Search

Chapter no 38 – Brownies

Lesson, in Chemistry

JULY 1961

Some say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and in this case, they were right. Supper at Six exploded in popularity.

“Elizabeth,” Walter said as she sat facing him in his office, her face stony. “I know you’re upset about the article—we all are. But let’s look on the bright side. New advertisers are lining up in droves. Several manufacturers are begging to create all-new lines in your name. Pots, knives, all sorts of things!”

She pursed her lips in a way he knew meant trouble.

“Mattel even sent over specs for a girl’s chemistry set—” “A chemistry set?” She perked up slightly.

“Keep in mind, these are just specs,” he said carefully, handing her a proposal. “I’m sure some things can—”

“ ‘Girls!’ ” she read aloud. “ ‘Make your very own perfume…using science!’ ” Good god, Walter! And the box is pink? Get these people on the phone right now— I want to tell them where they can stick their plastic vial.”

“Elizabeth,” he said soothingly, “we don’t have to say yes to everything, but there’s some potential here for lifelong financial security. Not just for us, but for our girls. We have to think beyond ourselves.”

“This isn’t thinking, Walter, this is marketing.”

“Mr. Pine,” a secretary said, “Mr. Roth is on line two.”

“Do not,” Elizabeth warned, her face still holding the hurt of how she’d been maligned, “take that call.”

“Hello,” Elizabeth said several weeks later, “my name is Elizabeth Zott, and this is Supper at Six.”

She stood behind a cutting board, an array of vegetables set before her in a dazzling pile of color. “Tonight’s dinner features eggplant,” she said, picking up a large purplish vegetable. “Or aubergine, as it’s referred to in other parts of the world. Eggplant is highly nutritious, but it can be bitter due to its phenolic compounds. To remove its bitterness—” She stopped abruptly, turning the vegetable over in her hands as if she wasn’t at all satisfied. “Let me rephrase. To guard against eggplant’s tendency toward bitterness—” She stopped again and exhaled loudly. Then she tossed the eggplant aside.

“Forget it,” she said. “Life is bitter enough.” She turned and opened a cupboard behind her, withdrawing all new ingredients. “New plan,” she said. “We’re making brownies.”

Madeline lay on her stomach in front of the television, her legs crossed in the air behind her. “Looks like we’re having brownies again tonight, Harriet. That’s five days in a row.”

“I make brownies on my bad days,” Elizabeth confessed. “I’m not going to pretend that sucrose is an essential ingredient required for our well-being, but I personally feel better when I eat it. Now let’s get started.”

“Mad,” Harriet said over Elizabeth’s voice as she applied fresh lipstick and fluffed her hair. “I have to run out for a bit, all right? Don’t answer the door or the phone, and don’t leave home. I’ll be back before your mom gets here. Understand? Mad? Do you hear me?”

“What?”

“See you soon.” The door clicked shut behind her.

“Brownies are best when made from either a high-quality cocoa powder or unsweetened baking chocolate,” Elizabeth continued. “I prefer Dutch

cocoa. It contains a high level of polyphenols, which, as you know, are reducing agents that protect the body against oxidative…”

Madeline watched the TV closely as her mother combined the cocoa powder with the melted butter and sugar, whipping the wooden spoon around the bowl with such vigor, it seemed likely the bowl would break. When Life hit the stands, she’d been so proud. Her mother—on the cover! But before she could read it, her mother stuffed all of her copies—Harriet’s too—in a garbage bag and tossed the heavy bag to the curb. “You are not to read this pack of lies,” she’d told Madeline. “Do you understand? Under no circumstances.

Madeline nodded. But the next day she went straight to the library and read without stopping, her finger guiding her eyes down the columns. “No,” she choked. “No, no, no.” Tears spilled all over a photograph of her mother fixing her hair as if that’s what she did all day. “My mom’s a scientist. A chemist.”

She turned her attention back to the television, where her mother was chopping walnuts. “Walnuts contain an unusually high level of vitamin E in the form of gamma-tocopherol,” she said. “Proven to protect the heart.” Although the way she continued to chop, it seemed clear the walnuts weren’t going to make much difference to the damage done to her heart.

From out of nowhere came the doorbell, and Mad jumped. Harriet never let her answer the door anymore, but Harriet wasn’t there. She peeked out the window, expecting to see a stranger, but saw Wakely instead.

“Mad,” Reverend Wakely said as she opened the door. “I’ve been so worried.”

From the television, Elizabeth Zott was explaining how air was being carried along on the rough surfaces of the sugar crystals and then encased by a film of fat, creating a foam. “When I add the eggs,” she said, “their

protein will prevent the fat-coated air bubbles from collapsing when heat is applied.” She set down the bowl. “We’ll be back after this station identification.”

