Monday, December 19, 2011

The Christmas Mouse

        Finally, I understand the profound and intense underlying themes of  the children's book "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie,"  a simple saga written by Laura Numeroff which describes what happens when one little mouse takes control of an otherwise normal houseshold.  In the book, a complicated chain of events is set into motion when a little boy gives a mouse a cookie, which leads to his wanting a glass of milk, which leads to an on-going series of never-ending projects, which builds and builds until finally, the exhausted boy falls asleep while the mouse gets another cookie.
     But first, let me explain how I came to this complete comprehension of a deceptively simple children's tale, a complicated lesson learned not from my last five semesters of college experience, but rather, from an innocuous little Christmas mouse.
      Upon arriving back in Richmond for the holidays, one of my first undertakings was to dive into the marathon schedule of Christmas cooking, a massive on-going project that involved the production of fruit cakes, date balls, cheese straws, cookies, and of course, sausage balls.  Pounds of sausage balls. Mountains of sausage balls. In fact, I pitied the poor pigs who had to lay down their porky lives just so our family could consume obscene quantities of sausage balls, but the sacrifice had been made and it was our duty to make sure their ground up hindquarters and rumps and roasts were lovingly used during this holy season. So on this first morning home, I was on a mission to make sausage balls, that seasonal morsel, the harbinger of Christmas, the family favorite.
     I assembled the Bisquick, the extra-sharp cheddar cheese and the spicy hot sausage in a row on the countertop, then proceeded to shred, chop, and measure.  First, I mixed the cheese and sausage into an even blend of soft pink and gold, then added four cups of Bisquick, squished and squashed the powder evenly into the meat and cheese, and finally began the tedious process of rolling out trays and trays of  marble-sized balls.  As I rolled the first batch of mixture in my hands, I noticed an unusual spice appearing in the blend, a small, black pellet, approximately the size of a grain of rice,  a spice that was not familiar in my repetoire of Jimmy Dean or Bisquick ingredients.  I plucked several grains from the bowl and examined them closely, rolling them on my fingertips as I tried to identify their origins.            
     "Anise? " I wondered. "Too squishy," I decided. 
     "Too soft for peppercorns or celery seed,"  I muttered to myself as I continued to examine the pellets, wondering what this curious seasoning could be.
      I rummaged for the sausage wrapper in the trash and read the list of spices on the back, searching for a clue to the identity of this new seasoning. Not seeing anything unusual on that label, I grabbed the box of Bisquick, read the list  of ingredients on the side,  then lifted the clear cellophane wrapper from the box and peered at the contents. Scattered throughout the powdery white mix of flour and baking powder were the identical rice-sized grains of the mysterious spice.  As realization started to spread through my brain, I ran to the pantry, shifted cans and boxes, and to my horror, discovered the same pellets sprinkled all throughout the shelves, across the tops of cans, behind the canisters and the jars of jelly, under the boxes of cereal and the bags of pasta.  I had seen these pellets before. I knew these pellets. I understood these pellets. MOUSE!
       I glared at the three dogs sitting in the middle of the kitchen, tails happily thumping on the floor as they eyed the tray of sausage balls.
      "Some help you are," I grumbled. "I'm trading you all in for a decent cat."
      I immediately tossed the entire batch of sausage balls into the trash and scrubbed my hands until they were fiery red. I donned latex gloves and furiously fumigated the pots and pans, then began the process of removing every single item from the pantry. I dispatched Chris to the hardware store for traps and poisons and anything else that could conquer a mouse invasion. I sent him to the grocery for fresh boxes of Bisquick, sausage and cheese.  I scrubbed shelves and floor and walls with disinfectant. I washed and cleaned until every trace of mouse had been removed and the pantry smelled like the interior of an operating room, pungent with antibacterial and bleach. 
     Perusing the piles of cans and bags, I tossed anything that appeared to have been nibbled on or tasted or touched by a rodent. I washed the top of every single can and checked every box and bag. I decided that while I was cleaning, it was also a good time to check the expiration labels on all the items, so I did that and made a trash pile of expired goods.
    In the meantime, Chris returned from the store, laden with bags of rodent revenge and groceries, looked at the mess I had made, and commented that it would be a good idea to make a bag for the food pantry while we were at it. So, I added another pile of washed and unexpired staples to drop off for the homeless, then unloaded the bags from the store.
      As I stood there eyeing the piles of cans, I  decided that instead of returning everything to the freshly washed shelves, it would be a good time to use up a lot of the food by making a pot of soup. So, I  picked out cans of corn and tomatoes and beans and hauled them to the counter by the stove.
     "Chris, can you get me a package of ground beef from the freezer? I'm going to make soup with some of these canned vegetables."
      He opened the door to the freezer, handed me the meat, looked at the crowded shelves, and said,
       "I'm going to clean out the freezer."
       "Add this to the soup, and this, and this," he commented as he tossed out frozen goods and removed shelves.
       Well, you can't have soup without cornbread, so I grabbed a canister of cornmeal and whipped up a batch to serve with the simmering soup.  And if you have soup, you have to have fresh oranges with it, so I opened the fridge and cut up some navels.
     About this time, Bro walked into the kitchen and asked,
" Hey, what happened to the sausage balls?"
     So, while the soup simmered and the bread baked, I began the process of making a fresh batch of sausage balls.
        The simple decision to start my holiday cooking had been manipulated by a mere mouse into a marathon event of cleaning out the pantry, which lead to a trip to the hardware store, which lead to a trip to the grocery store, which lead to the reshelving of canned goods and food items, which lead to the making of soup, which lead to the cleaning out of the freezer, which lead to cooking cornbread and cutting oranges, and which finally resulted in the first batch of sausage balls coming out of the oven at seven o'clock that night.
      And that was when I finally understood the concept of "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie." It must be a mouse thing, that ability to set off a chain reaction that grows and grows and grows, an almost unstoppable train ride of events that gains momentum with each twist and turn and leaves you exhausted and wondering, "What happened to the day?" when all you had planned to do was make a batch of sausage balls.  All that, simply because of a mouse.
      The traps have remained empty, but thankfully, no trace of the mouse has returned to my pantry and no mysterious spice has appeared in my baking. My kitchen is sparkling clean, the food pantry has received a generous donation, and my family is growing fat on sausage balls.
      I never saw that mouse, but sometimes, I think I  hear him laughing at me through the walls as he dances among the rafters of my house.

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