1950s Archive

Consider the End

Originally Published October 1958

In Scotland once, mid snow and ice,
A youth did bear this strong devise:
Avise la fin!

It was a clan call, albeit in Norman French, and the youth was one of my father's ancestors, and the devise said with blunt Scotch economy, Consider the end!

That is what my father did, gastronomically as well as in several other ways, for his offspring. He wanted us to taste life in the round, with all of our senses as well as our wits to work for us. He considered the art of eating a basic part of the plan. He was ably abetted by my mother, a voluptuous woman who had a fine teaching hand with pastry and custards when she cared to, and who managed to be assisted, for all I know of her life, by a series of devoted sluggards who may have forgotten to dust beneath the beds but who could produce a dramatic cheese puff for Saturday lunch or a prune tart worthy of any bishop, with children helping and learning under their feet. My father sat back, well nourished and watching, and his clan had little idea for the future, until they must do the same, that he was considering at least one more end of human fulfillment.

It was sometimes hard, however, to consider the end of our purely gastronomic development when I was little, because my maternal grandmother lived with us and she felt eating for anything but survival was a sin. The hedonistic allure of her favorite bowl of puffy, pallid steamed soda crackers after church, on a chilly night, might always be excused with her doctor's decree that the milk, the soda, and the flick of salt would Do Her Good. They did, and she lived to a so-called ripe age, and we all choked down the pap when it seemed propitious, dietetically and emotionally.

But soon after my grandmother died, Father hired a dry, spare little virago he called Anita-Patita. The chef of King Alfonso of Spain had taught her a great deal, she told us, simpering. She spent five days at a time making one meal of enchiladas. She spent three days making a flan, a kind of caramel custard. This casual dismissal of clock and calendar fascinated us children. Nothing must interrupt Anita-Patita's creative concentration. Mother could sit tapping her foot for a few dry diapers for the last batch of babies, or waiting to hear the piano under our heavy hands; Father could stop everything but the presses of his newspaper to dash over to North Spring Street in Los Angeles for some correct tortillas and an ounce of the right chili powder: Anita-Patita would move like an imperturbable cricket about the kitchen, reliving other giddier days, no doubt, while my sister and I watched, listened, sliced a tomato or beat an egg, measured one trembly tablespoon of this or that …

Anita-Patita served her enchiladas with inestimable flourish and pride. She usually neglected to prepare anything else, in her creative flush. But we ate them with both relish and respect, even Mother, who was suspicious of all exotic flavors as well as domestic melodrama. It was a kind of rebellion from Grandmother's digestive Puritanism that we indulged in, and we permitted ourselves indecorous enthusiasm, at least enough to send the little lonesome scornful Spanish woman back to the kitchen, cackling happily.

There was nothing on the table, besides what plates and silver my sister and I had hastily laid there, but the great steaming platter of delicately rolled tortillas (we had helped roll them), with fine chicken in them (which we had helped boil and slice), and the big bowl of salsa, or sauce (our own salsa). Father, the boy from Iowa whose ancestors once cried savagely, in the Scotch crags, “Consider the end!” picked up with unexpected skill the first rolled pancake of fine corn meal, and showed us how to be deft about the dipping and biting and so on. He was preparing us …

Mother forgot that for many hours the usual duties had been ignored and that the table did not look as “set” as she had been trained to see it, and that there seemed to be not even a salad. She forgot to tell us to sit up and keep our elbows down.

And then Anita-Patita glided into the room with clean plates and a beautiful flan, so bland and perfect after the hot salsa, and a pot of coffee “black as hell, hot as love, strong as death.” And we brought down one of the babies who was chirping, and my sister steeled herself to sing a song about “I saw a little dewdrop,” and everything was really fine.

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