get a sense of a greater purpose in this exercise, but rather I could visualize an invisible silken thread drawing us all together.
I believe that was the first and last time I used bacon grease to fry an egg. That’s the way it is sometimes with life’s profound moments. They stand on their own. They influence thought, but not action. And it wasn’t that my mother hadn’t taught me many cooking skills, but this nun with her methodical bacon and egg protocol is what I remember. She must have felt sorry for me. A tall misfit chubby girl with glasses not finding her way in a sea of normal little girls and boys in this small Midwest Catholic school. I don’t think I ever confided in her later that the kids in my new Grade Seven were suspicious of me and kept their distance, and the kids in my old Grade Five instantly forgot my name as they attended that inconvenient Grade Six, barely recognizing my absence. There had been talk about sending me away to a school in Indiana known for the way it worked with gifted kids, but the cost of tuition was a deal breaker. It’s impossible to know now if that move really did stop at tuition or if my family decided it was just easier to keep me where I was. I’ll never know.
Still, the smell of bacon cooking or the sound of an egg breaking into a hot pan, the smell of fresh Folger’s – these all take me back to a clean dinette set with four place settings of 1950s, burnt orange Melmac plates in Michigan. Four chairs, four people eating breakfast together and my mother always wondering existentially; if the coffee was good to the last drop, what was wrong with the last drop?
Now, in my all-grown-up studio in the Bronx, I am able to fill the space with the foods of my childhood and a memory of the people and places that still carry meaning. It might be time to try frying an egg in bacon grease again – just to see if I could get it right and not burn myself. I’d like to please Mother Josetta now – and my own mother too, even though I’m way past needing to do that and they are both gone. I think it would be fitting to let them both know their lessons are as fresh to me now as the day they first presented them to me. And as useful.
Like all the women in history, I can fry an egg.
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