Food Tuesday, StoryADay May: The Magic Ingredient

This post is part of StoryADay May (https://storyaday.org/) #StoryADay #StoryADayMay @storyadaymay #freeshortstory #foodtuesday

The Magic Ingredient

Angela had been a cook/housekeeper her entire adult life – indeed, since before she was a legal adult. She had never wanted to go to college, and had only finished high school because it seemed sensible.

For a series of employers, she had cooked nutritious meals and kept houses coldly immaculate. She had done everything she had promised to do when she was hired, never less and never more. She had discouraged, implicitly or explicitly, any personal interaction, from amorous and/or sexual advances to refusal to extend her work hours in the face of her employers, life upheavals to declining to attend her employers’ celebrations, even as a guest.

It baffled her that her services were only required for a year or two before she was given two weeks’ notice and let go.

Her longest-term employer, Miss Marge, had been a woman after Angela’s own heart. When Angela caught a cold from having been sneezed on while grocery shopping, Miss Marge had told her to mask up and come to work or she would dock Angela’s pay. Angela respected that. She worked for Miss Marge for thirty years.

But all good things must come to an end, and Miss Marge caught a cold of her own from passing the peace at church, the cold went into pneumonia, and Miss Marge expired alone in the hospital, her last words being instructions over the phone to her man of business to keep Angela on as housekeeper until Miss Marge’s heir decided what to do about the house, but to put her on half pay because she would no longer be cooking.

Angela regretted the loss of a good employer as well as the loss of half her salary. She had never spent money on frivolities, so she had a sizable cushion in the bank. She decided to take this as the vacation she had never had, and do half her job for half her pay and see what would happen next.

Miss Marge’s will was as no-nonsense as Miss Marge, herself, and she had left everything to her estranged baby brother, who was now a grown – not to say early elderly – man.

Angela hadn’t known he existed, and appreciated that.

A morning came when Angela came to work, let herself in the back door, and found a stout man with short, curly, gray hair and a thick mustache sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a bright blue bathrobe, reading a newspaper, and drinking coffee. A small plastic container on the table read Instant Go. Angela was so surprised, she asked a personal question.

“Is that instant coffee?”

“Are you Angela?” he asked in return, putting down his paper and rising to his full 6’1”. Extending from beneath the robe were pajama bottoms, pale green with dark green palm fronds and small gray elephants tumbling through the greenery.

“I am,” she said.

“I’m Margaret’s little brother, Emerson. I inherited the house and, I suppose, potentially your services as cook and housekeeper. I do hope you’ll stay. I don’t know how to work a coffee machine or anything else … kitcheny. I’ve been living in boarding houses abroad for … oh, for so long! Will you stay at the job here and cook and clean for me? I’m utterly helpless.” His laugh was hearty yet not abrasive, and Angela felt something inside her open.

“Of course,” she said. “I’ll need to go back on full salary, of course.” She was still Angela.

“Of course. Could you begin by making me some real coffee? And some breakfast? Two eggs, sunny side up, crisp bacon, and toast? Let the toast stay in the toaster until it’s cold, then spread butter very thinly on it.”

Angela, unused to instructions after thirty years with Miss Marge, raised an eyebrow, but complied.

“Perfect!”

#

That morning was the highlight of her relationship with her new employer.

He left things lying around and wanted them to stay there. He didn’t object to her making his bed when she changed the sheets, but he wanted it left rumpled otherwise; he said it made him feel welcome. He covered the pristine desk in Miss Marge’s office with jumbled stacks of papers, a laptop, and a printer. Naturally, she wasn’t allowed to touch anything, not even to straighten the stacks.

Worst was the cooking. The problem here wasn’t what she wanted, it was what he wanted.

Breakfast was easy: he wanted simple, specific things, and knew how to describe them. Although it was alien to her to add brown sugar, dried fruit, and chopped nuts to oatmeal, it was easily done, and sunny side up eggs with crisp bacon and cold toast was simple enough, and he often just wanted cereal and milk.

