I was an untrained filly those early days of marriage. We lived in a one-room furnished apartment with a pull-down bed for one whole, miserable month, and then we both agreed it was necessary to find open spaces. These were the depression years, and we were very poor along with everyone else.
We found a house for rent for ten dollars a month on the wrong side of the tracks in the rural fringes of the southern Indiana city where we lived. This place was just an unfinished shell of a house with rough under-flooring, plaster board walls, and no trim at the windows. It had, on the positive side, three rooms and a yard with a creek running right in front of the front porch.
Without gas, running water, or central heating, we lived a primitive life. My incapacity as a housewife made it even worse than primitive. I had a one-burner stove which made infinite courses in our menu because I could only burn one thing at a time. When our stomachs rebelled too much, we took an evening off and cooked a campfire meal on the banks of the Ohio river, but most of the time I struggled to conquer the stove, my ignorance, and my husband's taste in food.
We went visiting once at the home of a well-ordered couple, also recently married. They had running water, heat, electricity and gas but, more important, the bride knew all about how to manage a household. She was a gracious hostess and generous with her tips about how to be efficient.
"I always keep a boiled tongue on hand," she said, "in case guests drop in, and I need to fix something in a hurry."
I had never heard of eating tongue before to say nothing about preparing one, so I asked how to do it. "Just put it on the stove in a pan of water," she said, "and let it boil four hours. Then drain the water off, peel off the tough outer skin, and slice it as you use it."
This seemed possible to me, so I conscientiously bought one at the store next time I shopped. One morning, when I was going into town for some scout meetings, I put the tongue on to boil before I left, carefully noting the time.
The spring day was lovely with the earth coming alive at the gentle touch of a fragrant breeze. I was the only passenger who caught the bus at the end of the line, and when the next passenger boarded, in friendly Southern fashion, she took the seat beside me so we could converse.
"Isn't the day delightful," I gushed. "I've got spring fever!"
She looked thoughtfully at me for a few moments, then got up and changed seats. I chuckled to myself. Our neighbors in this area were constantly surprising us with their warmth, their matter-of-fact interdependence, and their ignorance.
"You can't get rid of bedbugs," they had told us when we fumigated our humble dwelling. No doubt my bus companion thought spring fever might be contagious, and she wasn't taking any chances.
I was careful to return well within the four hours my tongue was supposed to boil. Imagine my surprise to find smoke pouring out of all angles from our loose house.
"It's on fire! I thought at first a I approached, but as I caught the smell, I realized it was the tongue. I rushed inside, choking and coughing violently, got the pot off the stove, and threw it outside the door. Our two dogs, locked in the house during my absence, were almost dead from suffocation. Burned tongue has the strongest, most penetrating odor I have ever experienced. If tear gas is ever outlawed, burned tongue would make an adequate substitute. It was years before we got rid of that acrid odor. It even penetrated the pores of the wooden chairs and ten years later, if the house were closed for any length of time, the strong odor at our return brought back overpowering memories of my stupidity. My instructor had taken it for granted that I would realize that water needed to be added from time to time if something was boiling that long.
It was thus I tried to solve the practical problems related to my responsibilities as a housewife. Eventually I gained adequate skill, but all through the years of my marriage I have never succeeded in putting my focus on these things. Cooking is fun because it is creative, but the orderly pursuit of cleaning, laundry, and neatness remains a constant frustration. I might as well accept the fact I'll never be a Martha.