For the record—except in the mind of the person who felt compelled to “cook” it up—The Nostradamus Cookbook does not exist. Not that it has anything to do with the events that follow, it surprises one to learn that Nostradamus actually did write a cookbook which contained his recipes for various jams (and cosmetics), which is called Traité des fardemens et confitures. Considering that he was a wandering apothecary, among many other things (they say necromancer and astrologer, too)—which in the early 16th-century was as good as being an alchemist, but without the notoriety or the threat of being immolated by the Inquisition for heresy—to concoct recipes for la confiture des guignes seems a rather timid use of talent for the man who accurately predicted the reigns of Napoleon and Hitler, both world wars, the atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One must note, parenthetically, that Nostradamus rarely predicts anything Ozzie and Harriet would wish to find in their Christmas stockings or would enjoy reading about in the Sunday newspaper. For example, the development of the polio vaccine and mankind’s first steps on the moon are exactly the sort of things that fly under his cosmic radar with regularity. For Nostradamus, happiness was clearly a pimple-free face and a teaspoon of his homemade jam on buttered toast; all else was noise and sturm und drang.
How Mildred Bathbaum ever came up
with the idea of The Nostradamus Cookbook is anybody’s guess, but the need for
such an essential reference book is easy to explain. In her late seventies, and
frail, Mildred feared icy sidewalks more than the fires of Hell. If the
weatherman predicted bad weather (there’s the iffy Nostradamus connection), bad
enough to keep her trapped in her walk-up apartment, unable to get groceries,
she would have to make do (and here’s where the Cookbook gets its foot in the
door) with whatever scraps of this and that she could find in her kitchen. To
complete the picture, there was Mildred’s ne’er-do-well, lazy, nudnik son,
“Ma, where’s dinner? I’m starving
in here,” his voice would waft out of the living room, where he was still
growing, at the age of 52, bathing himself in the blue, radioactive television
rays, like a potted plant from another galaxy. Add Maury and you have—or
certainly need—The Nostradamus Cookbook, and its principal Page One recipe—the
reason the book was conjured from wishful thinking to begin with—a recipe
entitled “How Do I Shut Him Up?” Behind that sentiment lurked a stronger, more
maternal instinct which was totally predictable. She just wanted Maury to be
happy. Who can blame a mother for that? Mildred Bathbaum, was an innocent,
loving mother. If she created a lazy, fat monster, it was an unintentional
artifact borne of a maternal love that had run amok.
“Ma, make me an egg cream. I could
really go for an egg cream,” his voice floated from inside the radioactive
television cloud, accompanied by the sound of The Honeymooners theme song and
the announcer intoning (with Maury moving his lips like a ventriloquist)
“…with the stars Art Carney, Audrey Meadows…and Joyce Randolph…” Then she
heard him say the same thing he said every weeknight at exactly ten seconds
past 11 p.m.: “Joyce Randolph? Some star! Oh brother! Boy oh boy! Ha ha ha ha
ha! I’m glad someone told me. I had no idea. Ma, I could really go for an egg
His words—“go for an egg
cream”—were, simultaneously, a figure of speech and a figment of his
imagination. Maury wasn’t going anywhere. Maury did not go to the egg cream.
Someone would have to bring the egg cream to Maury. Mohammed had more patience
waiting for his followers to bring him “the mountain” than Maury did waiting
for Mildred to bring him “an egg cream.” Admittedly, a mountain is much bigger
than a drinking glass—mountain-moving has some fearsome logistics to be dealt
with by the movers—but there are millions of Moslems to schlep for Mohammed,
and only one Mildred Bathbaum to cater for Maury.
An egg cream? How was that supposed
to happen? There was no seltzer, there was no chocolate syrup, there was no
milk—so, without the three essential ingredients on hand, there would be no egg
cream. Period. Maury had seen to that. Mildred had implored him over and over
again to make a trip to the grocery. “After my show,” he said. Too bad his
show—followed by four more mandatory shows—ended after midnight with the
Star-Spangled Banner and the buzzing blue dot in the middle of the TV screen,
when the grocer already had his iron gate down for two hours. Then the snow.
The snow. The snow. Then more snow. Quick, Millie, get the The Nostradamus
Cookbook off the dusty Maury-Wants-Something shelf in your brain. Maybe you can
make an egg cream out of wallpaper paste and left-over brisket gravy, and then
you can blow bubbles into it with a straw.
“Maury, we’re out of toilet paper.”
“It’s snowing, Ma.”
“Am I blind? I can see the snow.
It’s up to my bellybutton. We still have no toilet paper.”
“Use a paper towel,” he shouted
from the living room.
“We’re out,” she shouted from the
“We probably have coffee filters.
Take a look.”
“We’re out of those.”
“Okay, when my show is over, I’ll
dig up some hanger shrouds and shoebox tissues.”
“Why don’t you tear some pages out
of your diary—you know, the secret book you have where you record all the
marvelous things you do to help me. There should be at least one page, because
five years ago you took down the garbage.”
“After my show,” he shouted
explosively. “I’m watching here.” A metallic banging sound was heard. “What’s
that racket? I’m watching.”
“Mrs. Shrebnic is banging on the
radiator pipe with one of her pots because you’re screaming.”
“She can go to Hell and give my
regards down there to Mr. Shrebnic.”
“There’s too much snow for her to
go anywhere—even to go visiting in Hell she would need a snowmobile.”
“Shall I go downstairs and give her
a piece of my mind?”
“No, Maury. Go apologize, and maybe
she’ll make you an egg cream.”
