It was another gloomy winter afternoon in our working-class English village. Ever since we’d been stationed at JAC Molesworth in the flat Cambridgeshire countryside known as “The Fens,” I’d found myself counting the minutes until my husband, Francis, got home from work.
At that latitude, the sun set around four o’clock, leaving me with nothing to do but pop in a Barney video for our toddler — it was the '90s after all — and contemplate dinner.
I wandered nonchalantly to the pantry expecting to see the usual line up of canned vegetables, dried noodles and jarred pickles. But there it was, staring at me from between the peanut butter and salsa with smug indignation. It had belonged to the woman who had come before me. She had bought it, presumably, for a cozy dinner with the man who was now my husband.
It was her box of Shake ‘n Bake.
Michelle was Francis’ old girlfriend. Her Shake ’n Bake had, along with her gawd-awful dining room chairs and etched wine glasses, mingled with our joint marital property. After we married, I moved in with Francis, and then we moved together three more times. Somehow, the Shake ’n Bake had survived.
At first, I had thought the crumb mixture was Francis’. But then I’d remembered that when I met him, his diet consisted of baloney sandwiches, cereal and take out. The Shake ’n Bake must’ve been Michelle’s.
I had put up with the chairs and glasses out of necessity — we needed all the hand-me-downs we could get back in those early days — but I didn’t need this lousy box of Shake ’n Bake.
I didn’t use tawdry cooking shortcuts. It was cheap, just like Michelle with her frizzy red hair, overdone make-up and Boy George hats. I wanted rid of this relic of Francis’ past life, once and for all. The vacuum sealed pouch of pork chop coating may not have expired, but I had sentenced it to death. I grabbed the offending box from the shelf and headed for the rubbish bin.
But wait, I thought. Why not use this as a teaching moment?
The mixture seemed surprisingly fresh for being four years old. I followed the package instructions, throwing meat into the bag with the pouch ingredients, and laying the coated pieces out on a cookie sheet.
When Francis arrived home, our “Michelle Memorial Dinner” was ready.
While Francis changed out of his uniform, I eagerly anticipated his reaction to the meal. I envisioned the disappointment that would most certainly appear on his face as he bit into the cheapened chop. I would ask innocently, “Do you like it, Honey? I made it with that old box of crumb coating. Wasn’t it … oh, what’s her name again… Michelle’s Shake ’n Bake?”
Surely he would spit the bite into his napkin and declare the meal a culinary embarrassment. He would confess that I was a much better cook than Michelle. That I was the love of his life and Michelle was a mistake.
“Smells good,” Francis said as I doled pork, green beans and potatoes onto his plate. He carved a particularly large bite of pork, plunged it into his potatoes and opened wide.
I watched intently for a grimace, a groan, a gag.
“Mmm,” Francis mumbled, shoveling forkfuls into his mouth. I waited patiently for my opportunity to blame Michelle for his inevitable disgust.
“This is delicious, hon,” Francis said, spearing a second chop. I nibbled a bite myself, and had to concede that he was right. The Shake ’n Bake wasn’t half bad after all.
I realized that I was the only culinary embarrassment in our kitchen that night. My insecurities had driven me to kill an innocent box of bread crumbs in effigy. The Shake ’n Bake hadn’t been a threat to my marriage any more than Michelle had been.
I was being silly.
I confessed my “Michelle Memorial Dinner” plot, and we both laughed hard at my ridiculousness. I raised a glass to Michelle, giving credit where credit is due, and promised to make her signature recipe again.
After all, it wasn’t a mistake, it was just Shake ’n Bake.