A Recipe For Disaster

by Denise Tolan

Measure the following ingredients to form the crust:

    • 1 teaspoon full of stories from my father’s childhood
    • A dozen heaping cups of a single memory from when he was nine years old

Use the dozen cups to form the base for the crust.

Hint – the crust will look dry. It will probably taste dry as well.

Stir the beginning of this story until dissolved:

When my father was nine years old, his mother began taking him and his sister to a drug store in downtown Washington DC.

Drizzle this detail into the mixture: During the time of these drugstore visits, my father’s father was not living with the family.

Fold in a pinch of the following to enhance the taste of truth.

My grandfather was not living at home because he was:

in the Merchant Marines;

in prison;

baking cakes for a fancy store in Atlanta.


Hint – whichever version of the truth you decide to add, the story will taste the same.

Whisk the memory below together until it forms a hard shell:

My father says the drugstore visits began in the spring, right before his tenth birthday. At the drug store, my father and his sister, Penny, headed straight to the back of the store. They picked out one comic book each. Penny always got Prince Valiant or The Dandy or Moon Mullins. My father liked Dick Tracy or Famous Funnies or Popeye.

After his mother paid for the comic books, my father and Penny sat in a booth. His mother ordered two large root beer floats. She told them if they behaved and didn’t get up, they would get candy before going home.

Then she walked away.

My father wonders out loud why he never questioned the change in his mother. The sudden spending of money. The comic books. The root beer floats.

Stir in the bitter end of this story using the mixer instead of a spoon.

Hint Pray the mixer is strong enough to soften the aftertaste of anger.


After my father read his comic, he would read Penny’s to her. She was only four or five at the time.

My father remembers how one afternoon he must have had too much root beer and needed to pee. He told his sister to wait in the booth, reminded her about being good for the candy, and went in search of the bathroom.

When he turned the corner, he saw his mother kissing a man in the back booth. The man was wearing a hat.

His mother never knew he left the booth.

A few months later she was pregnant, and his brother Ed was born.

Ed was the tallest of all the children. My father shakes his head as if saying no to the idea before he even thinks it. But then he tells us, everyone in our neighborhood said he wasn’t my father’s child.

So, my father says, in the shortest summation ever; I learned two things from that time: You can’t trust a woman even when she brings her kids with her, and I was too easily bought with root beer and comics.


Pat the dough into a pan. Pat it hard.

To make the filling:

Crack open the Ed shell.

Ed was my grandmother’s middle child. I met my uncle twice. He was tall. The kind of tall that makes people look. He wore a crew cut and gray clothes like an FBI agent I’d seen on TV. The only color on his whole body came from his eyes. They were a vibrant green, like an ancient jungle people got lost in.

I watched him at my grandfather’s funeral. All around Uncle Ed were the weeping blue eyes of four short siblings.

Ed’s green eyes remained dry.

Hint: Do not separate the yolks from the whites

Beat the eggs. Hard.

On the afternoon after my grandfather’s burial, I overheard my mother and aunt Penny in the kitchen. They were whispering about Ed’s wife Martha.


Maybe she didn’t bring any other clothes, my mother said. Look at her wearing long sleeves in July.

She wears long sleeves all year, Penny said. It covers the bruises Ed gives her. I heard them in the bathroom over Easter. He was slapping her something fierce.

What did you do? my mother asked.

What could I do? Penny said. The door was closed.

Melt the following ingredients into the beaten egg mixture, then wait for it to froth.

    • When I ask who her favorite child is, my grandmother says I guess Ed. Ed was quiet.
    • Was my dad a good kid?
    • Ed took on Martha after she got herself pregnant, my grandmother says.
    • Wasn’t he the father?
    • Sure, my grandmother says. Her voice lowers. Who else would touch her?
    • You never said if my dad was a good kid.
    • Never mind that. Your father is a terrible adult, she said. After his tenth birthday, he just seemed to hate the world. And your mother’s told me a few things about him too. But to answer your question, he wasn’t as quiet as Ed. That’s for sure.
    • I can’t think of another thing to ask her.

Put the bowl of Ed away in a dark place. It will rise.

Hint – Keep Martha in the freezer until ready to work with her, then set her on the countertop.

Roll Martha into a log, then cut against the grain until Martha is ready to grill.

I met Martha when I was ten. She was doughy and greasy and smelled bad, like a shut-up house after fish has been cooked inside. I was glad she didn’t bother to hug any of us.

We were coming together because after years of separation, my father’s parents were moving to South Carolina and buying a house together. All of my father’s siblings were spending the fourth of July at Ed and Martha’s apartment to talk things over.

The apartment was small and hot. We sat outside in lawn chairs most of the time. When Martha came around with a tray of sandwiches, she simply held them out to us and waited until we picked one out. She never met our eyes.

Finely grate the details about Ed and Martha’s son. If you think it enhances the flavor of the filling, add it.


Martha and Ed had one child. A son named little Eddie. When the adults began to talk, they insisted Eddie take us to his room. Little Eddie opened his bedroom door and faced us proudly, as if he had amassed a fortune and couldn’t wait to show us. What he had amassed were dozens and dozens of gun magazines. They sat like sandbags on top of his dresser and lay like an extra blanket across his twin bed.  Posters of soldiers with guns perched on their shoulders were scotch taped to the walls.

