I was just a little girl when the craze for pressure cookers hit our little town. Joan, who lived next door with her husband, had just bought a new one and was all excited about it. That excitement was contagious, and my mother couldn’t wait to get her hands on one. These were very appealing to Southern women – here was a way to get dinner done quickly on those sultry summer days when the humidity was running around 80 percent. Even my grandmother was beginning to warm to the idea. And that was saying something – she measured everything with a teacup and a teaspoon and owned four pans, a paring knife, and a butcher knife that Grandfather sharpened on the concrete back steps. Any more than that she considered wretched excess.
Only my father couldn’t warm to the idea. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know about that. Those things might be dangerous – ”
Mother was puzzled. She knew he loved every new gadget and gizmo that came on the market. She often ran all over town after Christmas, returning his gifts of the very latest household doodads and thingamajigs. His disapproval of pressure cookers was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
It wasn’t long before Grandfather brought home a heavy, gleaming metal contraption with a strange lid and an oversized button that teetered on the top. My mother and grandmother bent over the instructions and read them excitedly. There were exclamations of “Why, we could – ” and “If you added a little green pepper….”
Grandfather just left them to it. He knew he might have started something by buying Grandmother one of these things, but he just couldn’t bring himself to deny her anything that might make her life easier.
Father came home for supper and spotted it proudly displayed on the top of the stove.
“Where are the instructions to that thing?” he asked.
Mother gave him an ominous look, but handed over the little booklet. He nibbled on a cold chicken leg and squinted at the directions, his eyebrows drawing closer and closer together. I began to get the idea that he had finally met a new gizmo he didn’t like.
“Do you know how many pounds per square inch of pressure this thing builds up?” he asked.
Mother gave him a withering look. “Not really.”
“It doesn’t tell here.” He flipped through the book, looking more and more worried. “You’d think they would tell people a thing like that.”
“Pounds per square inch of what?” asked my grandmother, beginning to get alarmed.
Father launched into a long scientific explanation that went completely over Grandmother’s head. By the time he finished she was beginning to look at that thing sideways.
“I’ve never heard of anyone having a problem with them,” Mother pointed out. “Have you?”
“No,” he admitted, thereby ending the discussion as far as Mother was concerned. He still looked worried.
Saturday came, and the new contraption was weighing on our minds. It was agreed that the pressure cooker would be inaugurated on Sunday. There was anticipation in the air, and I secretly hoped we would have company. In my mind they would spot the new cooker, exclaim rapturously how fortunate we were, and forever after number us among the town big shots.
I’ll never forget that Saturday. It was hot, and we had the door open. The dog was going in and out of the screen door. The sound of Joan singing as she prepared dinner drifted through our open windows. I was drawing on the kitchen table, Grandfather was painting the garden bench he had just built, Father had brought home an old television to repair, and Mother and Grandmother were in the kitchen debating whether or not it was too hot to do the ironing.
And then it happened.
First there was a bang. Then a shriek. After that came a loud thud, then a thonk.
“Lawsa-mercy!” My grandmother looked up, startled. “What was that?”
Grandfather started running toward Joan’s house, hollering, “Are you okay?”
Joan met him at the gate, already running for the safety of our house. At first I thought she was covered in mud as she staggered in the back door.
We sat her down at the kitchen table, and I was sent to gather up rags and bandages and iodine just in case.
“I’ll go see what happened, ” Father said, hurrying off once he was convinced she was unharmed.
“It just flew off,” she explained in a daze. “Dangdest thing I ever did see.”
“What?” we all asked at once.
“It was just awful.”
She began to explain. “First that little thing blew off, and then the whole lid – it was like you had shot it out of a cannon. I hope there’s not a dent in the ceiling,” she added woefully.
“You mean it was the pressure cooker?” Mother asked, incredulous.
“Maybe I misread the instructions….” She sniffed, dabbing at the concoction of what seemed to be burned mud that covered her apron.
My father ran back inside, slamming the screen door behind him. “What a mess! I’ll go get a bucket and some rags. Jesse, where did I put that scraper?”
“What is it?” Grandfather asked, unable to get his mind around this new catastrophe.
“It’s awful,” my dad began, “It’s –”
Joan finished the sentence for him: “Wall-to-wall black-eyed peas!”
I have since learned that on their highest setting, pressure cookers build up to about 15 pounds per square inch. This means every bit as much to me now as it did then – which is to say, nothing. But it meant something to my father, and he continued to have great respect for pressure cookers throughout his days. Mother, on the other hand, got over her initial shock and took to the things like a duck to water. My grandmother remained respectful, and usually found something interesting to do outside the kitchen the moment she saw the pressure cooker appear. I myself, being a sensible woman, tried to figure out the number of square inches in the average pressure cooker. Then I applied every mathematical formula I knew. But I went down in defeat, and today the old pressure cooker rests in the shed, a treasure from the good old days – when you never knew what would happen on a Saturday morning.
Oh – and the dog came home the next day.
Text © 2015 by Jill Teresa Farmer