Fire, dish towels, and dominoes

Fire, dish towels, and dominoes

My kids clean the kitchen now each night, more or less. My son was giving the counters a final energetic careless swipe with the dish towel and I thought of this, my inauspicious beginning as a cook.

Perhaps you have some inauspicious memories of your own.


Eighth grade home economics, a relic of the seventies. An uninspired, annoying substitute, teaching us something that we all already knew. We called them cheese crisps back then, that was before they became quesadillas. No self-respecting girl in Arizona did not regularly make herself cheese crisps in a skillet on the stovetop.

“I will teach you how to make cheese crips in the oven,” she told us, and this was also back in the days when a crip was merely a mispronunciation.

“You will place your cheese crip on the cookie sheet, and put it in your preheated broiler.” The day’s assignment struck me as a mighty slow pitch—just the sort of thing a bored substitute might throw out. But the broiler. This was something new to me.

After all, I did very little in the kitchen. My mother, overrun with a houseful of children, mostly boys, typically chased us out of the kitchen each afternoon so she could cook in peace. My kitchen skill set was limited, meeting basic needs for survival: I knew where to find milk and Cap’n Crunch for breakfast, Ding Dongs for after school, and cheese and tortillas and one small skillet for the occasional weekend lunch. Beyond that the kitchen, even the tiny pretend home ec kitchen–just a few steps beyond Easy Bake Oven–was a somewhat uncharted territory.

She wants it in the broiler. Okay, I thought, attempting to slide my pan into the slot just above the electric oven’s upper heating element. It was only a thin slot, maybe an inch, between the heating element and the top of the oven. I had to shove the pan a little. Maybe I had to shove it a lot.

Finally I got the oven door shut all the way, and checked my oven temp—500 broil, the dial read—and set my timer. Five minutes. At the designated time I and my fellow cheese crip cooks pulled out our pans. As I attempted to wrest my cookie sheet back out of the broiler I noticed no one else was having the same difficulty. In that split second as my eyes roved away from my oven and rested lightly, briefly on the other girls’ harmonious proceedings, my pot holder caught on fire. Of course it would, since I was holding it in extended direct contact with a 500-degree heating element.

As the girls began to smell and see the calamity unfolding in my kitchen, the tables turned and the substitute became annoyed with me. She ran to my kitchen where I was standing stock-still, observing, trying to puzzle out what could have possibly gone wrong. She grabbed the potholder, threw it in my wee sink, turned off the oven, and lectured me about my glaring ignorance, glaring. I spent the rest of the period yanking that pan out from where it was jammed against the top of the oven and scraping off its blackened coating, which bore no relation to food of any kind, crip, crisp, or quesadilla.

I must tell you that short though this episode was, it has shaped me in permanent ways. I didn’t use a broiler for 25 years after that and even now avoid using them at all costs.


Same substitute, another day. At the end of class she moved from kitchen to kitchen, eyeing our clean-up jobs. I was particularly impressed with my own. Everything was put away, counters sponged off. I was giving all the surfaces a final shine with my dish towel. “That?!” the substitute sputtered. Somehow I was able to evoke a tremendous amount of passion from this monotonous woman.

“What….?” I asked, slowing my energetic swiping to a stop. “You’re using that? A dish towel? On your counters?” (Yes, I thought, yes, yes, yes.) “Never, never wipe your counters with your dish towel! It’s disgusting!” With that she left my kitchen, shaking her head, muttering.

I have, of course, never again used a dish towel on a countertop. Furthermore, I usually keep two dish towels in my kitchen, one for dishes, one for hands. To avoid disgustingness, I’m sure. I account this to the distant influence of that otherwise utterly forgettable substitute home economics teacher.

How far reaching a person’s influence, anyone’s influence, can be. Even when unintentional, even when obstacles surround it like so much police tape, attempting to keep it corralled in place. Still influence creeps out and touches something nearby, something which falls like the first domino.

Perhaps it would be heartening, perhaps horrifying if we stopped to consider this one thing, this one fact, this one certainty, that our influence, whether we want it to or not, in the way we intend it or not, will with regularity knock down the first of a long snaking chain of dominoes.

The last domino in that particular chain fell over tonight as my son cleaned the kitchen and wiped the counters with the dish towel and I didn’t say anything at all.


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