I tapped my thumb against the tablet sized pad attached to the smart fridge. A rainbow list of options popped onto the screen. Steak and sausage and lamb appeared in blue font to represent the lean meats. Turkey and chicken and duck appeared in purple font to represent poultry. The reds represented pastas. The greens represented seafood. The oranges represented side dishes. The yellows represented desserts.
A black line ran through certain items, signaling the fridge lacked the ingredients needed to create the meal. I would have to order more over my grocery app later.
“I think we should go with spaghetti tonight,” I said. “Agreed?”
My daughter bobbed her head from her spot at the kitchen island. A snake-shaped hairpin kept her bangs from drooping into her eyes. “When you were little, did you ever cook something for real?” she asked.
“You mean, did I ever physically crack eggs against the counter and mix together batter and lick from the spoon? Of course. Me and your grandmother would bake cookies every holiday. Neither of us even really ate them. Making them was the best part.”
I scrolled through the pastas and typed in the parental code to activate the spaghetti recipe. The fridge pushed the necessary ingredients out from the slot in its side so they could crawl across the conveyor belt leading to the stovetop. Other items dropped from slots in the cabinets above.
“If it was fun, why don’t you do it anymore?” Rhea asked.
“I’m sure there were some women who had fun hanging their laundry onto lines outside and sitting beside the radio with their knitting to hear their soaps, but once a better way came along, there was no reason to keep using the old one.” I fished a bowl from the cabinet and plopped it onto her placemat. “It’s just more convenient this way. Besides, I don’t think our smart kitchen even has a manual setting. Trying to cook ourselves could mess up the entire system.”
Her face crumpled like foil. “Oh.”
Anytime she stepped out of her father’s pickup with her eyes lowered and her lips scrunched to the side (the way they were now) I wanted to shred the custody agreement. I would not be the source of those eyes. I would not be the reason for my daughter’s disappointment – especially when the idea of passing down my mother’s cookie tradition made me as excited as it seemed to make her.
“You know what?” I said, tapping my acrylic nails against my cheek. “If you really want to try my homemade cookies, you should probably get an A on your spelling test tomorrow. I might just get so excited that I’ll teach you the recipe.”
Her smile put her bottom teeth on display. I’m pretty sure mine did the same.
Two nights later, I added Rhea’s test (110% with a bat sticker that must have been leftover from Halloween) to the front of the fridge. It sat between a Student Of The Month certificate and a signed agreement from her to never do drugs.
When I yanked on the handles to collect the ingredients for our cookie dough, the doors remained sealed. No matter how hard I pulled, the damn thing wouldn’t budge.
“Well… nothing happens randomly,” I said, not wanting the rough start to ruin the fun night I had planned. “Get in the car. We’ll do this the old fashioned way from start to finish. Pick up the ingredients from a grocery store.”
“I’ve never been in one of those!” Rhea said, already lifting from her seat.
I asked Alexa for coordinates to the nearest grocery store, grabbed a shopping cart for my daughter to sit inside (she was too big for the baby seat so I let her ride cross-legged in the back), and collected the ingredients.
Back at home, she got a kick out of shaping the dough with cookie cutters and transferring them onto a baking sheet and watching the mixture rise through the oven window.
Just as I remembered from my own childhood, the process was more fun than the end product. The cookies ended up slightly burnt with charcoal lining the bottom — even though I swore we used the right temperature. I swore we followed the recipe perfectly.
With flour speckles on her dress and chocolate sauce lodged in the corner of her lip, Rhea asked, “Can we try cooking something different tomorrow? Like eggs with the top part of the oven?”
“You want to make breakfast? Of course. We can cook whenever you want.”
And we did. Over the next few weeks, we flipped blueberry pancakes on the stove. We fried chop meat and green peppers for tacos. We basted a turkey. We roasted chicken. We baked brownies and cupcakes and pudding.
Something minor always went wrong. Something burnt. Something wasn’t cooked all the way through. Something tasted funny. Something was expired. But after years of letting my kitchen do the work for me, I wasn’t surprised by the quality.
Besides, Rhea never seemed to mind — until the day we made pumpkin pie. She barely touched any of the ingredients. She sat there, staring, while I did all the work.
“Honey, if you don’t like cooking, it’s okay,” I said, removing my oven mitts. “There’s plenty of other stuff we can do together.”
She fiddled with her hairpin. “It’s not that.”
“It won’t hurt my feelings. I promise.”
“No no no. I love cooking!”
“Then why didn’t you have fun making the pie today?”
“Because.” Her eyes shifted to the stove. Then she pulled my sleeve to drag me through the dining room, through the living room, and into the furthest corner of her bedroom. “I think the robot is mad. It doesn’t get to cook anymore. It doesn’t get to do anything. We stole its job.”
I wrenched down my smile, trying not to dismiss her emotions the way her father would do. “Honey, the kitchen can’t get mad like people. Just like your cell phone or your tablet or your drone toys can’t get mad at you. It can process information, which is kind of like thinking, but it doesn’t think in the same way as we do. It doesn’t think like a person.”
She didn’t look convinced. “It keeps burning our food though. It’s messing up on purpose. It wants us to give up and let it go back to cooking.”
“It’s burning because your mommy isn’t a professional chef,” I snapped. Then I took a breath. Reevaluated. Ruffled her hair. “You know what, you’re right. We haven’t used it in a while. We don’t want the parts to get rusted. How about we let it cook us something tonight? Do you think that would help?”
She nodded, so we held hands on our walk back to the kitchen. I lifted her up so she could choose the meal herself on the touch screen. She decided on a stew with potatoes and carrots and dark meat.
“See? It still works fine. No different than before. It doesn’t seem angry at all,” I said as ingredients popped out from the side of the fridge and dropped down from the cabinets above. “But honey, if you still feel uncomfortable, then we can get the whole thing uninstalled. It costs a lot to run it. We’d be saving money by cooking ourselves and if I’m being honest, I miss cooking. You helped me realize I would rather do it myself than…”
Rhea’s eyes widened as she lifted a finger to her lips. Shhh. Not in front of the robot.
Thinking it would be best to keep her away from the kitchen for a while, I brought her into the living room and challenged her to a game on her VR set.
I assumed the kitchen could do its job without my supervision. I never checked to see which ingredients it added to its conveyor belt. I never noticed the pills it stole from my cabinet, the ones I kept a little too close to the garlic and cinnamon and chopped red pepper, easy enough for the machine to grab.
I never heard it grind those pills into powder and sprinkle them into the stew. I never realized that I would be feeding my family poison that night. Only enough to send me to the hospital for a few nights, but more than enough to send my daughter’s 40-pound body to the morgue.