“Quiet, quiet, Ma,” he said
urgently. “Shush! Shush! The good part is coming now. Joyce Randolph is going
to do her star turn. She’s going to put her hands on her hips and roll her
eyes. Oh, boy, her mother must be kvelling! I hope her husband is watching. God
forbid he should miss this. Ha ha ha ha ha!” He abruptly stopped laughing.
“What now? Again with the banging? If she bangs that pipe one more time, you
have my permission to go downstairs and tell that midget to go screw herself.”
Mildred sat down at the kitchen
table and put her hands on her forehead. I’m not going anywhere, she thought. I
have an egg cream to make, and it’s going to take the rest of my life to figure
out how the hell I am going to do it.
After ten minutes of contemplating
her options, Mildred came to the conclusion that she couldn’t just sit idly by
while the egg cream issue remained unresolved. This was a weather emergency,
the fulfillment of a predicted Nostradamic disaster, like the birth of Hitler,
requiring her to resort to an imaginary cookbook for a solution. Oh great, wise
Nostradamus, she thought, if you know so much about jam, show me how to get out
of the one I’m stuck in.
She put her coat on over her
housedress and wrapped a scarf around her neck. She pulled a knitted cap over
her rollers and slung the strap of her pocketbook over the crook of her elbow.
“Shrebnic, it’s Millie Bathbaum,”
she said, after surreptitiously tiptoeing down one flight of stairs and
knocking. Mrs. Shrebnic opened her door. She was four-and-a half-feet tall and
ninety years old. Maury called her the Incredible Shrinking Refugee and the
Polish Kosher Shrimp when he wasn’t calling her worse things.
“Nu?” the old lady said, looking up
at Mildred, her arms folded over her chest. “What’s up with you, Bathbaum?
Nothing is wrong, God forbid, that you should come out of nowhere to knock on a
door that my own daughter hasn’t walked through in six months.”
“Shrebnic, dear, I just came from
the lobby,” she lied. “It’s terrible outside. A person could get killed just
looking out the door.”
“Who’s going anywhere? Are you
crazy? What are you dressed up for? A broken hip?”
“I wish I was coming here to ask
you if you needed anything, but—I’m sorry to say—it’s me that needs something
for my Morris.”
“What’s wrong with that bumitshkeh
that he can’t do a little shopping for his mother? And the shouting? Is he
crazy or what?”
“I’m so sorry, Shrebnic. He has a
terrible cold and can’t go out in this weather. And his ears, so stuffed up! He
can’t hear, so he doesn’t know how loud he’s talking. You know what it’s like,
you’re a mother, too. He’s like a baby when he’s not well.”
“That’s some baby you’ve got on
your hands, Bathbaum. I would love to see the diaper you put on him. That must
really be a sight. A diaper like that probably has to be sent on a freighter to
China, to the birthplace of laundry, for a washing by experts.”
Mildred expected this. The salt
being poured on her wounds was part of Nostradamus’ recipe—it clearly said: Add
salt as needed. She bit her tongue and plunged ahead.
“So maybe you have some seltzer, or
some chocolate syrup…?”
“That sounds like it would be
excellent medicine for a cold and gebuttled ears! Just what the doctor ordered.
But, you’re out of luck. I don’t have a supply of soda fountain ingredients
here. As you can see, if you look over my shoulder, I live in an apartment, not
Schraffts. Would you like a tea bag and some lemon? or a couple of aspirin? or
something else that’s good for a cold in a normal person? You know, Mildred, I
would help you if I could. I’m not a rich woman—my Simcha, he should rest in
peace, left me gornisht—but I’m willing to make a contribution if you want to send
Morris on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.”
They both heard the sound of Maury
laughing at the television upstairs. “Ha ha ha ha ha! This is what I call a
star! How did Jackie Gleason ever find her? That’s what I want to know. He must
have looked far and wide for such a talent.”
“Heat the bottle—the baby’s up,”
Shrebnic said stoically.
“Ha ha ha ha ha!” Foot stamping
punctuated the distant laugh.
“Maybe you have an extra roll of
toilet paper for us?” Millie asked sheepishly.
Now it was time for Millie Bathbaum
to work her magic, to cast her spell as outlined in her imaginary
cookbook. She was going to transform
household items into something special for her Maury.
Behind the closed bathroom door,
she started preparing the egg cream. She laid out one bottle and two packages
along with a soda glass and a long ice-cream soda spoon. She was in the habit,
as a time-saving measure, of opening all the bottles and jars and packages of
her ingredients before she began to cook. It actually saved no time at all, but
it was an excuse to step back and smoke a cigarette, while contemplating the
components of the adventure that was about to begin. This time was no
Carefully following the instructions
given in the Nostradamus Cookbook, she filled the glass with cold water and
dropped in two Alka-Seltzer tablets. The water began to fizz immediately. Not
wanting the drink to go flat before she had a chance to serve it, she rushed
with the rest of the preparation. She quickly crushed two servings (oddly, the
packaging referred to them as doses, which didn’t agree with the language in
the cookbook) of chocolate-flavored ExLax with the back of a spoon and threw
the resulting brown mush into the fizzing water. Then, the last step: following
the instructions carefully, she added some Milk of Magnesia—little by little—to
the mixture and then, after that looked right to her eye, she stirred the
concoction vigorously with the spoon until it was nice and frothy—just the way
Maury liked his egg creams. Knowing Maury, he would drink the whole glass in a
single gulp, too fast to even taste it!
Thank God! she thought as she ran with it, still fizzing quite convincingly, to her son in the radioactive TV cloud, Yes, thank you, God, for the ever-reliable Nostradamus and—in case it might be needed—for Shrebnic’s extra roll of toilet paper.
Congratulations to Lawrence Jay Switzer and to all of our finalists!