Secrets from the Underworld
The living room is bleached with a raw November light. I sidestep along a pristine white wall, past three perfectly aligned matted prints of geometric shapes, to the gleaming bookcase and consider the alphabetically organized books, all nonfiction. I keep my hands to myself.
On Tuesday, Dad’s friend, Brett, lost his uncle, and fifteen minutes ago, my parents dropped me off here before heading to Pittsburgh for the funeral. No need to drag a fourteen-year-old to a funeral. That’s the story they’re telling each other and probably anyone asking, “Where’s Stephanie? ”They’re not going to mention the truth which has more to do with thieving and secrets and extraordinary deliciousness.
I’m here to learn how to make my grandmother’s apple strudel.
Grandma Mahr—not the plump, smiling, bedtime-story sort of grandmother but more of a thin, handsome, what’s-on-sale-at-Boden.com woman—selects a card out of her recipe box, rises from the sofa, and cuts to the chase with, “So your mom wants to know how to make my apple strudel?”
I stick my hands in my pockets and shrug.
I straighten my back and, since she’s still frowning at me, remove my hands from my pockets, hesitate, then gingerly fold them in front of me. I look like I’m praying. “I also want to learn.”
“Hmm.” She leads the way into the kitchen, pausing to ease off her shoes outside the doorway.
Walking past the covered sofa, I hear the muffled tune of a familiar commercial. Granddad’s watching television in the basement. That’s where he lives. Literally. He’s lived down there ever since he and Grandma divorced. This doesn’t strike me as a weird arrangement. For as long as I’ve been around, it’s always been this way.
I slip behind the covered armchair and remove my shoes, too. My sneakers are sad, dirty disappointments next to her shiny, black loafers.
“I’ll show you, but it’s not something you just watch and learn.” She perches the recipe card on the windowsill between a pot of basil and a pot of rosemary, unbuttons her cuffs, rolls up the sleeves of her white blouse, and heads for the sink. As she washes her hands, she adds, “Strudel’s something you do, over and over again. When you’ve made it many times, you might make it correctly.” She grabs the towel off the oven bar to dry her hands and eyes me critically. “But I guess you have to start somewhere. You’re the only one to pass this on to.”
“Ah…thanks.” I shuffle to the sink to wash my hands.
Then she orders me to the pantry and begins to rap out ingredients. As I struggle to keep up, fumbling the flour (“Not cake flour.”), salt (“Put the kosher back. Get the table salt.”), cinnamon (“That’s the cheap stuff. The Korintje is better.”), and sugar (“White, please.”), I alternately cringe and remember to stand up straight, so that I practically undulate like a tortured snake.
While I make a mess of finding the pantry ingredients, she pulls items from the fridge. Milk gets poured into a small saucepan. She lets it heat for a few minutes before shutting off the flame. In a separate pan, she melts a stick of butter then turns and organizes the collection on the kitchen table, pausing to grimace at the all-purpose flour. “Nothing’s as fine as Hungarian flour.”
I have no idea if that’s true, but I nod anyway. Though Grandma Mahr’s parents grew up in Hungary, close to the Austrian border, she never lived there herself. But I’ve heard her slam American television, American politics, and American eating habits enough times to conclude her parents must have passed down a certainty of the motherland’s superiority in all things. Including all-purpose flour, apparently.
I pick up a bottle of apple cider vinegar. “What’s this for?”
“Ah. That’s one of the secrets.” She takes the vinegar from me and returns it to the table.
I can’t help it: I give her a disbelieving look. I’m not about to steal the vinegar.
Her mouth quirks, but she merely says, “We need to work the dough to make it elastic, but a few drops of vinegar will keep it from toughening.”
“How do you work it?”
“Kneading. Have you ever tried to knead?”
I shake my head.
She seizes the sifter and begins snowing flour and a bit of salt directly onto the table. No bowl. No measuring cups. She pokes the center of the mound, swirls it open, cracks an egg, and empties it into the well. The pile looks like a miniature volcano about to erupt. “Your mother—with her homemade baguettes and homemade ciabattas—she probably uses her KitchenAid, right?”
I nod slowly, worried I’m somehow betraying my mother. Grandma Mahr spat the name of the appliance like a curse.
“Using a mixer—” She stops talking to splash a tiny amount of vinegar on top of the yolk, pour the warmed milk into the well, yank a fork out of the silverware drawer, and start whipping the murky liquid. “That’s cheating.”
“Her breads taste good, though.”
