Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XVII

In previous episodes: Millie has been impatiently awaiting an opportunity to descend to the Magdalena Arms’s unused common kitchen and deal with her oversized pork loin, only to be thwarted by her fellow apartment dwellers. Why are so many of them so lively this evening? Where has her cross-the-hall neighbor been that he comes home soused? Millie has no time for these mysteries, which intrude on her goal of recreating 19th century settler-style salt pork!

Missed the earlier episodes? You can find them all hereOr start from the beginning with Episode I and use the “next” button at the top the screen to move between episodes.

The Magdalena Arms at Night — Part 2

The stairs creaked as Millie tiptoed down the curving flight to the grand entryway a little after midnight. Slung over her shoulder was a canvas bag, heavy with the pork loin and other supplies for this clandestine cooking expedition. In one hand she held a sheaf of papers, the fruits of her recipe research. 

At the foot of the stairs something pointy stabbed her in the shin and she stumbled, almost dropping the closely-written recipes. Biting back a pained yelp, Millie glared down at a bronze statuette of a pensive youth holding a bow and arrow. Cupid, Millie diagnosed. A late Victorian version, given the fatuous expression and shoddy workmanship.

The insipid objet stood like a sentinel guarding a whole cluster of boxes and oddments that had evidently been dragged out of the ground floor apartment to Millie’s right. It was empty now, Millie remembered. The old lady who had lived there had died a few weeks ago, in the early days of the confinement. And now someone was cleaning out. Perhaps the Arms’s always energetic landlady was preparing for a new tenant.

Unable to help herself, Millie peered into the boxes. One held a jumble of cheap cut-glass vases. The next was more interesting, filled with old magazines—Bay City Stage, Theatre Arts. She dug down and discovered German periodicals, some dating back to the early 1920s. Her scrabbling fingers found a stiff little booklet —a ration card from 1943. “Harriet DeWitt,” Millie read softly.

Stop, Millie lectured herself sternly, as her glance strayed longingly over the other boxes. You have pork to cook. But then she glimpsed a china figurine painted in bright, clear colors. Carefully she lifted from the a box of toys and creased playing cards a small figurine of a barefoot girl, holding out a china apron full of flowers. She examined the delicate modeling intently, before flipping it over. Millie bit her lip in excitement. There was the blue X, like crossed swords. Some ignorant sorter had put this Meissen figurine out with the trash!

Irresolutely Millie stood for a moment, trying not to think of how much the barefoot flower girl was worth. Then she set it back in the box.

And then took it back out again. No reason to risk someone throwing away a valuable objet d’art out of misguided highmindedness! She knew she wasn’t a thief.

The stairs to the basement kitchen were down the back corridor, past the lounge, past the elevator. Millie couldn’t find a light switch, and groped her way down in darkness. At the foot of the stairs, to her relief, she felt a switch plate with four switches. Millie flicked them on and off, illuminating the stairs, the former dining room, and a light that flashed from somewhere beyond the dining room before finally landing on the light switch for the kitchen.

She put her bag and sheaf of papers on the big table against the wall, and looked around, noting with satisfaction a row of pots and pans hanging over the sink, and the reassuring hum of the big old frigidaire. Millie swung open the door and inspected the refrigerator’s contents: a wizened lemon and a pasteboard box piled high with pats of butter in gold foil. She opened and closed drawers and cabinets, pulling out any piece of cooking equipment that struck her as useful—a wooden cutting board, a strainer, a large vat, and, best of all, a heavy, wicked looking cleaver. She laid an oversized fork next to the cleaver, wondering if this was what her treasured American Home Cookbook from 1854 meant by “a flesh fork.” She was somewhat disappointed that in her exploration she found nothing that resembled a “soup digester,” a covered pot that bulged out in the middle, and was guaranteed to turn any cooking scraps into a beneficial soup. Millie had always wanted her own soup digester.

Then she unpacked the supplies she’d brought: the loin, swathed in wax paper, a big box of salt and a bag of sugar, a large glass jar and several rocks of varying sizes. 

Oh! She straightened, struck by a sudden idea. Maybe this kitchen once stocked salt-petre! She dove into the depths of the pantry, searching the shelves, but only found more salt, sugar, flour, enough cans of beans to feed an army, and some ancient spices.