“I hope it’s all right that I dropped by,” Wakely said. “I thought I’d be able to find you at home during your mother’s show. Is she really making brownies for dinner?”

“She’s having a bad day.”

“That Life article— I can only imagine. Where’s your sitter?”

“Harriet will be back in a bit.” She hesitated, knowing this was probably the wrong thing to ask. “Wakely. Want to stay for dinner?”

He paused. If bad days dictated dietary menus, he’d be eating brownies at every meal for life. “I would never intrude like that, Mad. I really did just want to make sure you’re okay. I feel terrible that I wasn’t able to help you more with that family tree, although I’m proud of what you did. You’ve defined your family with broad, honest strokes. Family is far more than biology.”

“I know.”

He glanced around the small room crowded with books, his eyes taking in the erg. “There it is,” he said in wonder. “The rowing machine. I saw it in the magazine. Your dad was very handy.”

“My mom is very handy,” she asserted. “My mom turned our kitchen into a—” But before she could show him the lab, from the television Elizabeth announced she was back. “One of the things I like about cooking,” she said as she added flour, “is its inherent usefulness. When we make food, we don’t just create something good to eat—we create something that provides energy to our cells, something that sustains life. It’s very different from what others create. For instance”—she paused, then looked directly into the camera, narrowing her eyes—“magazines.”

“Your poor mother,” Wakely said, shaking his head. The back door banged open.

“Harriet?” Mad called.

“No honey, it’s me.” The voice was weary. “I’m home early.” Wakely froze. “Your mother?”

He wasn’t prepared to meet Elizabeth Zott. It was enough just being in the home where Calvin Evans had once lived, but to suddenly meet the woman he’d failed to console at Evans’s funeral? The famous atheist TV show host? The person recently gracing the cover of Life? No. He had to leave immediately—now, before she saw a grown man alone with her young daughter in an otherwise empty house. My god! What had he been thinking? Could this look any worse?

“Bye,” he hissed to Mad, turning to the front door. But before he could open the door, Six-Thirty trotted to his side.

Wakely!

“Mad?” Elizabeth called as she dropped her bags in the lab and wandered into the living room. “Where’s—” She stopped. “Oh.” She frowned, surprised to see a man wearing a clerical collar gripping her front doorknob.

“Hi, Mommy,” Madeline said, attempting to sound casual. “This is Wakely. He’s a friend of mine.”

Reverend Wakely,” Wakely said, reluctantly letting go of the knob as he extended his hand. “First Presbyterian. I’m so very sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Zott,” he said in a rush. “So, so very sorry. I’m sure you’re tired after your long day, Madeline and I met at the library a while back, and she’s right, we’re friends, we’re— I was just leaving.”

“Wakely helped me with the family tree.”

“Terrible assignment,” he said. “Completely wrongheaded. I very much oppose homework assignments that tread on private family business—but no, I really didn’t help at all. I wish I could have helped. Calvin Evans was a huge influence in my life—his work—well, it may sound odd seeing the line of work I’m in, but I was an admirer, a fan, even; Evans and I were actually—” He stopped. “Again, I’m so very sorry for your loss—I’m sure it hasn’t been—”

Wakely could hear himself running on like a swollen river. The more he babbled the more Elizabeth Zott looked at him in a way that scared him.

“Where’s Harriet?” she asked, turning to Madeline. “Errands.”

From the television, Elizabeth Zott said, “I have time to take a question or two.”

“Are you really a chemist?” someone asked. “Because Life magazine said—”

Yes, I am,” she barked. “Does anyone have a real question?”

From her living room, Elizabeth looked panicked. “Shut this off now,” she said. But before she could reach the dial, a woman from the studio audience pried, “Isn’t it true that your daughter is illegitimate?”

Wakely took two steps toward the television and snapped it off himself. “Ignore that, Mad,” he said. “The world is full of ignorance.” Then he glanced around as if he wanted to make sure he left nothing behind and said, “I am so very sorry to have disturbed.” But as he placed his hand on the front doorknob again, Elizabeth Zott laid a hand on his sleeve.

“Reverend Wakely,” she said in the saddest voice he’d ever heard. “We’ve met before.”

“You never told me that,” Madeline said as she reached for a second brownie. “Why didn’t you tell me you were at my dad’s funeral?”

“Because,” he said, “I was a bit player, that’s all. I very much admired your dad, but it doesn’t mean I knew him. I wanted to help— I wanted to find the right words to help your mom with her loss, but I failed. I’d never met your dad, you understand—but I felt like I understood him. That probably sounds pompous,” he said, turning to Elizabeth. “I’m sorry.”

