IT'S ALL IN THE SPICES MY DEAR!
I came from a home where food was a non-issue. I came to a marriage without any culinary skills. Actually, I'm not being totally honest. I did master the art of scrambling an egg. Better yet, I knew how to sprinkle wheat germ and raisins on plain yogurt, followed by a swirl of honey to create the perfect affect. I don't suppose that falls under the category of culinary skills… does it? Let it be known, that at this time in my life, I was perfectly content with my limited abilities.
It happened at lunchtime, about 12:30 p.m. I remember because I had to be at work at precisely two o'clock. After having practiced piano all morning, and having made all the necessary preparations for work, I decided to whip up a little something for dinner, in advance, so that when my husband and I would come home from work, there would in fact be something to put on the table, something to eat. On that particular day, my husband would come home earlier than I. Teaching at the neighborhood Music Conservatory kept me going until about eight PM.
I walked into the kitchen and then it just happened, one mistake after another. I broke a valuable crystal pitcher attempting to make a sumptuous ice tea, just perfect for a hot summer evening and then proceeded, only minutes later to break a pyrex dish (part of a six piece set) attempting to make an ever so simple pasta. I admit, the lesson was mine to learn. "Never pour cold water into a hot glass." The glass splattered into tiny sharp edged pieces all over the kitchen floor and lucky for me and my wonderful reflexes, I managed to jump back, just in time. I wondered, is this a prerequisite for marriage?
I called my husband at work. By this time I indubitably had to fly out the door. I didn't expect to leave such a miserable mess in the kitchen and not to mention how I felt – taken aback and exasperated when the glass started flying! The conversation, one sided and breathless, went something like this, "Hi. I'm in a hurry and angry as hell. Do me a favor, clean up the mess before I get back. I can't deal with it. Bye." As the phone slammed into position, so did the front door behind me.
We ate in McDonalds that night.
Then there was the time I invited my in-laws for a weekend. Sleeping over translates into meals, meals, and more meals. Little did I know that I did not have the right know how at this point in my life to pull off a successful "culinary" weekend. I came from a home where it was okay to open up a can of tuna for lack of anything else. I came from a home of three – my parents and I. There was nothing in my background to prepare me for my husband and the home he came from. He came from a home where food was THE issue. Amazing smells always emanated from my mother-in-law's kitchen. She cooked with love. She had an innate talent for cooking and so her creations were truly gourmet. She did not own a cookbook – imagine.
My husband came from a home with two sisters, two brothers, and two parents. He came from a home of seven. They have to eat – don't they?
The concept "quantity" was foreign to me. And so my ingenious, well intentioned sleepover with the in-laws turned out to be a total failure, in the food sense of course. Not only was food the major issue with my in laws, their ability to ingest quantity was an amazing phenomenon that I was yet to understand, or maybe it was just my inability to accurately quantify.
I expected my guests to arrive Friday evening for dinner. I did my utmost, at least I thought so at the time, to prepare an impressive meal. I did my shopping. Being newlyweds our fridge was always empty, the freezer as well. I bought all the ingredients to make a perfect meal and a perfect meal consists of protein, starch and a vegetable. That's what I learned at home. My meal consisted of exactly these three categories, no more, no less. I made a salad, potatoes and for the entrée, went all out and made curried chicken (from my gourmet cookbook), spiced all on my very own, especially for my in-laws, knowing they love spicy food. I wanted to please.
The spices were very impressive, but as I mentioned earlier, I came from a family of three, with limited appetite. My parents and I could make one chicken go a long way… I actually expected leftovers from my grand dinner to accommodate Saturday lunch. So much for my ability to entertain. All was devoured Friday night, not a crumb to be found.
On Saturday, we ate lunch in McDonalds, dinner in my favorite Chinese restaurant, and Sunday brunch at the neighborhood diner.
Twenty five years later, on a holiday occasion, with all family members invited, I volunteered, of my own free will to help out with the cooking. Today, the extended family consists of twenty seven members. How can one person possibly prepare solo? This occasion, only five days away, called for quantity and I was convinced a brisket was the way to go. But let me not leave out one important detail. I had never made a brisket before… even though my instincts yelled "stay away," I stubbornly insisted upon preparing a brisket. What could be so difficult? I just had to follow the butcher's instructions. And so I began its preparation twenty four hours prior to the big feast. Maybe the meat itself had something to do with its rubbery texture. I couldn't possibly believe that I had anything to do with the final performance – I certainly know how to follow instructions. Isn't a Master's of Music Degree good for anything????????
I cooked and babysat the meat for three hours. I even made the most delicious mushroom wine sauce cooked with rosemary and thyme to enhance its taste. As the hours passed by, my instincts were calling out to me, "something is wrong." And something indeed was wrong.
The next day my family and I drove two hours to reach our destination. I sat with my brisket upon my lap, hoping my instincts were wrong and hoping that this holiday dinner would not prove itself embarrassing for me, to say the least. Having arrived first, I positioned myself at the table with a perfect view of the incoming guests. As I watched sister-in-law number one walk in with her perfectly cooked stuffed eggplant and some other fancy meat dish cooked with an array of dried fruits, I felt my stomach churning. As I watched sister-in-law number two walk in with her perfectly chopped salads and even more magnificent dressings, I literally felt like crawling under the table. The moment of truth was drawing near.
Everybody sat down around the table. It was time to begin the festivities. It seemed like everybody was eating their appetizers in slow motion. My stomach was in knots and I couldn't wait to get the next ACT over with, ACT: ENTRÉE. The meats were placed strategically in the center of the table so that all could see. It was customary to taste everything, absolutely everything. By this time I was glued to my seat. I couldn't run even if I wanted to and disappearing wasn't an option since I'm not a magician. The tasting began. As I looked around the table, I witnessed my nephew, struggling with his piece of carnivore, my brisket. My nephew's facial expression, especially, left a lasting impression upon me. It was twisted so as to accommodate the slice of brisket stuck to his teeth. As I viewed his face, I instantly began to see all twenty seven with the same twisted expression. Whether it be my imagination or not, all twenty seven faces were closing in on me and ready to pounce – all over a piece of brisket!
After battling the swallow, my nephew shyly turned to me and said, "The meat is a bit chewy." One of my sister-in- laws cynically said, "The sauce tastes good, but what happened to the meat?" I already knew the sauce was deliciously gourmet. The meat to my misfortune was rubbery and defeated all.
Seeing "my" brisket on serving dishes, barely touched… I'm sure at this point I do not have to elaborate on my feelings. Well, maybe a little. Yes, I was feeling defensive. Shouldn't I get an A for effort? I should have known better. And so there was another lesson for me to learn. "Never try something new when volunteering to help out." There was a bit of teasing from my sister-in-laws, and a dig or two, if you may. But then again who was I to compete. They, like my mother-in-law had an innate talent for cooking. Their cooking always came out right. They too, didn't need a cookbook.
In the car, on the way home, I moaned about all my culinary mishaps over the years and pointed out to my defense all the wonderful meals accounted for and admired so by my children and friends. My husband sighed in the driver's seat as I stressfully pleaded my case. My son, from the back seat being the diplomat that he is, said to me, "Mom, it's honorable of you to keep trying all these years, but give it up. If I were you I would volunteer dessert. You're a great baker!"
The next day, after putting the ordeal behind me, I received a phone call from my mother-in-law. "The meat is delicious now. I cooked it for an additional hour in the pressure cooker and spiced it up with cumin and coriander. Absolutely delicious! By the way, didn't you use any spices?
It's all in the spices my dear!"
No need for McDonalds…