Josie was supposed to be scooping blondie batter out of a glass bowl and into a waiting pan. She handled my blue spatula like a lazy rake, pushing batter forward, up and out one glop at a time. I clasped hands and tried patience, but the spatula dripped and she moved on to licking her hand. “I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but you scrape the bowl like a housewife.”
“Oh come on, what does that even mean?” she said. “Doesn’t a housewife, like, know how to cook? So isn’t that good?”
You scrape the bowl like a housewife. In the culinary school bakery, that’s what you heard from Chef – my Chef, a born mentor known for his good brioche and painfully dirty French puns – what you heard if you worked slowly, or if you left batter lining the bowl, or if you moved like the cake was for next Christmas. And if that was you, pushing batter at an aimless pace (only me once, Miss Speedy after that) then it would be your back Chef would immediately appear behind. “You,” he would announce in loud Franglish, “you scrape the bowl like a HOWZE-WIFE.”
He aimed at both male and female and never explained, just moved on to the next unfortunate scraper. But it was clearly an insult, this wifey business, calling you sluggish and semi-pro. You were not quick enough, not efficient enough, your arm might have been reaching for bonbons, you might drop baking altogether and go shopping, you scraped the bowl like a housewife.
I filed that phrase and would hear his words in every working kitchen, chopping fast, prepping hard and scraping every ounce of cookie dough from stainless 12-quart bowls. I would clean all the cake batter from the 20-quarts, and lose my hat peering into 60-quarts to hand-scrape the day’s baguette. Years later I too would have underlings, and if I caught a whiff of whatever or saw idle utensils, I got my chance: Look at you. The way you scrape that bowl, it’s like a housewife.
Most rankled at the scorn, worked faster and got better. Once, after watching a new girl swirl pumpkin bread batter like moisturizer, I said it and she yelled “God I HOPE I do.” This I did not see coming.
“Are you kidding?” She placed the filled bread pans on the oven rack, one by one, letting out all the heat. “Have babies and make brownies and not open a freaking shop at five in the morning? Yes, thanks. Scraping the bowl like a housewife does not actually sound too bad.”
I told her to shut the oven door, and mix the muffins.
A few businesses and a thousand bowls later I’m in my home kitchen, the kitchen we carefully planned, every knob and drawer and foot of useful space. The kitchen’s cook, she no longer opens at five; I left restaurants to get some peace but still, I move like the lunch rush. The difference now is that a door needs answering, the dog requires feeding, a daughter needs talking. Sometimes batter waits on the counter. Some days I put the bowl in the fridge and bake later, and at some point I began leaving batter in the bowl, just a few chocolate stripes up the side. I might call loudly to the other room, “I think there’s some batter left,” and Josie will run in and grab it, jump on the counter, swipe it like finger food. I think about those stripes; are they sweet, are they sluggish, are they howze-wife?
Then I think about Chef, and how he would unfurl wallet pictures of five kids, and how often he mentioned his wife. He told us stories of his family’s bakery in Provence, how he had learned baguettes from his uncles and croissants from his father. He told us about the cake his mother baked at home, an ugly chocolate affair with a sunken middle and crusty sides. She wrapped him a piece every morning in a white dishcloth, and when his uncles gave him a break from kneading, he sat on flour sacks in the back and ate cake with his hands.
I imagine they were proud to see him succeed, to work as a great chef and teacher, speeding through perfection and showing us the same. As his student I thought of him that way, wholly efficient, but now I consider his drive home, and remember that we were surprised to hear that his wife was the dinner cook, roasting chicken and mashing potatoes, simple things he liked. I think of him pouring a glass of wine and hugging five small children, some at his leg, some in his arms, all hunting for the little cakes and treats I knew he toted home in white bags. And now I think at the end of the day he loved the housewife, and messy hours, and the sly disorder of long, lazy strokes.