Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Egg Whites and Women

Caitlin Roach


Life as a woman is like being the meringue on top of a caramel pie. 

This thought popped into my head while I was watching my granny whip egg whites this afternoon. I just don’t see how she does it.  If I tried to beat that slimy goop into stiff peaks I would need five arms, but she always does it with one hand and some patience. I wish I could cook like her, but I burn every piece of bacon I put into the pan and always let the water boil out of the beans. Granny tells everyone her Sammie is an angel in the kitchen; she can’t stand for people to know differently.

I guess I’d rather sit around making up stories and seeing the beauty in life in spite of this Depression, like Miss Carmichael, my eleventh grade teacher, encourages me to do. She tells her students that all kinds of deep thinkers made this world a better place, and we need to keep on thinking big like our forefathers. Granny says no father of mine ever did anything for me, and I needn’t think a forefather would either. I want to go to college, so I can bring something special to my little corner of the world.  Miss Carmichael thinks I should go too, but Granny believes Miss Carmichael has always had funny notions because her mother drank vanilla extract when she was expecting her. Granny claims that’s why my teacher can’t catch a husband.

I mused over this as I watched Granny get started. Whenever she makes meringue for her caramel pie, her first step is always to crack an egg.

“The key to this,” Granny said as she flicked her wrist against the counter, “Is not to hit the egg against the side of the counter too hard, or else the shell will burst.” 

I nodded from my place at the table where I sat peeling potatoes over an old bowl for our supper.

“You have to be careful and not do it too softly either,” she continued, “Or you’ll have a mess on your hands when the shell finally breaks.”

Granny always talks to me while she cooks, as if she thinks I will absorb some of her wisdom that way. I already know from years of watching that cracking the exterior of an egg requires a practiced hand, a lot of confidence, and a tiny prayer, kind of like getting through to me. Take what happened at lunch up at the schoolhouse the other day:

I was sitting on the steps, watching the younger kids play while I ate my cornbread, when I saw Bobby McDaniel approaching out of the corner of my eye.

“Sammie, I really could use your help with my arithmetic homework,” he said, flashing his teeth at me. I could tell he’d been practicing that smile in the mirror.

I played it cool.

“Bobby, you know I prefer to go by my given name now that I’m getting older.”

“Fine, Miss Samantha,” he said, drawling out the last syllable. “Will you please help me with the work we were assigned this morning?”

Bobby and I were the only two juniors at our school.  Most kids our age had been taken out of class by their parents to work on farms or had left of their own choosing.  Bobby’s family was the wealthiest in town, what with his father being the doctor and all, so he was able to come to class.  I was still there because I had made a bargain with Granny: if she let me graduate from high school, I would do all I could to help around the house after class, as well as take care of her once she got too old to tend herself. I would have done everything I could for her anyways, but I acted nonchalant about it so she’d let me keep learning.

I looked up at Bobby, who was still waiting for a reply.

“I suppose I can help you, but only in the mornings before class starts, and only if I can tell you tried to help yourself first.”

“Well, I think I can handle that.  See you at 6:30 tomorrow, then?” he asked.

I nodded and watched him walk away.  I probably went too easy on him, but really, he knows how to get to me with that smile, and Granny would have a fit if I could manage to snag his eye.  I’m afraid he might have cracked me, just like Granny cracks her eggs.

My mind wandered back to the meringue Granny was making.  After she broke her egg’s shell, she separated its white from its yolk. It’s not that the yolks are bad; they look like sunshine in a skillet and taste really good when Granny makes deviled eggs on Sundays, but they’re just too thick and heavy to whip, according to Granny.

“Sammie, have you finished peeling those potatoes yet?” she asked, not even taking the time to look up from her work.

I eyed my knife, lying neglected on the table.

“Almost,” I said, picking up another potato.

I kept an eye on Granny as she took her eggshell halves and held them up over the top of her bowl.  Then she poured the yolk over from one half to the other, letting the white fall through the crack.  She did this a couple of times until the egg was good and separated, and then she dropped the yolk in a different bowl before reaching for another egg.

As I watched her, I thought about how a woman needs separating and sorting out sometimes, just like the parts of an egg.  It’s not like we’re half good and half bad, but sometimes various parts of us just want different things.  It reminded me of the talk Miss Carmichael and I had last week after class:

“I just feel like my heart and my head are in two different places, Miss Carmichael,” I said after everyone else had left the room.

She stopped cleaning the board and looked at me; the strong sympathy in her eyes made me blush and stare at my feet.

“I think I know what the problem is, Samantha.”

