The chemistry of good cooks

Meals for my summer job meant more than pancakes. I needed help.

Following my sophomore year of college, an older woman hired me to be a housekeeper at her summer cottage on Lake Michigan. Miss Bartow had been one of the first American women to earn a doctorate in chemistry and had taught that subject at the University of Illinois. Every summer she traveled north to Michigan.

While studying for final exams, I daydreamed about her private beach, until suddenly other thoughts rippled through my mind. Housekeepers must cook; Miss Bartow would expect me to produce three meals a day. I scribbled a note to her explaining that I only knew how to make pancakes, chocolate chip cookies, and grilled cheese sandwiches, but I would try to cook what she liked.

Miss Bartow wrote back, "You're a geologist; cooking is like chemistry."

Mostly what I could remember from geochemistry was how ions shared their electrical charges in order to create stable situations. While writing out the chemical formula for the mineral pyrite (FeS2), my professor had pointed out that when the iron and sulfur bonded, their charges balanced each other.

I felt like a negative ion desperately seeking a positive ion. But too soon, the big day came, and I moved to the cottage.

Miss Bartow handed me "The Joy of Cooking." "Study this, and you'll learn to cook."

Sitting on my beach towel, I read her cookbook, but the mass of recipes was overwhelming and the symbols confusing. Even worse, to create a dish, such as cabbage rolls, I had to flip to various sections in order to reference the techniques necessary.

I stared at the waves. I needed easy recipes for main dishes, and I needed them now.

I called my mother. "Could you please send me some simple recipes, and could you please ask the women at church for some, too?"

Throughout my childhood, a cluster of surrogate aunts from my church had nurtured me. Mary DeBuck had introduced me to quilting. While cleaning up after church suppers, Mrs. Stankowitz had listened to me ramble on about school, and Mrs. Carlson had encouraged me to write. Mrs. Means had even accompanied our youth group on a work camp to a Navajo reservation and had spread her sleeping bag among our gaggle of teenage girls. Like my parents, these women wanted me to succeed in life.

My mother sent a stash of recipe cards, and letters from her women friends arrived. Sometimes I had to copy handwritten recipes into my new notebook. Some people sent recipes clipped from magazines that featured "cooking for two."

I tried Peg Bullock's chicken casserole and re-created my mother's potato salad. I kept reading and experimenting. Miss Bartow never complained. I suppose it was because she had taught undergraduates for decades. She was used to being patient.

One August evening, I placed a small salmon pie in front of her. Steam rose from the biscuit topping, and the white sauce oozed over the glass dish. Miss Bartow sniffed. The air smelled of celery and butter.

"One of my favorite dishes! From 'The Joy of Cooking,' " she said.

"Page 241," I chirped, and buttered a biscuit.

Miss Bartow was right. Cooking was like chemistry, and thankfully the women of my church had provided a tanned undergrad with the necessary resources to successfully balance the culinary equation.

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