When I was fourteen, I announced to my parents that I wanted to be a pastry chef. My dad took me to lunch and grilled me about my choices. Why a pastry chef? I had previously only wanted to be a first grade teacher, so it was a rather drastic shift from teaching kids to peddling baked goods in a busy kitchen.
I was, at the time, enrolled in home economics, and I loved it. My teacher, a wonderful, kind lady named Mrs. Wiggins, saw that I loved cooking and encouraged me in it. That was when I was taking a level one class, and I was a freshman in high school, terribly awkward, quiet, and shy. She taught me about measuring, about cuts of meat and ways to make bread. After class each day, I would run upstairs to meet my sister and her best friend, and I would bring them muffins and cookies, whatever I had cooked that morning in class.
Two years later, I enrolled in the level two class. It was the fall after my younger brother died in a car crash that we were both in. On my first day back at school, I sat in her classroom, silent and glaring at everyone around me. I didn’t want to be back at school. I didn’t want to talk about my brother, or what happened. I didn’t want sympathy or kindness. I had hardened myself against it, and I shoved my hands into the pockets of my sweatshirt and willed people to ignore me.
Mrs. Wiggins rushed into the classroom, snatched me up by the arm, and pulled me into the hallway. She told me she had just heard what happened and that she was so sorry. She pulled me to her, then pushed me away and held me at arms length. “If you ever need anything – a break from class, a shoulder to cry on, you just come on down to my class. I won’t turn you away.”
I nodded, wishing for the moment to be over. I had told myself I wouldn’t need any favors like that. I’d handle myself at school, I wouldn’t let anyone see me cry, and that would make it better.
Three days later, one of my brother’s friends left a gift for me in my homeroom class. On my desk, she left a letter to me in which she spoke at length about her friendship with my brother and how much she missed him and how much she knew I was hurting. With the letters, there was a Canadian flag (an inside joke betweeen them that she explained in the letter). I asked one of my friends to make sure no one stole the items from my desk, and I left the room. I ran down the hall in one of those dramatic “My So-Called Life” moments, straight to the bathroom, and tried to ignore the comments people made as I passed by. “Aww,” someone said. “Because of her brother,” someone else replied. I was sixteen, and my classmates and I were at an age where disaster and pain and loss had not yet become tangible. I felt like some kind of freak for having lost someone at such a young age, for getting a glimpse into something so much bigger than any of us.
I collapsed in a bathroom stall and cried like I hadn’t in months. Friends of mine came and sat outside the stall, holding my hand under the door, and even after the bell rang to signal that we should return to home room, I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t go back out there and see people again. I waited until home room was over. I discretely checked in with my teacher, gathered my things and went to first period: home ec.
Mrs. Wiggins took one look at my swollen eyes and told me to put my stuff down and do whatever I wanted. Go to the counselor’s office, go to the library, whatever. I took a hall pass and walked. I paced the sidewalk in the back of the school, walked down to the library and inched my way along the aisles, trailing my hands over the spines of books. When I came back to class, Mrs. Wiggins gave me an apron and a recipe and sent me to the kitchen.
For the rest of the semester, that was how she took care of me. Each morning, she told me to get an apron, she gave me a recipe, and she separated me from the rest of the class. In the beginning, I think it was because she knew I didn’t want to be around people. When I made friends in the class with a girl who was a bad influence – rougher kids often took home ec, surprisingly enough – she separated us, sending me to the kitchen and parking the other girl in front of a sewing machine where she could watch her. Mrs. Wiggins was asked to make cakes for faculty meetings and events at the school, and when she recieved those assignments, she passed them along to me. That big kitchen area in the back of her classroom became my domain.
Mrs. Wiggins was, I think, experienced with dealing with rough kids, the ones with discipline problems, and drug problems, who stole things and got into fights and talked back to teachers. The ones who likely wouldn’t go to college – the ones who were lucky to graduate from high school. The next year, when one of my friends from yearbook staff came with me to take candid photos of the home ec class at work, she took one look around the classroom and asked me, “Dana, you actually took this class? Why?”
I wasn’t in trouble the way the other kids were; I didn’t present any sort of discipline issue. I was really quiet and respectful – I was too religious not to be. But I was a rough kid that year after my brother died. I slept through classes – I had never been so tired in my life – and teachers felt sorry for me, so they looked the other way when I slept as they lectured. I fell away from a lot of my friends, my grades dropped, and I didn’t really care. I was sad and broken in a way that I couldn’t handle or explain, and in that way, I was very similar to those other home ec kids. Mrs. Wiggins could spot that brokenness in her students. She saw it in me. She saw that no amount of talking was going to help me. So she gave me something to do, something she knew I enjoyed. She gave me free reign over the kitchen, a quiet space to begin making sense of my grief.
Mrs. Wiggins has been on my mind this week because I’m now a teacher and school is starting back in a little over a week. But also because this weekend, I cooked a pie from one of my first cookbooks I ever bought. I went to Savannah, Georgia, with my family the first year I took home ec. The cookbook, Forrest Gump: My Favorite Chcoolate Recipes, is one of my many Forrest Gump-themed items available in Savannah, and I bought it because I could imagine no better job in the world than to be able to play with chocolate all day.
A lot of what I write these days is about cooking and food. I talk a lot about how my culinary education began in my dad’s kitchen. Another aspect of that education took place because of Mrs. Wiggins. I not only learned cooking skills, but I also learned how to grieve, how to see the hand someone is holding out to help you, and how to take that help. She was a great teacher to me, and when I cooked chocolate pie this weekend, I remembered Mrs. Wiggins fondly as the woman who taught rough kids how to cook.
Bayou La Batre Meringue Pie
1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa
2 cups milk
4 large eggs, separated
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted and cooled
1 baked 9-inch pastry shell
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Combine 1 1/4 cups sugar, flour, and cocoa in a heavy saucepan. Combine milk, egg yolks, and melted butter; beat, using a wire whisk, until misture is well blended. Gradually add milk mixture to sugar mixture, stirring until smooth.
Cook chocolate mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened and bubbly (about 10 minutes). [I usually open a bottle of beer when I started cooking the chocolate mixture. The filling cooks in about the amount of time it takes me to drink a beer.] Spoon chocolate mixture into pastry shell; set aside.
Beat egg whites and cream of tartar at high speec with an electric mixer until foamy. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff peaks form and sugar dissolves (4-6 minutes). Spread meringue mixture over chocolate filling, sealing to edge of pastry. Bake at 325 for 25 minutes or until golden.