Each grain of flour expands with heat, my cookbook tells me, and as it expands it absorbs more of the butter. Cook for a minute longer and both the flour and the butter become something else entirely. Pour the cold milk over this mysterious paste and whisk thoroughly. The flour no longer behaves like flour: it doesn’t clump. The butter no longer behaves like butter: it doesn’t separate and float atop the milk. The sauce thickens to a white creaminess and I pour in more milk to achieve just the right consistency. Add a pinch of salt.
“Oh please, oh please oh please,” they started chanting from the back seat of the car. “Please will you make us some PEAS?” They finish with their German lesson, chanting, “Bitte, bitte, bitte!” with hands clasped like supplicants in prayer. “Bitte?”
Mercedes comes home with my children on Wednesday afternoons. A vegetarian with gourmet tastes, Mercedes is an excellent cook. She sits beside me in the passenger seat, and I ask her if she’d like to make peas in cream sauce today, and she sighs and asks if she could just play, instead. She’s 14 years old, and she tells me she spends the whole weekend cooking for her step-family. I remind myself to cook for her, as I park the car and open the door into the autumn air. Her mother works at the organic grocery store downtown, standing on her feet all day, and they are both thin people. Although I have so much work to do, I should not send this girl off into the evening hungry.
I carry a tall stack of student papers up the outside staircase with children still whispering, “Peas? Bitte, bitte.” I need to grade and mull my plan for tonight’s class. I slide the key into the door of my condo. “Bitte, bitte?” My son abuses his German.
“We’ll see,” I say, but I’ve started to smile at them. Already they know. When children beg for a green vegetable, in any form, this moral imperative trumps all other life requirements. The girls rush off to find a hundred paper dolls and I pull down the pan, the flour, the butter. My son cheers and dances.
“It won’t take but a minute,” my grandmother would say. And it doesn’t take but a minute, this millionth time I practice this dish. One tablespoon of flour, another of butter; I don’t even measure, just grab the whisk and stir over low heat until the sauce bubbles. Then I add two cups of milk and a generous pinch of sea salt. I mull thoughts about my class while I stir, then I add a bag of frozen peas, throw a flame-tamer between the flame and the pan, top it with a lid. I sit nearby with my stack of papers at the kitchen table. I will know when the peas are ready from the scent.
While peas-in-cream-sauce was a standard of my grandmother’s repertoire, I didn’t learn the recipe until I was far from home. Peas-in-cream-sauce is not written on paper. She cooked by handfuls and pinches and “until it looks right,” ignoring the myriad of ways that recipes could go wrong. I found Robert Farrar Capon’s description of flour and butter and milk and the miracle of “roux” when I was 23. I promised I would try his suggestions as soon as I had my own kitchen. Book in hand, I put the butter in the pan and added flour and milk. The flour glopped into large lumps. I threw it away. A few days later I tried it again, standing in the galley kitchen of my first apartment. The butter browned and the sauce turned the colour of disappointment. Some nights I smuggled mushrooms from the salad bar of the school where I worked, mushrooms in a small bowl, wrapped in a napkin and stuffed in my oversized pockets. I wilted the mushrooms in more butter and added the mushrooms to my ruined white sauce, now a brown sauce, and served it over toast.
Peas-in-cream-sauce took five or six years for me to make in any reliable fashion. Twenty-five years have passed since I cooked in the tiny kitchen with my supply of pilfered mushrooms.
I call my children and Mercedes to the oak dining table I inherited from my family, and I set out four steaming bowls of peas-in-cream-sauce, spoons, cloth napkins. The girls clap as they sit down and Brendan lights the candle in the center of the table. If a child asks his father for bread, will the man give the boy a stone? Some days I’m just that grouchy and pressed for time, and some days we run out of butter or flour. Today they asked me for peas and I can deliver. We celebrate the mighty green pea in all of its beauty.
In June of this year, Mercedes will graduate from eighth grade, and by this time next year she will be living in another state, attending another school. She’s been spending one afternoon a week with us for four years. When she goes, my children will be one year closer to teenage years, themselves. How strange it will be.
We will make peas-in-cream-sauce on chilly afternoons, and write her emails and cards, after we dig into our steaming bowls of vegetables.
But for today, we eat as soon as the peas are cool enough, and we eat until there are no peas left, spoons scooping the last bits of sauce from the bowls. “Are there seconds?” my son asks, because he asks every time. “Could you fit any more, if there were?” He laughs and says probably not. They scatter back to the paper dolls and the books to read, and I settle into my grading. There is not enough time to do this well, today. But some things happen well enough.