Dear Captain Jack:
How are you and the family? Thanks for your Christmas card. We’re fine here, too.
I can’t believe you want my spinach pie recipe. You’re an awesome cook. I can’t wait until you open Jack’s Shack. I’ll bring down the signed pictures of the G-Force team the next time I’m in town. Which reminds me, can you call my dish The Owl? You know he’s my favorite!
I had to dig around in my desk to find this recipe. I haven’t had time to cook anything since the war started. You won’t believe what I found with it: my first cooking award! I had forgotten all about it. It was way before the war started, back when everyone thought the Chief was either brilliant or crazy for saying that aliens were coming. Sometimes, I wish the Chief had been wrong. I wonder what life would be like today if things had stayed just the way they were …
“All right, I’ve had it! Who threw that?” the Chief said as he stormed into the kitchen. The nose of the paper airplane was still imbedded in his hair. Princess, Keyop, and I giggled. Jason crossed his arms, looked at Mark, and grinned. Mark looked at the floor.
“Mark Christopher Anderson!” the Chief thundered. “How many times have I told you …”
Abruptly, the Chief’s voice trailed off and he stopped dead in his tracks. A vacant, haunted look crossed his face. “This can’t be happening. Not again. Not today!”
We just stared at the Chief. When he didn’t respond, we followed his gaze out the window. It was snowing. Again. The wind was whipping flakes against the glass panes so hard and fast that I couldn’t see the apartment building across the street. I wasn’t sure if the howling noise came from the wind or the Chief.
“First the tutors, then the maid,” he lamented. “Now what?”
As if on cue, the telephone rang. “Anderson,” the Chief answered.
We could tell from his face that things weren’t going well. The Chief’s eyes got all scrunched up like they do when he’s really, really mad but doesn’t want anyone to know.
“I see,” the Chief said, in that artificially calm voice that said he didn’t see at all. “No, no, of course. I understand. I’ll see you on Monday.”
The Chief hung up the phone and gave us The Look. “That was the cook. He can’t make it in because of the weather.”
Jason shrugged. No one else looked worried. But I couldn’t help myself.
“What will we eat, Chief?” I asked. I could hear the giggles from my teammates, but I didn’t care.
The Chief walked with deliberate care to the refrigerator and pulled five plastic bags out of the crisper. He tossed one to each of us.
“Here’s your assignment for the remainder of today. Make good use of this. Consider it dinner and a field training exercise combined. I’ll grade you on creativity and the best use of your supplies. You can call me when dinner’s ready. Good luck.”
We gaped at him, but the Chief was done with his instructions. He strode purposefully toward his study, briefly stopping to gesture at each of us, making sure that we looked him in the eyes. “I am going back to work. You will not disturb me.” Under his breath, he added, “That 7-Zark-7 unit has proven to be more trouble than it’s worth. I need to get that thing fixed before anything else goes wrong.”
“Like the invasion, Chief?” Mark asked. I swear, he was like a trained dog back then.
The Chief looked surprised, as if Mark had read his mind. “Yes, Mark,” the Chief answered, more thoughtfully. “Our intelligence indicates that there are several planets outside of our galaxy with hostile intent toward Earth. We need to be prepared.”
“Yes, sir,” said Mark, straightening his back and saluting. “We’ll get to work.”
“You do that, Mark,” the Chief said, sighing deeply as he walked back into his study. “You do that.” Then he slammed the door.
The five of us sat around the kitchen table and stared at five unopened bags of spinach.
“Well, what do you think?” Mark said, turning a bag over in his hands.
“I think the Chief’s cracking up,” Jason answered. He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the table, and threaded his hands behind his head.
“Now, Jason,” Princess countered, shoving his shoes off of the table, “we’ve been snowbound here for five days. And it’s not like you’ve helped any.”
Keyop giggled. “Blue food coloring … bree-boop … bubbles … zucchini.”
Jason sat up abruptly and elbowed Keyop in the ribs. “Shut up.”
I could still see the blue stains under Jason’s fingernails. I tried hard not to smile. To cover my amusement, I changed the subject.
“I think we should have a cooking contest,” I announced.
“That’s a great idea,” Mark said. I smiled. I couldn’t help it. Mark never likes my ideas.
Jason snorted. “What, like Iron Chef, Tiny? Count me out.” He picked up a bag of spinach and threw it at me. “This is stupid. It’s salad. When you want to eat it, let me know. I’ll wash it off and stick it in a bowl.” Jason stomped out of the room.
Mark looked around the table at the rest of us. “Are you in?” he asked Keyop and Princess.
“Brrup … sure,” said Keyop.
“Of course,” said Princess. “I love to cook. I want to have my own restaurant one day.” She got that dreamy look in her eyes. I kicked Keyop hard under the table so he wouldn’t laugh.
“Then it’s settled. Two hours and may the best dish win,” Mark said.
I jumped up from the table and ran for the eggs. Three of us scrambled around the kitchen, grabbing cookbooks and raw ingredients, elbowing each other out of the way.
“I need the milk!” Princess said. She was holding a recipe for what looked like spinach slop in one hand and reaching into the refrigerator with the other.
“Yuck,” said Keyop. “You can … erp … boop … have it.” He wiggled under Princess’s arm and took a bunch of carrots from the crisper.
I grabbed a hunk of cheddar cheese from the top shelf of the fridge and headed over to the cabinets, taking dry goods like baking mix and salt from the shelves. Keyop snatched up the pepper before I could reach it.