She dismisses this with a grunt. “Watch.” Under her swift hands, the volcano collapses in on itself and blurs into a lumpy mass. She lifts the bag of flour and pours, swipes some across part of the table, and moves the jagged ball to the white center. She begins to knead, drawing in the extra flour from time to time. “As soon as the dough starts sticking, you need more flour.” This continues—mashing, collecting, turning, mashing, collecting, turning. The heels of her hands squashing the dough and her fingers jerking it back with a quick, whirling, hauling sort of slap.
As I stand there doing nothing, the lumpy ball slowly smoothes and takes on a gloss. The transformation impresses but doesn’t surprise me. This is Grandma Mahr. I imagine my father’s childhood. His ball-throwing, running, yelling, and jumping systematically vanquished from the house, and his unruliness kneaded out of him, leaving him entirely pliable, neat, and obedient. I see my mother. A managing woman herself, when she occupies her own turf but, on Christmas Eve, in this kitchen’s doorway, a cowering subordinate, holding protectively at her breasts her prized blue Dutch oven or the red snowman platter, certain the best recipe she discovered during the course of the year will fail to impress her mother-in-law and, every winter, absolutely right on this account. I think of Granddad. A broke boozer banished to the basement and doomed to perpetual humiliation, literally under Grandma Mahr’s foot. And then there’s me: a mumbling, bumbling sloucher whenever I step foot in this small ranch on the hill at the edge of Coraopolis.
Straightening my back, I glance down at my t-shirt and jeans. I’ve hardly done a lick of work, but I’m smudged with flour. Grandma Mahr, with the exception of her hands, is perfectly clean.
When she takes her floury hands away, the dough gleams like a pearl. But it’s small, about the size of her fist. “Not very big, is it?”
“Apples make a difference. Not the purple washcloth. That’s for dishes. The orange one. ”
She washes and dries her hands. “Big enough. You’ll see.” After transferring it to a mixing bowl, she brushes the dough with some of the melted butter and covers it with a cloth. “Now we talk apples.”
She sits on one of the stools by the door but, before I can do the same, jerks her chin in the direction of the sink. “You can wipe down the table. ” She taps her fingertips together. “Apples, Stephanie,” she says. “Apples make a difference. Not the purple washcloth. That’s for dishes. The orange one. ” She crosses her long legs, slowly bobs her foot while I wipe the table then abruptly leans forward. “What kind of apple does your mother use?”
I return to the sink with a washcloth full of white crumbs. “Well, I guess she likes a little peanut butter on slices of Gala for breakfast some morn—”
“Not to eat. For baking.”
“Oh.” I start rinsing the washcloth, watching in alarm as the dough particles turn gummy and adhere to the fibers. I twist the cloth and return to the table to wipe it again, hoping she doesn’t notice the sticky white strands. “I don’t know for sure. They’re a bright green…”
“Ah-ha!” Her expression turns menacingly satisfied. “Granny Smith, no doubt. Americans are utterly infatuated with Granny Smith apples.”
Grandma Mahr’s American, too. You’d never know it.
“Why?” She barks a harsh, mean laugh. “Grannies are sour and hard.”
I peek up from my table scrubbing. Does she hear the irony? No.
I rinse out the cloth, and as soon as I return it to its post between the purple one and the red one (What’s the red washcloth for?), my grandmother rises. “Come with me. I’ll introduce you to some better options than your mother’s Granny Smith.” I trail her into the living room. She halts at the door leading to the basement and yanks it open. “Hank?”
No one answers, but I hear the soft sounds of a televised game: cheering crowds, the excited announcer. Sounds like hockey, but it’s a Saturday morning. Granddad must have saved a Penguins game on his DVR.
Still no answer, but the volume on the television noticeably increases.
Grandma Mahr huffs and peers into the gloom. “Hank, would you answer me please? What are you doing down there?”
The sound of the game disappears. I hear a muttered curse and a clang, perhaps the remote getting slapped onto the side table. “What do you think I’m doing, Liz? I’m working in my meth lab.” His voice is growing closer. He blows a sigh then begins stomping up the stairs, continuing with, “I’m starting up my bookie business. I’m entertaining sexy strip—oh, um. Hello, Stephanie.”
Grandma Mahr observes his startled face with narrowed eyes. “Your granddaughter’s visiting for the morning.”
“So I see.”
After his rant, I don’t know where to look. He doesn’t know where to look. We blindly find each other for a hug.
My grandmother smiles slightly during this awkward exchange, one of her eyebrows levitating in evil delight. “It’s always ‘poor Granddad, poor Hank, poor, pathetic sap forced to live under the wicked witch,’ but now, Stephanie, now you see a little glimpse into his true nature. Don’t feel so sorry for the prisoner. He’s in prison for a reason.”
