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Chapter no 32 – Medium Rare

Lesson, in Chemistry

“Does Mom know?” Mad asked as Harriet bustled her into her Chrysler. It was well into the new school year, and as promised, she’d gotten Mudford for her teacher again. That’s why Harriet thought she could miss a day. Or twenty.

“Good gravy, no!” Harriet said as she adjusted the rearview mirror. “If she knew, would we be doing this?”

“But won’t she be mad?” “Only if she finds out.”

“You did a pretty good job on her signature,” Mad said, examining the note Harriet had written to get Mad out of school. “Except for the E and the Z.”

“Well,” Harriet said, irritated, “aren’t I lucky the school doesn’t employ forensic handwriting experts.”

“You really are,” Mad agreed.

“Here’s the plan,” Harriet said, ignoring her. “We stand in line like everybody else, and once in, make a beeline for the back row. No one ever goes for the back row. We want to sit there because should something go wrong, we’ll be right next to the emergency exit.”

“But the emergency exit is only to be used for emergencies,” Mad said. “Yes, well, if your mother spies us, that qualifies as an emergency.”

“But the doors will be armed.”

“Yes—another bonus. Should we have to make a quick exit, the noise will distract her.”

“Are you sure we should be doing this, Harriet?” Mad said. “Mom says a TV studio isn’t safe.”

“Nonsense.”

“She says it’s—

“Mad, it’s safe. It’s an environment for learning. Your mother teaches cooking on TV, doesn’t she?”

“She teaches chemistry,” Madeline corrected.

“What kind of danger could we possibly encounter?”

Madeline looked out the window. “Excess radioactivity,” she said.

Harriet exhaled loudly. The child was turning into her mother. Normally this sort of thing happened later in life, but Mad was way ahead of schedule. She thought about Mad being all grown up. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, she’d shout at her own child. Never leave a Bunsen burner unattended!

“We’re here!” Mad suddenly erupted as the studio parking lot came into view. “KCTV! Oh boy!” And then her face fell. “But, Harriet, look at the line.”

“I’ll be damned,” Harriet swore as she took in the mass of humanity snaking around the parking lot. There were hundreds of people, mostly women with purses sitting heavily on sweaty forearms, but also a few dozen men with suit jackets dangling from two fingers. Everyone used a makeshift fan—maps, hats, newspapers.

“Are they all here for Mom’s show?” Madeline said, awestruck. “No, honey, they tape lots of shows here.”

“Excuse me, ma’am,” a parking lot attendant said, signaling Harriet to stop. He leaned in on Madeline’s side, “but didn’t you see the sign? Lot’s full.”

“All right, then, where should I park?” “Are you here for Supper at Six?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry to hafta tell you, then—you won’t get in,” he said, gesturing at the long line. “These people, most of them are here for nothing. People

start lining up at four a.m. Most of the studio audience has been selected already.”

“What?” Harriet exclaimed. “I had no idea.” “Show’s popular,” the man said.

Harriet hesitated. “But I took this child out of school for this.”

“Sorry, grandma,” he said. Then he leaned farther into the car. “Sorry to you too, kid. I turn away a lot of people every day. Not a fun job, believe me. People yell at me all the time.”

“My mom wouldn’t like that,” Mad said. “She wouldn’t like anyone yelling at anyone.”

“Your mom sounds sweet,” the man said. “But could you move it? I got a lot more people to turn away.”

“Okay,” Mad said. “But could you do me a quick favor? Could you write your name in my notebook? I’ll tell my mom how hard it is out here for you.”

“Mad,” Harriet hissed.

“You want my autograph?” He laughed. “Well that’s a first.” And before Harriet could stop him, he took the notebook from Mad and wrote Seymour Browne, careful to use the lines in her school notebook that showed just how high the tall letters should be and just how small the small letters should be. Then he closed the notebook, the two words on the cover jolting him like a loose electrical wire.

