(Published once upon a time in my weekly columnist days)
One morning this week I might make myself an omelet for breakfast. Or try to.
My mother had a way with omelets. She turned out consistently perfect specimens in her big iron skillet: buttery, light golden brown with delicate, crinkly lacework at the edges, the insides soft and bubbly and full of tidbits like diced ham, peppers, and onions. And grated cheese. I don’t think you could buy cheese already grated back then, but every kitchen had a grater that got used mighty often.
We were dedicated breakfast eaters in my family up in Oakwood in my youth. I’m not talking about grabbing a couple of Pop Tarts, a granola bar, or a container of yogurt (none of which we knew existed) on the way out the door. We all sat down every morning to crisp bacon or savory sausage from Lancaster Johnson’s grocery store, and either toast or biscuits, not the ones popped out of cardboard cylinders and slapped into the oven, but made from scratch.
And every morning there would be eggs, be they poached, sunny side up, boiled, or incorporated into one of those fine omelets.
This must have been during one of those periods when medical gurus saw great benefit in eggs, or at least no harm in them. Because my mother, in spite of the fact that she smoked a couple of packs of Pall Malls a day, was truly concerned about what she fed us, and it was a special treat for me when I sat down to supper at a friend’s house and had a plate of chicken-fried steak and fried potatoes handed to me. Believe me, eggs were just about the only fried food we got on a regular basis from Quinda Rozelle’s kitchen.
When I was very young we had a hen house out back, and I sometimes still cringe at the thought of being pecked by those angry birds when I had to collect their efforts. Then a late-night tornado pretty much laid waste to the little shed and a majority of its chickens in the process. For which I’m sure I thanked God for his infinite mercy.
Then my mother began buying eggs at the store, along with all those Pall Malls. But wherever she got them, she could work real magic with them.
My love of reading and words came directly from her, but her prowess with eggs bypassed me completely. I can fry one (who can’t?) and can even stir up a velvety scrambled batch. But I didn’t inherit her special talent with omelets.
So I decided early on that, since it isn’t an innate ability, I’d have to learn the trick. Whenever I’d stand in the presence of good omelet chefs in restaurants I’d pay close attention. To use an outdated figure of speech, I’d go to school on them, making mental notes of this most delicate of procedures, where success or failure hovers on the tilt of the skillet, the precise heat of the burner, the consistency of the mixture.
After countless failures slurped their way down my garbage disposal, I finally figured that the answer wasn’t in anything so technical as the flick of the whisk or the emergence of tiny bubbles. It had to be the pan.
Mother’s old cast iron skillet (which I ended up with somehow; now my sister will raise a howl) is great for cornbread, but it doomed my omelets to dismal failure. How she slipped so many perfect delights out of it is beyond me.
Now some of you are going to write to me, weighing in with solutions ranging from oils and greases to the mysterious “seasoning of the skillet”, which always sounded to me like some ancient ritual straight out of the Book of Leviticus.
And while I always appreciate mail, you should know that I’m with St. Francis when it comes to accepting the things I cannot change. I long ago faced the fact that my mother could cook wonderful omelets in a cast iron skillet and I can’t.
So here’s to you, Quinda. If you’re looking down this morning, you’ll be glad to know I that my sweet wife Karen can turn out perfect omelets.
So, one morning this week I’ll just ask her to do it. Or we’ll go to La Madeleine’s.