Granddad scowls. Though Grandma Mahr’s tall, he’s taller, and when he stares down at her, he looks a little like Clint Eastwood in the old movies my father watches Friday nights, the kind where problems get solved with fast-moving guns in silent, dusty streets. “What do you want?” he asks.
The irritation vanishes from his face. “You’re making strudel?”
“With our granddaughter’s help.”
He looks at me, and I shrug. Help exaggerates my role. So far, I’m nothing but a pantry item finder and table washer.
Grandma says, “We’ll need a Winesap, two Braeburns, a Jonagold, and a Gala. Make that two Galas if they’re small.”
He nods and, as Grandma returns to the kitchen, smiles at me. “Want to come with?”
He waves me ahead, but when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I pause. I’ve been down here dozens, even hundreds of times but don’t recall seeing apples.
He trudges through his makeshift living room area, and I follow, past the Steelers blanket that sprawls over half of his brown chair, past the breaker box, and past the golf ball collection arranged in a wooden case that looks like a spice rack. The chest freezer clicks on and hums. He pulls a string overhead to turn on a naked light bulb then opens a door to a room I’ve never entered.
The basement’s mustiness sharpens and sweetens. In the dim space, an entire wall of shelves houses Ball jars: quarts, pints, and half-pints. I make out my grandmother’s sauerkraut, pickled beets, grape juice, tomato juice, whole tomatoes, dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, peaches, and pears. On another wall, two shelves hold sparkling jams: bright red strawberry, seed-speckled raspberry, golden peach, and blackish Concord. On another wall, butternut and buttercup squashes share shelves with potatoes and onions. But the apples take up the rest of the room, and it’s the apples that scent it, too. As he bends over the bushel baskets, Granddad mutters under his breath, “Winesap, Jonagold, a couple Galas…what was the last one? Honeycrisp?”
“Braeburns, I think.”
He selects two brightly colored apples and passes them to me. His big hands easily hold the others. Straightening, he glances around. “Which jam’s your favorite?”
He shuffles the apples into one arm and grabs a pint-sized jar. “Here.”
He nods and widens the door for me.
Upstairs, he heads for the kitchen with the apples, but I veer toward the closet and slip the jar into my coat pocket, just in case Grandma Mahr doesn’t approve of me taking her jam. When I get into the kitchen, Granddad’s sitting on the same stool she occupied a few minutes ago, and my grandmother’s at the sink washing apples.
She takes mine, washes those, too, then dries her hands. “Let’s chop them up.”
We sit at the table and peel and dice. Every so often, she hands me a small slice with an instruction: “Give that a sniff. Braeburns smell wonderful.” “Winesaps are juicy; aren’t they?” “Jonagolds will balance all the sweetness with a little sour.” And the last one: “Galas are good cooking apples. Ignorant people think they’re just for eating.” The condescension in her tone clarifies that by “ignorant people,” she means my mother. “But Galas have a beautiful texture after baking. They’ll hold their shape until they melt in your mouth.”
Half of the time, however, she talks to Granddad. Drills might be a better word. She wants to know if he called back someone named Suds, asks him if he remembered to shut off the water to the hose out back, reminds him he’s due for a colonoscopy, and tells him Save-a-Bunch has a sale on turkeys, sixty-three cents a pound.
He responds with grunts and grimaces and leans forward from time to time to select a peel and eat it.
Things happen quickly after that. She plucks a thick slice of bread out of the toaster and hands it to me. “Dice it as fine as you can.” And while Granddad holds the remaining peels in his hands and keeps munching, Grandma Mahr wipes the table again and plunges into a long complaint about Germany and austerity cuts and poor people freezing to death in Greece because they can’t afford to pay their electric bills.
I don’t understand the topic, so it doesn’t distract me from the things she’s doing—chopping almonds and pecans, toasting them in a frying pan, running a lemon against a zester over a bowl, tossing the fragrant yellow threads with my finished breadcrumbs and a heaping spoonful of cinnamon, draping a fresh cloth over the entire surface of the cleared table, and liberally showering and rubbing it with flour.
I’ve never seen my mother do anything like this with flour and a tablecloth, but when I glance at Granddad, he obviously misinterprets my curious expression because he pauses in his apple peel chewing to explain, “Germany’s important because she thinks she’s European.”
Grandma Mahr flicks him a dirty look but doesn’t say anything. She has the gleaming ball of dough in the center of the floured, covered table now. At first, she spreads it with a rolling pin, just like anyone making apple pie, but then she sets the pin in the sink, returns to the circle of dough, and slips her fingers under it.