“Madeline Zott?” he read incredulously.

 

 

The studio was dark and cool, with thick cords running from one end to the other and huge cameras on either side, each primed to swivel and record what the lights from above illuminated.

“Here we are,” Walter Pine’s secretary said, ushering Madeline and Harriet to a pair of suddenly vacant seats in the front row. “Best seats in the house.”

“Actually,” Harriet said, “would you mind? We kind of had our hearts set on sitting in the back.”

“Oh gosh no,” the woman said. “Mr. Pine would kill me.” “Someone’s going to die,” Harriet murmured.

“I like these seats,” Madeline said, sitting down.

“Seeing a show live is very different from watching it at home,” the secretary explained. “You’re not just seeing the show anymore—you’re part of it. And the lights—they change everything. I guarantee, this is the place to sit.”

“It’s just that we don’t want to distract Elizabeth Zott,” Harriet said, trying again. “Don’t want to make her nervous.”

“Zott, nervous?” The secretary laughed. “That’s funny. Anyway, she can’t see the audience. The set lighting blinds her.”

“You’re sure?” Harriet said. “Sure as death and taxes.”

“Everyone dies,” Mad pointed out. “But not everyone pays their taxes.” “Aren’t you a precocious little thing,” the secretary said, her voice

suddenly irritated. But before Madeline could offer some statistics on tax evasion, the quartet launched into the Supper at Six theme song and the secretary disappeared into the ether. From off to the left, Madeline watched as Walter Pine settled into a cloth-backed chair. He gave a nod, then a camera rolled into position, then a man wearing headphones gave a thumbs-up. As the song reached its final measures, a familiar figure strode like a president to the podium, her head held high, posture erect, hair aglow under the bright lights.

 

 

Madeline had seen her mother in a thousand different ways—first thing in the morning, last thing at night, leaning away from a Bunsen burner, peering into a microscope, facing off with Mrs. Mudford, frowning into a powder-filled compact, coming out of the shower, gathering her in her

arms. But she had never seen her mother like this—never, ever like this.

Mom! she thought, her heart swelling with pride. Mommy!

“Hello,” Elizabeth said. “My name is Elizabeth Zott, and this is Supper at Six.”

The secretary was right. There was something about the lights, the way they revealed things that the grainy black and white at home could not.

“It’s steak night,” Elizabeth said, “which means we’ll be exploring the chemical composition of meat, specifically focusing on the difference between ‘bound water’ and ‘free water’ because—and this may surprise you,” she said, picking up a large slab of top sirloin, “—meat is about seventy-two percent water.”

“Like lettuce,” Harriet whispered.

“Obviously not like lettuce,” Elizabeth said, “which contains far more water—up to ninety-six percent. Why is water important? Because it’s the most common molecule in our bodies: sixty percent of our composition. While our bodies can go without food for up to three weeks, without water, we’re dead in three days. Four days max.”

From the audience came a murmur of distress.

“Which is why,” Elizabeth said, “when you think about fueling your body, think water first. But now, back to meat.” She picked up a large, sleek knife, and while demonstrating how to butterfly a hunk of meat, launched into the steak’s vitamin content, explaining not only what the body did with its iron, zinc, and B-vitamins, but why protein was critical to one’s growth. She then explained what percentage of the water in the muscle tissue existed as free molecules, ending with what she obviously thought were exciting definitions of free and bound water.

Throughout her explanation, the studio audience remained rapt—no coughing, no whispering, no crossing and uncrossing of legs. If there was one sound, it was only the occasional scratching of pen on paper as people took notes.

“Time for station identification,” Elizabeth said, acknowledging a cue from the cameraman. “Stay with us, won’t you?” Then she put the knife

down and strode off the set, pausing briefly as the makeup woman pressed a sponge to her forehead and patted down a few loose hairs.