Disappointed, Millie re-emerged and sat at the table to review her recipes. She’d turn as much of the loin as could fit into the jar into salt pork (it was a pity about the salt-petre–she’d have liked to be faithful to her 19th century recipe). The preserved pork would supposedly last for two years; the rest of the meat she would boil, since she didn’t have the equipment for spit-roasting that was Flora’s preferred method for cooking pork. “But for stretching a pig,” Flora had written, “nothing beats boiling the pork and making pork potatoe hash.”

She’d better start some water boiling, Millie realized, glancing at her watch and getting up. It was already past 1 a.m. Humming softly, she filled the vat halfway up with water, set it on the stove, and put the burner on high. “The home cook can never have too much hot water.” That’s what the cookbook said. Then she lay the pork loin on the cutting board. Frowning, she measured her jar against it, calculating how much pork the jar would hold, and nicked the spot with the knife. Then she lifted the cleaver high above her head, narrowed her eyes, and swung.

Thunk. The cleaver sliced through the meat and bit into bone. Millie tried to lift it up for a second swing, but it was firmly wedged. She braced the loin with one hand and wiggled and pulled until the cleaver came free.

“What are you doing?” 

Millie swung around, cleaver in hand. 

A tall, lanky blonde leaned against the kitchen doorway. It was the mannish woman she’d seen with Dolly and Angelo that afternoon. She wore a faded pair of wash pants and a wrinkled plaid shirt. Her cheekbones were sharp enough to cut butter.

At Millie’s menacing posture, she straightened and held up her hands in surrender. “Careful with that knife.”

“Who are you?” Millie demanded, lowering the cleaver.

“Lon,” said the blonde, and left it at that.

There was a pause. Millie let it lengthen, but Lon didn’t break it. Finally, “I’m Millie,” she said. “And I’m cooking.”

After all, this Lon person didn’t have any authority to tell her she shouldn’t be cooking in the common kitchen in the wee hours of the morning–did he, or rather she? It was hard to think of Lon as a girl, but she wasn’t exactly a boy either. 

Millie decided to take the offensive. “What are you doing here?”

“I saw lights and heard noises and I wondered,” said Lon. “No one uses this kitchen.”

Damn her for flicking all the switches! She should have brought a flashflight. “Oh. Well. I am.”

Lon stepped away from the doorway and slid past Millie, bending to look at the recipe Millie had copied. “Salt pork,” the intruder read aloud. A strange expression flickered across her face, like the distant lightning of a storm. “Why would you want to make salt pork?” Her voice was suddenly sharp, as she glanced at the loin on the cutting board.

“Why not?” Millie asked truculently.

“There are tastier ways to prepare pork loin than salt pork.”

“Have you ever had it?” Millie hated when people dismissed her experimentation with period recipes out of hand.

“Oh, yes.” There was that strange expression again, some strong feeling sternly repressed, yet struggling to emerge.

“When? Where?” 

“Ten years ago,” Lon’s blue eyes looked into the distance. “In prison.”

Millie’s eyes fell to the pork loin. She wanted to question Lon further about her memories of the prison-cooked salt pork, but it seemed indiscreet. After another pause, in a slightly friendlier tone, she said, “It’s kind of an experiment; and anyway, I wanted to preserve some of the pork for later. This whole loin—“ she gestured futilely at the meat. “I can’t eat it all.”

“Buy a smaller cut?” suggested Lon.

“I didn’t buy this, it was given to me. At the food pantry.” So you were in prison and I’m on charity, now we’re even, Millie thought.

“Ah,” was all Lon said. Then, “Here,” she held out a hand.

After a baffled moment, Millie handed her the cleaver. She backed away automatically as Lon swung the cleaver up and then down, landing with a resounding thwack. The pork loin sprang apart into two chunks. Lon laid the cleaver between them.

As she turned to go, Millie couldn’t help calling after her, “Why didn’t you like it? The salt pork?”

“Too salty,” said Lon. 

Then she was gone.

Next: Illness at the Arms

All the Arms is in an uproar as news spreads that Nurse Beverly has succumbed to the dread disease. While Beverly lies feverish in her room, fitfully sleeping, the rest of the Arms residents try to figure out how to care for their neighbor.

2 thoughts on “Sheltering in Place at the Magdalena Arms: Episode XVII

  1. Another lovely chapter with many fascinating cooking details!

    Lon isn’t going to stay and help Millie cook something delicious?

    Good for Millie, taking that figurine! I’m in favor!

    What are the rocks for?!

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