Hands clenched, palms down, she starts in the center and begins to stretch the dough. I see her knuckles travel under the round. They find the center and gently tug toward the edge then slip back to the center and tug again, coaxing the dough wider and thinner. She repeats this, circling the table, working quickly but precisely, with long, even draws. “Play it out carefully,” she murmurs. “In the best Hungarian kitchens, you have to start over if you rip it.”
The dough grows and grows and grows some more, thinning to transparency. It stretches to two feet square then three then four then five. And her hands beneath it make it look alive, organic—a prehistoric creature caught in metamorphosis, a prenatal ripple under skin, a landmass shifting and expanding.
I’m astonished. It almost covers the entire kitchen table now and is sheer enough for me to see the tablecloth’s faded print of roses.
Grandma Mahr glances up, and my expression must please her because she smiles and says, “The story goes, you’re done when you can read a love letter through it.”
I check to see if Granddad is as awed as I am, but he’s frowning at my grandmother. He leans against the wall. “Aren’t you going to let Stephanie help?”
What? I shake my head, but he’s not watching me.
She stops. “Now?”
“How’s she going to learn?”
“At this point, by watching.”
“And yet you always say a person can’t figure out strudel unless she makes it herself. You, Liz. You,” he points at her with his last peel, “are a control freak.”
I take a step back. “Really, Granddad, that’s okay.” I’m fourteen. I pour cereal in a bowl for a snack. I know how to cook a frozen pizza. I’m decent at decorating cut-outs, as long as I don’t have to get fancy. I understand my limitations. What Grandma Mahr’s doing requires expertise. Possibly alchemy. I possess neither.
“And you, Hank,” Grandma responds, ignoring me to glare at him, “are a bum.”
“I’d rather be a bum than a bitch.”
I hear her exhale then her gaze descends on me. “Come here, Stephanie.”
I take another step back. “I’m good with watching.”
My hands shake when I slip under the border. I’m very conscious of how the dough feels, not crumbly like cookie dough and not brittle like pie dough, but diaphanously thin and moveable and alive, what I imagine a butterfly wing must feel like or a web or skin.
“No, no. I can’t have Hank going around telling everyone I’ve neglected and abused you.” She waves an impatient hand, and I inch closer. Maybe to offer moral support, Granddad rises and walks to my side. More gently, my grandmother says, “Only the edge has anything to give now. Just ease your hands under it and slowly bring the thickness toward you.”
My hands shake when I slip under the border. I’m very conscious of how the dough feels, not crumbly like cookie dough and not brittle like pie dough, but diaphanously thin and moveable and alive, what I imagine a butterfly wing must feel like or a web or skin. Yes: skin. I remember an eighth grade science class, when we learned human skin was actually an organ: the body’s first guard, protecting what’s inside, keeping a world of sickness and cold at bay.
I hold my breath and, after imitating how my grandmother closed her hands, try to maneuver the ridged edge a millimeter toward me.
Immediately, the dough tears. I freeze and blink at the slit, an inch from my clumsy knuckles. Then I remove my hands and clench them under my chin. I want to swear. I ought to apologize. But a horrible impulse to cry keeps me from speaking. Instead I raise my miserable gaze to my grandmother.
She’s not looking at me. She’s staring straight at Granddad—not with anger or even annoyance but with smugness. Behind me, Granddad mutters something under his breath and returns to the stool.
I swallow. “I’m sorry. ” Exhaustion makes me slump. I glance at the clock by the window. “Does this mean we have to start over?”
Grandma finally focuses on me, surprise in her face. “Heavens, no.”
Granddad shakes his head. “See? You scare the shit out of your own granddaughter.”
She scowls at him. “No, I don’t.” Then peering closely at my face, she asks, “Do I?” I shake my head but probably don’t come across as convincingly fearless because she gives my back a little pat. “Not to worry. We’ll patch it with a trimming.” Then she’s moving, pulling a paring knife out of the butcher block, circling the table, and slicing off long lengths of the quarter-inch rim. She covers the rip with a tiny piece. “We have to work quickly. If the dough dries too much, it’ll shatter when we roll it.” I hurry back a few feet but she points to her side. “Where are you going?” She hands me the saucepan with the melted butter. “Trickle half of this over the entire surface. Go ahead. Take it.”
