Old Margaret was just the kind of cook that we wanted. Lots of cooks can do rich dishes well. Margaret couldn’t. But she cooked simple, everyday dishes in a way that made our mouths water. Her apple-pies were the most satisfying pies I’ve ever tasted. Her warmed-up potatoes were so delicious I could have made my whole dinner of them.
Yet even Margaret sometimes miscalculated. A large, royal-looking steak would be set before Father, which, upon being cut into, would turn out to be too underdone. Father’s face would darken with disappointment. If the earth had begun to wobble and reel in its orbit he could scarcely have been more disapproving. He would raise his foot, under the table, and stamp slowly and heavily three times on the rug. Thud; thud; thud.
At this solemn signal, we would hear Margaret leave the kitchen below us and come clumping step by step up the stairs to the dining-room door.
“Margaret, look at that steak.”
Margaret would step nearer and peer with a shocked look at the platter. “The Lord bless us and save us,” she would say to herself in a low voice. She would then seize the platter and make off with it, to better it the best way she could, and Father would gloomily wait and eat a few vegetables and pour out a fresh glass of claret.
Father and Margaret were united by the intense interest they both took in cooking. Each understood the other instinctively. They had a complete fellow-feeling. Mother’s great interest was in babies–she had never been taught how to cook. All she wanted was to keep Father pleased somehow; and if it was too difficult she didn’t always care about even that.
At table it was Father who carved the fowl, or sliced the roast lamb or beef. I liked to watch him whet the knife and go at it. He had such a fine, easy hand. To a hungry boy, he seemed over-deliberate and exact in his strokes, yet in a moment or two he had done. And usually the cooking had been as superb as the carving. Sometimes it was so perfect that Father’s face would crinkle with pleasure, and with a wink at us he’d summon Margaret with his usual three measured thumps. She would appear, clutching her skirts with both hands, and looking worried. “What’s wanting?” she’d ask.
“Margaret,” Father would tell her affectionately, “that fricasseed chicken is good.”
Margaret would turn her wrinkled face aside, and look down, and push the flat of her hand out toward Father. It was the same gesture she used when she said “Get along with you” to flatterers. She couldn’t say that to Father, but she would beam at him, and turn and go out, and stump back down the dark little stairs without ever a word.
Every once in a while, when the household bills were getting too high, a platter with three tiny French chops on it would be placed before Father, and a larger dish full of cold corned beef or Irish stew before Mother. At this sight we boys would stop talking and become round-eyed and still.
Father would look over at Mother’s dish to see if it seemed appetizing, for he often said there was nothing better than one of Margaret’s stews. The stew usually seemed possible enough to him, yet not quite what he wanted. He would then ask Mother if she’d have a chop.
Mother always said, “No.”
“They look nice and juicy,” Father would urge her, but she would say again she didn’t want any, and turn her eyes away from the platter.
Father would then look around at the rest of us, doubtfully. He had four sons, all with appetites. He would clear his throat as though getting ready to offer a chop to each boy in turn; but he usually compromised by saying, “Will anyone else have a chop?”
“No, Clare,” Mother would quickly and impatiently reply, “they’re for you. The rest of us are going to have stew to-night.” And she’d smile brightly but a little watchfully around at us boys, to be sure that we were making no fuss about it, while she hurried to get the thing settled.
We boys would then earnestly watch Father while he ate the three chops.
Not that we didn’t like Margaret’s stew, which was the best in the world, but we regarded dinner as a special occasion, and we often had stew for lunch.
If some of us had taken up Father’s offer, and left him with only one chop or none, I suppose that he would have asked Mother, “Where are the rest of the chops?” and been very cross about it when she told him there weren’t any more. But his offer of them to us was sincere, though it cost him a struggle. He wanted plenty of food bought for everyone. His instincts were generous. Only, it made him cross if he suffered for those generous instincts.
Long after Margaret died, Father was speaking one night of how good her things always had tasted.
“I wish she could hear you,” said Mother. She smiled tenderly at the thought of that gallant and dear little figure. “If anybody ever was sure of going to Heaven,” she added, “I know it was Margaret.”
This struck Father as a recommendation of the place. He took a sip of cognac and said casually, “I’ll look her up when I get there. I’ll have her take care of me.”
Mother started to say something but checked herself.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Well, Clare dear,” said Mother, “Margaret must be in some special part of Heaven, she was so good. You’d be very fortunate, Clare, to get to the same part as Margaret.”
“Hah!” Father said, suddenly scowling. “I’ll make a devil of a row if I don’t.”