When Little Eddie offered to show us a live grenade in his underwear drawer, we got out of there fast.

I was in college when my mother called to tell me little Eddie had been arrested for holding up a drive-through bank with a semi-automatic weapon.

A drive-through bank? I asked my mother. Didn’t he know the glass was bullet proof?

I guess not, my mother said. And it’s a federal crime because of the weapon. He’s going to prison for a long time.

I hung up and hoped my dad was right about his mother and the man in the hat. These were not my full-blooded family members. Just half blood. The bad half.

Hint – if the little Eddie ingredient is too thick, add water.

Add the filling to the crust.

Hint: Put the pan into the oven long enough to get your wits together for the rest of the recipe.

The Topping:

Cream together the following ingredients:

      • The time your father told you your Uncle Ed was going to prison for mail fraud
      • How he sounded when he answered, yes; it was bad
      • The memory of your mother calling to tell you Ed shot himself
      • The thought of Ed standing on his own back porch in front of the sliding glass door with a gun in his hand
      • How you imagined the shot to Ed’s head sounded. Hard, then wet, like a watermelon falling
      • The image of Ed’s clueless wife and mother watching TV on the other side of the glass
      • Your certainty, based on nothing, of Ed’s intention for the bullet to go through the glass; to reach one of them
      • The realization that to Ed, it probably didn’t matter which of the women the bullet hit.

Drop in bit by bit the following flavors:

    • The moment your father was told he was dying
    • The first thing he said after the doctor left the room: I guess I have to sell the house
    • How we all looked at each other and said, Mom is still here. She will need the house
    • His shrug, like he forgot. Or didn’t care. Or thought she might go with him. His shrug, careless, like a bullet
    • The recognition that your father and Ed were blood
    • Understanding, finally, how impossible it is to measure blood by fulls and halves

Hint: Set that bowl aside. You will want it to cool.

Sift together the following dry ingredients:


      • Before Ed died, he wrote over two hundred letters to Martha
      • He addressed each letter by hand
      • He licked a stamp and put it on each envelope
      • Ed paid a colleague at the post office to mail the letters to Martha. One every third day
      • The letters were hateful
      • Ed used the word ‘cunt’ in almost every letter
      • My mother didn’t know the word ‘cunt.’ When she repeated the content of the letters to me, I had to explain. Why? My mother asked. Why is there such an ugly word?
      • My grandmother came to live with my parents after Ed shot himself. At some point in her life, she’d had a stroke. Her mouth was twisted on one side like someone who put on lipstick in the dark
      • I was raiding my mother’s pantry one afternoon for Cokes to take back to my house, when I heard my grandmother telling my mother how she’d hated living in the house where her son shot himself. I hate that Martha is still alive, Nana said. I’m surprised he didn’t kill her first.

My mother took in a breath, like she had just taken a bullet. ‘Nana,’ she said. ‘Martha didn’t deserve to be killed. She didn’t do anything.’

Valli, my grandmother said. Ed was going to spend most of the rest of his life in prison. He had a reason to die. Martha has a son in prison and now a husband who’s dead. Why does she even want to be alive?

My mother called my name like she had fallen into a well. I came into the kitchen. ‘I’m taking these Cokes,’ I said to my mom. Her eyes were wet. She nodded. ‘Take some Sprite too.’


Dump all of this over the dry crust. Let it sit. You decide how long.

Sprinkle the filling with the following innuendos, surmises, rumors, bits of gossip, false memories, and, perhaps, truths:

+    Nana and my grandfather had four or five children, each five years apart

+    Of those five children, one would die in prison, one would shoot himself before prison, and two would spend time in and out of various jails for assault and/or abuse

+    Those five children had ten children

+    Of those ten children, five spent time in prison. Four are still incarcerated. One is dead. One is a police officer. The other four play at normal.

=          One of them is me

+    Martha was fat and ugly

+    Martha was not worthy of love

+    Martha got what she deserved

+    Martha stole the family home from the other brothers and sister

=          I don’t even know where Martha was born

+    Martha ruined little Eddie

+    Martha overprotected little Eddie

+    Martha didn’t protect little Eddie at all

+    Ed was abusive

+    Ed was cruel

+    Ed berated little Eddie for being small

+    Martha was fat and ugly

+    Ed was tall and thin

=          Therefore, it was Martha’s fault that little Eddie was a criminal

      +    Little Eddie was an idiot to rob a drive-through bank

      +    Little Eddie was a victim of his upbringing

=          Little Eddie will come out of prison angry/changed/happy to find that gun magazines are now easily available online

      +    Ed committed postal fraud/to appease Martha/so he could leave

      Martha/because he was scum

+    Martha was already dating another man before Ed died

?    Who would date Martha seeing as she was so fat and ugly

=          Men thought Martha had money from Ed’s insurance and/or from the possible sale of the house

+          Martha read every letter Ed sent her

+          Martha burned every letter Ed sent her

+          Martha saved every letter Ed sent her

                        =            Martha could do nothing right

Put this mess in an airtight container.

Hint – do not serve with anything. Ever.

Denise Tolan’s work has been included in places such as The Penn Review, Atlas and Alice, Blue Mountain Review, Lunch Ticket, and The Best Small Fictions. Denise was a finalist for Best of the Net 2022. She has a memoir, Italian Blood, out in October 2023.