But Mark still hadn’t moved from the table. He appeared to be intently scanning the index of a cookbook. “What’cha makin’ Mark?” I stopped to ask.
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said with a frown. “It needs to be something great to impress the Chief.” He shut the cookbook and added it to the stack in front of him, looking puzzled.
“One hour and fifty minutes to go,” I intoned, using my very best Iron Chef voice.
Mark frowned at me and opened another book of recipes.
Two hours later, the kitchen was a happy mess: grated cheese on the floor, milk rings on the counter, the smell of newly-cut onions wafting through the air. Stems, leaves, and skins clogged the drain of the sink. There was also the unpleasant, acrid odor of something burnt. Mark was cracking open the window when the Chief opened the door of the study and peered in to the kitchen.
The older man was actually smiling as he entered the room. “What have we here?” He inspected the four dishes lining the counter. “Did you each make a different dish?”
“Don’t forget mine,” called Jason. I looked over and saw him tossing dried cranberries and raisins on his freshly rinsed spinach leaves. I noticed that he had thrown some balsamic vinegar and olive oil on top. Jason handed a forkful to the Chief.
I expected the Chief to protest. After all, it was just a salad. But, instead, the Chief took a polite bite and laughed. “Nice job, Jason. Salad is a very practical dish. And it tastes good too.”
“Thanks,” Jason said. He crossed his arms and smirked at the rest of us. “And I got to spend the afternoon reading about cars instead of spinach, unlike the rest of you.”
“Breep … boop. Try mine, Chief.” Keyop proffered a lumpy green spoonful at the Chief, who, in my opinion, obliged too willingly. I guess he was still hungry. I tried not to giggle when the Chief gasped and rushed to the sink for a glass of water.
“What’s in this, Keyop?” the Chief asked politely, dabbing at his eyes. “It’s very … um … interesting.” He swallowed half a glass of water in one gulp.
“Pepper,” Keyop answered. “Red and green and … broot … black. I made up the recipe … eerup … myself.”
I’ve got to hand it to the Chief, he held his composure. “Very creative, son,” he answered, patting Keyop on the back. The Chief took another drink of water before asking, “Princess, let me try yours.”
This time, the Chief took a very small spoonful and held his glass of water at the ready. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked like he gagged as the glop went down. The Chief tried to cover up his reaction with another long swallow of water. Fortunately, Princess didn’t notice.
“It’s creamed spinach, Chief. Isn’t it marvelous?” She was beaming.
The Chief nodded, lips pressed firmly together. “It’s fine,” he managed to say. Turning quickly, he added, “How about your dish, Mark?”
Mark looked at the floor for a second time that afternoon. “I’m sorry, Chief. This just isn’t my day.” He held up a scorched plate covered with the charred remnants of something leafy. “You don’t have to eat this.”
The Chief looked curiously at the dish. “What happened?”
“Well, I was running out of time. I finally found a recipe I liked, but it wasn’t cooking fast enough. So, I put the baking dish directly on the gas burner. I guess it wasn’t flame resistant.”
“I see. That would explain the large crack in the bowl.” The Chief looked at Mark more calmly than I would have expected, considering that Mark had admitted to breaking his ceramic cookware. That stuff’s not cheap.
“Did you learn anything?” the Chief asked.
Mark raised his eyes and grinned weakly. “That I’m a lousy chef?”
The Chief smiled. “Fair enough. Next time, don’t take so long to make your decision. And if you need help, ask one of your teammates. All right?”
“Okay,” Mark said. “I will.” He still looked miserable, though, and the Chief tousled Mark’s hair before turning to me. “Tiny, where’s yours?”
I thrust a cheese-covered plate under his nose. “I made spinach pie,” I said proudly. “I took a recipe for broccoli pie and changed it to add the spinach. I hope you like it.” I cut a slice, plated it neatly, and handed him a fork.
The Chief took a tentative bite. His eyes widened. “It’s good, Tiny. In fact, it’s wonderful!” He quickly took another forkful.
Everyone looked at me. I felt like sticking my tongue out at them and saying: Ha, Ha, I told you I could cook.
“Tiny wins the contest!” announced the Chief. “Jason, you came in second. Princess and Keyop, set the table. Jason’s salad and Tiny’s pie for everyone.” And then, for the first time ever, the Chief hugged me.
I know it sounds silly, Captain Jack, but winning that contest made me feel like I belonged. The Chief looked at me differently after that. That’s when he agreed to let me take some cooking classes back home on week-ends. I’m glad he did, or you and I wouldn’t have become such good friends.
Thanks for saying you’ll hold a place for me at the restaurant. If this war ever lets up, I’d be proud to be your sous chef.
Tiny’s Impossible Spinach Pie (adapted from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook)
3 cups (24 oz) fresh spinach (torn, loosely packed)
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 small onion, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
1 ½ cups milk
¾ cup buttermilk baking mix (like Bisquick)
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease pie plate. Rinse spinach & drain thoroughly. Mix spinach, 2 cups of cheese, and chopped onion in the pie plate. In a separate bowl, beat eggs, milk, baking mix, salt, and pepper until smooth. Pour onto pie plate. Stir slightly so egg mixture covers most of the spinach. Bake until knife inserted into center comes out clean (about 30 minutes). Spread last cup of cheese on top and bake another 5 minutes to melt the cheese. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. (Optional: Add one cup of chopped ham to the dish. Use slightly less spinach and eliminate the salt.)