Ass-Building Material by Lauren Kardos

Online Application, Essay 1: Recipe Central brings the joy of cooking to your table™. How would you embody our motto as the next host of Family Cookin’? In a few paragraphs, tell us a story about your recipe inspiration.


Applicant Response: When the weather chills and the leaves crisp, I whip up one of my grandmother’s recipes. My favorites used to be, in her words, ass-building material. Fresh loaves of sourdough bread with home-churned honey butter. Crisco-heavy pie crusts. Melt-in-your-mouth roasts I’ve perfected via InstantPot® because who can attach themselves to the oven for hours anymore? I don’t know if her carb-heavy specialties produce a bigger caboose. That’s not the point. Ass-building material dissolves the work emails and delayed commutes. It transports me back: once I was a girl learning to cook, shoulder-to-shoulder with the matriarch who cherished me.  

When she passed, my grandmother left me not just her house, but also a bite-sized cookbook I’d never seen. Brain-Growing Material her loopy script labels the cover, though these aren’t recipes in the traditional sense. No teaspoon of that or half cup of this. Instead, the pages burst with riddles, each clue more baffling than the last. Some seem simple on their face, like her method for canning peaches, and others are complete gibberish. Where is the head and tail, but no body? Or this gem: First and second sets are free, more sets can be had on a collecting spree.

She didn’t make an answer key, though days when missing her feels like a steam burn to the heart, I flip open the booklet and trace her handwriting with my index finger. Last month, this vignette again snagged my eyes:

I keep food safe and secure, cold all year. 
Heinz hides the best part, dear, the ear

Her refrigerator I ruled out after the funeral, crusty condiment bottles I trashed when I moved in, though now the answer came as if my grandmother whispered, croaking her Marlboro breath, into my own ear. Basement pantry. I dashed downstairs and through the pantry’s winding halls, brisk enough to induce gooseflesh on the sweatiest summer days. Heinz Baked Beans tins towered against one corridor’s wall, their peeling blue labels betraying decades of rust. Several oozed a congealed slime. 

My failure to solve her mysteries until then had blistered, but in that drafty passage, my grandmother’s presence buzzed, nudged me onward. Can after can I yanked down, flung aside. A center can stuck, levered downward, and around a Murphy door swiveled. It was a bookcase! Stacked floor to ceiling with Mason jars! I mistook the contents of the first jar I grabbed, labeled Pastor Frank, for pickled cauliflower and, oily, it slipped from my grip, releasing waves of astringent juice and glass shards that ruined my trainers. A waxen ear and mushy gray matter I salvaged, tested in the air fryer with some margarine and garlic salt. In another — Cousin Victoria — floated deboned fingers, delicately stuffed with rice and spices. More savory than dolmades at the Greek Food Festival downtown.   

Tonight, after clicking Submit, I’ll deal a round of Solitaire on the kitchen table, boiling away the dinner timer as my grandmother would. She always called me smart, said I was destined for greatness. Now my mind tingles, stimulated by a diet nurturing nostalgia and acuity, soothed in places ass-building material could never reach. And, dear search committee, it’s a diet the Recipe Central™ audience deserves. 

As host of Family Cookin’, I’ll feature recipes from her secret-leaden walls and her comfort food classics, demystifying what most mistake as “cannibalism.” And, of course, I’ll feature the InstantPot® methods I’ve perfected. Viewers will wow dinner guests, tenderizing the toughest hearts and jellifying useless-seeming offal. The gifted tome will garnish my show’s set, and, bite-by-bite, we can solve the rest of grandmother’s riddles together. 


Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. The Molotov CocktailRejection Letters, Bending Genres, Fatal Flaw, Best Microfiction 2022, and The Lumiere Review are just a few of the fine publications that feature her work. You can find her on Twitter @lkardos.