Throughout dinner, Elizabeth had said very little, but Wakely’s confession seemed to touch her in some distant way. She nodded.

“Mad,” she said. “Illegitimate means that you were a child born out of wedlock. It means your dad and I weren’t married.”

“I know what it means,” she said. “I just don’t know why it’s a big deal.”

“It’s only a big deal to the very stupid,” Wakely interjected. “I talk with the stupid all day long, I know the territory. As a minister, I had hoped to

put a dent in that type of stupidity—to make people see their actions cause such needless…anyway, your mother is absolutely correct when she was quoted in the article saying our society is based largely on myth, that our culture, religion, and politics have a way of distorting the truth. Illegitimacy is but one of those myths. Pay no attention to that word or anyone who uses it.”

Elizabeth looked up, surprised. “That didn’t make it into the Life

article.”

“What didn’t?”

“That part about myth. About the distortion of truth.”

It was his turn to look surprised. “Right, not in Life. But in Roth’s new

—” He looked at Mad, as if just now remembering why he’d stopped by. “Oh dear god.” He bent down and retrieved an unsealed manila envelope from his satchel and laid it in front of Elizabeth. Three words were written across the front: Elizabeth Zott. PRIVATE.

“Mom,” Mad said quickly. “Mr. Roth came by a few days ago. I didn’t answer the door because I’m not supposed to, but also because it was Roth, and Harriet says Roth is Public Enemy Number One.” She paused, hanging her head. “I read his Life article,” she confessed. “I know you told me not to, but I did and it was awful. Also, I don’t know how Roth got my family tree, but he did and it’s my fault, and—” Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Honey,” Elizabeth said, her voice dropping as she drew the child onto her lap. “No, of course it’s not your fault; none of this is your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Oh yes I did,” Mad choked as her mother stroked her hair. “That,” she said, pointing to the manila envelope Wakely had placed on the table, “that’s from Roth. He left it on the doorstep and I opened it. And even though it said private, I read it. And then I took it to Wakely.”

“But Mad, why would you—?” She stopped and looked at Wakely, alarmed. “Wait. You read it, too?”

“I wasn’t in when Mad dropped by,” Wakely explained, “but my typist told me she’d been there and Mad was very upset. So I confess— I also read the article. Actually, so did my typist—it’s quite—”

“My god!” Elizabeth exploded. “What is wrong with you people? Does the word ‘private’ mean nothing anymore?” She snatched the envelope off the table.

“But Mad,” Wakely said, ignoring Elizabeth’s ire, “why did it upset you so? At least Mr. Roth is trying to make it right. At least he wrote the truth.”

“What do you mean by truth?” Elizabeth said. “That man wouldn’t know how to—” But as she reached into the envelope and withdrew the contents, she stopped. “Why Their Minds Matter” read the headline of the new piece.

It was an article mock-up—not yet published. Under the headline was a photograph of Elizabeth in her home lab, a goggled Six-Thirty by her side. Surrounding her, a photographic border of other women scientists from around the world in their labs. “The Bias of Science,” read the subhead, “and What These Women Are Doing About It.”

A note was clipped to the top.

Sorry, Zott. Quit Life. Still trying to get the truth out, not that anyone wants it. Been rejected from ten scientific publications so far. Off to cover a developing story in a place called Vietnam. Yours, FR.

As Elizabeth read the new piece, she held her breath. It was all there: her goals, her experiments. And these other women and their work—she felt fortified by their battles, inspired by their progress.

Madeline, however, was crying.

“Honey,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t understand. Why did this upset you? Mr. Roth did a good job. It’s a good article. I’m not mad at you; I’m glad you read it. He wrote something truthful about me and these other women and I very much hope this gets published. Somewhere.” She looked at his note again. Rejected by science magazines ten times already? Really?

“I know,” Madeline said, swiping her hand under her nose, “but that’s why I’m sad, Mom. Because you belong in a lab. But instead you make dinner on TV and…and…and it’s because of me.

“No,” Elizabeth said gently. “Not true. Every parent has to earn a living.

It’s part of being an adult.”

“But you’re not in a lab specifically because of me—” “Again, not true—”

“Yes, it is. Wakely’s typist told me.” Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open.

“Jesus Christ,” Wakely said, covering his face with his hands. “What?” Elizabeth said. “Who is this typist of yours?”

“I think you might know her,” Wakely said.

“Listen to me, Mad,” Elizabeth said. “Very closely. I’m still a chemist.

A chemist on television.”

“No,” Mad said sadly. “You’re not.”

You'll Also Like