Lunch and dinner were the problems. Abroad, he had eaten street food from vendors for lunch, and his landladies had made his evening meal.

Angela learned that she could get by with making him soup and sandwich for lunch, although he always added pepper to both, but she couldn’t please him for supper.

He never complained, but he never looked pleased. In fact, he grew sad.

One day, he said, “Angela, it pains me to say this, but your cooking, although creditable, is a little more bland than I’m accustomed to. God knows, flavorful food is low on the scale of what the world desperately needs, but I like it. I don’t want to live out the rest of my days longing for interest on my plate. Do we understand each other?”

Angela understood. Her employment was contingent on her learning to cook foreign food and to add, she supposed, spices. If she didn’t – and soon – she would be looking for a new job, and the thought of leaving Emerson hurt her in a way she had never hurt before. She felt her position shake as it hadn’t shaken in years.

She took to the internet and did a search for interesting food, which brought her to lovefood.com, which led her down multiple rabbit holes and, ultimately, to a spice shop right in her very town.

She had a list of most commonly used spices and sauces and the dishes made with them (no sense in getting something that only one or two dishes needed when you could get something most of them called for). She was surprised herself by spontaneously picking up some of the ingredients she remembered from her reading but didn’t have on her list.

When she checked out, she was disgusted to find the clerk friendly and chatty. Although she attempted to suppress conversation, she found herself drawn into a discussion of spices and their applications. The clerk suggested different uses for this or that than she had found, pleasing her with the practicality of what she had bought.

So, when he said, “I see you don’t have any kimchi. Do you already have some at home? We’re never without kimchi at our house.”

He told her what it was (cabbage, other vegetables, garlic, ginger, spices, vinegar) and that it made even plain storebought ramen noodles a treat.

So she bought a jar of kimchi and, while she was at it, the fancy ramen the spice store kept in stock.

The next day at lunch, she made the noodles. They looked fine to her as they were, but she knew they wouldn’t suit Emerson. She took a deep breath, opened the jar of kimchi, and spooned a generous portion onto the (to her) unobjectionable plain noodles.

Emerson lifted his nose and sniffed as he came into the kitchen.

“What’s that?” he said, in a voice so soft it was nearly a whisper. “It smells like … But it can’t be … Surely it isn’t…”

He looked into his bowl and his eyes shone.

He looked up into Angela’s eyes, and she felt her position steady and settle.

“It’s a miracle,” he said.

“It’s kimchi. And there’s more where that came from.”

And they lived spicily ever after.


MY PROMPT FOR TODAY: Kimchi and noodles

MA

About

I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Food Tuesday, StoryADay May: The Magic Ingredient

    • Author
      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        May 29, 2024 at 2:32pm

        You and my husband would trade food and stories! Poor man, I like everything plain, and don’t eat very many things (though I do love Chinese food), but that leaves him free to add curry powder to a bunch of side-dish vegetables plus some lamb – and eat the whole thing himself.

        Our tiny kitchen has a 6′ tall rolling spice cabinet next to the refrigerator – space for MANY of his favorites – it gets used, a lot.

        Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  1. Dan Antion

    May 30, 2024 at 9:19am

    That’s a great story. I kept thinking the magic ingredient might be poison, but I guess I’m a couple days ahead of your stories (even though I’m catching up). I like some things on the spicy side, but I could probably survive on Angela’s regular fare.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author

      Marian Allen

      May 30, 2024 at 9:29am

      I’m going to be VERY late with today’s story: I just found out the telemedicine intake meeting I’m doing today is Zoom, which means I have to install Linux camera software, since the pre-installed camera software is proprietary to Windows…

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
      • Dan Antion

        May 30, 2024 at 12:36pm

        I’m sorry to hear that. Your my techno-hero though for dealing with this.

        Permalink  ⋅ Reply

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