I hold my breath again, certain I’ll screw up this job, too, but she doesn’t even watch me. She’s giving the cinnamon, crumbs, and lemon zest another toss with her hands. As soon as I’m finished, she scoops a cup of sugar out of a bin on the counter, turns, and scatters it over the butter-speckled surface. She does the same with the cinnamon mixture and orders me to follow her with the apples. Then she’s fast on my heels with the toasted nuts.
“Okay, Stephanie.” She plucks up an edge of the tablecloth. “You take that side.” Standing at her left, I pick up the adjacent corner. “We lift the cloth to make the dough roll. Carefully now. Keep the tumble loose. The dough will expand in the oven.” She doesn’t give me a chance to freak out but immediately begins rolling so that I only have time to imitate her speed and rhythm: flump, flump, flump, flump, flump, flump. And it’s over.
She carefully folds the edges of the rolled mass, as if she’s enclosing the sides of a half-wrapped present. After transferring a parchment-lined baking sheet to the table, she slides it next to the long, fat roll. “You take that side. Ready?” I hesitate and want to shake my head, but she says, “I can’t do this alone. It’s too big.” And because I have to, I run my hands under the roll, lift it when she does, and shift it to the pan, acutely aware, in the three seconds the strudel rests in my hands, of its weight and strange lumpiness and everything it encloses: yards of wound dough separating layers of spice and tartness and crunchy things and sweetness.
I exhale when I’m done and smile at Granddad.
She shifts the roll into a horseshoe shape and brushes it with the last of the butter then runs her hands under the faucet at the sink, turns, and flicks water over the dough, like she’s baptizing it. “Good. Now we bake it.”
Before I can relax, she puts me on dishwashing duty, pointing out the permissible sponge and tapping the purple washcloth. Behind me, she winds up the tablecloth and returns containers to the fridge and cupboard. She occasionally adds dirty utensils, bowls, and pans to the sink. I take extra care with the dishes, scrubbing longer and rinsing more thoroughly than I would at home. And while Grandma Mahr works, she talks.
I’m surprised Granddad sticks around to listen. And now that I’ve survived the strudel challenge and can note what’s going on around me, the fact that he entered her kitchen in the first place strikes me as strange. Grandma Mahr and Granddad: they don’t usually overlap. But here he’s still sitting on the stool, angling it on its back legs, resting his head on the wall, and eating the dough trimmings. And just like my mother when she’s got my father cornered, Grandma Mahr’s barraging him, alternately complaining about politics and something Granddad did or didn’t do. With the warm water rushing over my hands and the baking cinnamon and apples beginning to perfume the air and my grandmother’s scolding comments about entitlement reform and sequester cuts and my grandfather’s blood pressure, I start to feel downright cozy.
But when she starts in on his cholesterol, Granddad growls, and the stool legs hit the floor. He rises with a groan and makes for the living room.
Grandma pauses to scan the kitchen. I’ve finished the dishes, and she’s cleaned up everything else. She nods. “Let’s pick out our plates.”
She trails Granddad, moving so quickly, it’s almost like she’s chasing him. To his back, she says, “You think, just because you’re thin, you don’t have to worry about your health. Plenty of skinny men have heart attacks and strokes, you know. It’s the cholesterol you’ve got to check. And you’re ignoring your choles—”
Granddad glares at her over his shoulder. “You wear me out.” He stomps past the bookcase, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m taking a nap. Call me when the strudel’s ready.”
“Yes, go take a nap,” Grandma grumbles, now directing her frown at the china cabinet where she stands with the upper glass doors opened, before rows of artfully stacked bowls and plates. “Go take a nap, like a bad little boy, all worn out from fooling around and eating whatever he wants, drinking whatever he wants, never thinking about what’s good for him.”
I hardly register what she’s saying because I’m watching Granddad and wondering where the hell he’s going.
Instead of wrenching open the basement door and stomping down the stairs, he heads down the hallway and kicks open the door to Grandma Mahr’s room. The hinges creak. The sound seems to stir him from his grumpy distraction because he halts. The sound arrests my grandmother’s attention, too.
His gaze flies our way. He shuffles at the threshold, moving back a step and forward a step and back again. “Shit.”
I look over my shoulder. My grandmother’s face is suspiciously red, her eyes now militantly averted.
Then down the hallway, Granddad suddenly snaps, “Screw it.” And the next thing I know, he’s in her room.
He shuts the door, hard enough to send askew the first of the three matted prints by the bookcase. The slant has turned the layered, dull-colored squares into diamonds.
Grandma Mahr selects three dessert plates, bordered with violets. “We’ll use the fine china.” She turns stiffly and heads for the kitchen, not even pausing to straighten the tilted print.
I don’t either. A little crookedness doesn’t bother me.