Madeline turned to take in the audience. They sat nervously, impatient for Elizabeth Zott to reappear. She felt a small pang of jealousy. She suddenly realized she had to share her mother with a lot of other people. She didn’t like it.

 

 

“After you’ve rubbed your steak with a halved clove of fresh garlic,” Elizabeth said a few minutes later, “sprinkle both sides of the meat with sodium chloride and piperine. Then, when you notice the butter foaming”— she pointed to a hot cast-iron skillet—“place the steak in the pan. Be sure and wait until the butter foams. Foam indicates that the butter’s water content has boiled away. This is critical. Because now the steak can cook in lipids rather than absorb H2O.”

As the steak sizzled, she removed an envelope from her apron pocket. “While that’s cooking, I wanted to share with you all a letter I received from Nanette Harrison in Long Beach. Nanette writes, ‘Dear Mrs. Zott, I’m a vegetarian. It’s not for religious reasons—it’s just that I don’t think it’s very nice to eat living things. My husband says the body needs meat and I’m being stupid, but I just hate thinking an animal has given up its life for me. Jesus did that and look what happened to him. Sincerely yours, Mrs. Nanette Harrison, Long Beach, California.’

“Nanette, you’ve brought up an interesting point,” Elizabeth said. “What we eat has consequences for other living things. However, plants are living things too, and yet we rarely consider that they are still alive even as we chop them to bits, crush them with our molars, force them down our esophagi, and then digest them in our stomachs filled with hydrochloric acid. In short, I applaud you, Nanette. You think before you eat. But make no mistake, you’re still actively taking life to sustain your own. There is no way around this. As for Jesus, no comment.” She turned and, jabbing the

steak out of the pan, the dripping juices a bloody red, looked directly into the camera. “And now a word from our sponsor.”

Harriet and Madeline turned to look at each other, their eyes wide. “Sometimes I ask myself: How is this show popular?” Harriet whispered.

“Excuse me, ladies.” The secretary was back. “Mr. Pine asked if he might have a quick word?” She phrased it as a question even though it wasn’t. “Follow me?” She spirited them away from the stage and down a corridor until they reached an office where Walter Pine was pacing back and forth. Four TVs were lined up against the wall, all airing Supper at Six.

“Hello, Madeline,” he said. “I’m delighted to see you, but also surprised. Shouldn’t you be in school?”

Mad tipped her head to the side. “Hi, Mr. Pine.” She pointed at Harriet. “This is Harriet. It was her idea. She forged the note.”

Harriet threw her a look.

“Walter Pine,” Walter said, taking Harriet’s hand. “At long last. Very pleased to meet you, Harriet…Sloane, correct? I’ve heard nothing but good things. But,” he said, his voice dropping, “what were you two thinking? If she finds out you’re here—”

“I know,” Harriet said. “For the record, we asked to sit in the back.”

“Amanda wanted to come too,” Mad said, “but Harriet didn’t want to compound the crime. Forgery is a felony, but kidnapping—”

“How thoughtful of you, Mrs. Sloane,” he interrupted. “Although just so you both know, if it were up to me, you would always be welcome. Still, it’s not up to me. Your mother,” he said, turning to Madeline, “is only trying to protect you.”

“From radioactivity?”

He hesitated. “You’re a very smart little girl, Madeline, so when I tell you your mom is trying to protect you from celebrity, I’m betting you’ll know what I mean.”

“I don’t.”

“It means that she wants to protect your privacy. To protect you from all the things people say and think about someone who is in the public eye. Someone who is famous.”

“How famous is my mom?”

“Since syndication,” Walter said, touching his fingertips to his forehead, “she’s a bit more well-known. Because now people in places like Chicago and Boston and Denver can watch your mommy, too.”

“Chop the rosemary,” Elizabeth was saying quietly in the background, “with the sharpest knife you have. This minimizes damage to the plant and avoids excess electrolyte leakage.”

“Why is being famous bad?” Madeline asked.