I wasn’t sure how she knew what I meant, but Miss Carmichael has one of the keenest minds I’ve ever seen at work so I listened.

“I was in the same predicament not too many years ago. My family didn’t want me to go to school anymore either.”

“I like to learn and read, but Granny hardly ever lets me sit still long enough. She claims it’s nothing but pure idleness.”

“Well, I hardly call expanding your mind an idle occupation,” Miss Carmichael said, suppressing a laugh.  “I think you’re exceptionally bright, Samantha. I’ll help you if you want to go to college, but no one can make that decision but you.”

I looked past Miss Carmichael, imagining myself boarding a train and heading out to a strange place.  I could put new ribbons on my hat, and Granny could spruce up my dresses.  But Granny probably wouldn’t help, not when she wanted me to stay there with her.  I felt just like a separated egg, like two parts of me that were meant to stay together were being pulled apart and could never fit back together just right again.

I jumped as I nicked my thumb with the knife. Careful not to wince out loud, I stuck my injured thumb in my mouth. I didn’t need Granny to catch my mind wandering.

“Now it’s time to whip them,” she said, unaware of my plight behind her. She reached into the kitchen drawer. Granny always takes a fork, never a spoon because she has to use something that will let the air in, and goes after those eggs.  She sits there and cranks her arm around while the whites swirl.  After a little bit, bubbles start to form, and eventually what was once a bowl of syrupy mess is transformed into a small mountain range, able to stand proudly on its own.  For added flavor, Granny always folds in some sugar, just to give her dish an extra bit of sweetness.  The substance she created is something new, and it never resembles the egg whites that were in the bowl at the start.

I’m kind of like meringue.  My life didn’t start out the way it is now; I’ve been beaten into a different person over the years.  My daddy was a traveling cutlery salesman.  He drove into town one day when my mama was seventeen, a slip of a girl but beautiful, my granny has assured me many times.  His name was Richard Dudley, and when he arrived in Lawrenceburg, he came in the first Model-T this town had ever seen.  He drove around on the bumpy roads, showing his wares to all who would give him the time of day, but then he met my mama.  He came around to see her everyday for two weeks, and when those mere fourteen days were up, he waltzed into the kitchen to ask my granny for her daughter’s hand.  Granny refused, but the next morning, she woke up to find her only daughter was gone.  My mama left nothing but a note, blotched with tears and crawling with explanations that did nothing to ease the pain.
 
Five years later, Granny opened her front door to discover me, the granddaughter she knew nothing about, standing on her doorstep as a dusty Model-T drove out of sight.  I told her my mother had died from pneumonia, and my daddy had told me I was going to stay with my grandmother a little while.  Granny welcomed me with no hesitation, and my daddy never came back.  Since then, it’s just been the two of us, and I reckon we get along just fine. 

I blinked, realizing that while I was distracted, Granny had placed her meringue-topped pie into the oven.  I hurried to finish the potatoes, knowing Granny would be ready for them soon.  For the moment, she was occupied at the stove.  It takes a careful eye to brown the meringue’s white peaks, making sure that the end result is thick and foamy with a slight golden crust. 

Watching Granny fix these desserts always gets me excited.  She pulled out her pie, its tanned meringue tips gleaming in the kitchen light, and I snuck over to the table and stuck my finger in it, wanting to savor the cloud of fluff while it was still warm.  My favorite part was the beads of syrup glistening on the top like sticky dewdrops, enticing me to take a bite.

“Samantha Ann!  Don’t ruin the top of my pie,” Granny exclaimed, even though she knows I sample the meringue first every time.

I just grinned and dodged the swat that she tried to give my behind.

Life as a woman is a lot like that meringue.  I have the whole world in front of me, like a dish of pudding.  I just have to figure out how to eat it.  The expected approach is easy.  I can take a spoon and dollop out the creamy goodness; it is just as wonderful as I anticipated, like receiving one of Bobby McDaniel’s practiced grins.  But it isn’t deeply satisfying.  It doesn’t feel sincere because I didn’t go after it; I didn’t put my hand in it.  While I’ve sat here watching Granny whip her egg whites, I’ve realized I want to become an unconventional type of girl.  I want to stick fingers into the tops of pies, make wild analogies about egg whites and women, and go to school even when most girls around here could care less about book learning.  Tomorrow I’m going to ask Miss Carmichael what I need to do to prepare for college.  I’m going after this life like it’s a warm, gooey slice of caramel pie.

_____

Caitlin Roach is a senior double major in History and English with an emphasis in Creative Writing at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.  She is currently writing her first novel.  After graduation, she plans to pursue a master’s degree and continue writing fiction.

 

© Caitlin Roach

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012