“I wouldn’t say it’s bad,” Walter said. “It’s just that it comes with some surprises and not all of them are good. Sometimes people want to believe they know a celebrity like your mom on a personal level. This makes them feel important. But to do this, they have to make up stories about your mom, and not all the stories are very nice. Your mom is just trying to make sure no one makes up a story about you.”

“People are making up stories about my mom?” Madeline said, alarmed. It had to be the lights—the way they made her mother look invincible. That’s what the audience needed to see: a woman who both demanded respect and got it—even if her mother had problems like everybody else. Mad guessed it was a bit like her pretending she couldn’t read very well. You did what you did to get by.

“Don’t worry,” Walter said, placing his hand on her bony shoulder. “If there’s one person who can handle herself, it’s your mother. Very few will try to take on Elizabeth Zott. All she’s trying to do is make sure they don’t try to take advantage of you. Do you understand? That goes for you too, Mrs. Sloane,” he said, turning to look at Harriet. “You spend more time around Elizabeth than most; I’m sure your friends would love to hear you tell all.”

“I don’t have a lot of friends,” Harriet said. “And even if I did, I know better.”

“Smart woman,” Walter said. “I don’t have a lot of friends either.”

Actually, he thought to himself, he only had one: Elizabeth Zott. And she wasn’t just a friend, she was his best friend. He’d never told her she was, but she was. Yes, there were plenty of people who would argue that a

man and woman couldn’t really be friends. They were wrong. He and Elizabeth discussed everything, intimate things—death, sex, and children. Plus, they had each other’s backs like friends do, even laughed together like friends do. Granted, Elizabeth wasn’t a big laugher. Still, despite the show’s growing popularity, she seemed more depressed than ever.

“So,” Walter said, “why don’t we get you out of here before your mom sees us and we all fry in stomach acid.”

“But why do you think my mom’s so popular?” Madeline asked, still wishing she didn’t have to share her.

“Because she says exactly what she thinks,” Walter said. “Which is very rare. But also because the food she makes is very, very good. And because everyone seems to want to learn chemistry. Oddly.”

“But why is saying what you think so rare?”

“Because there are consequences,” Harriet said. “Huge consequences,” Walter agreed.

From a TV in the corner Elizabeth said, “It looks like we have time today to take a question from our studio audience. Yes—you there, in the lavender dress.”

A woman stood up, beaming. “Yes, hello, my name is Edna Flattistein and I’m from China Lake? I just want to say, I love the show, and I especially loved what you said about being grateful for food, and I just wondered if you have a favorite grace you recite before each meal, to thank our Lord and Savior for the bounty! I’d love to hear it! Thank you!”

Elizabeth shielded her eyes as if to get a better look at Edna. “Hello, Edna,” she said, “and thanks for your question. The answer is no; I don’t have a favorite grace. In fact, I don’t say grace at all.”

Standing in the office, both Walter and Harriet paled. “Please,” Walter whispered. “Don’t say it.”

“Because I’m an atheist,” Elizabeth said matter-of-factly. “Thar she blows,” Harriet said.

“In other words, I don’t believe in God,” added Elizabeth as the audience gasped.

“Wait. Is that rare?” Madeline piped up. “Is not believing in God one of those rare things?”

“But I do believe in the people who made the food possible,” Elizabeth continued. “The farmers, the pickers, the truckers, the grocery store shelf stockers. But most of all, I believe in you, Edna. Because you made the meal that nourishes your family. Because of you, a new generation flourishes. Because of you, others live.”

She paused, checking the clock, then turned directly to the camera. “That’s all we have time for today. I hope you’ll join me tomorrow as we explore the fascinating world of temperature and how it affects flavor.” Then she cocked her head slightly to the left, almost as if she were considering whether she’d gone too far or not far enough. “Children, set the table,” she said with extra resolution. “Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

And within a few seconds, Walter’s phone began to ring and did not stop.

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