When we bought our latest house, one of its major selling points was a generously large kitchen. Holy cow, two ovens and two sinks! And a pantry that is larger than my dorm room was in college. Surely everything cooked in this kitchen will be blessed with good cooking karma and my pasta water will never, ever boil over.
There’s only one problem that follows me from house to house, year to year: I am a Menu Maniac.
To me, the fun of entertaining comes from spending time figuring out what I am going to make, deliberating about which amazing dessert Gary is going to create, making lists, and deciding what the table will look like. What I lack in skill, I more than make up for in guts. I’m a wanna-be foodie, not a real one. If I pull off a meal that even I like, it’s a goddamned miracle.
And maybe I shouldn’t admit this to you, but I haven’t gotten much into Pinterest. I know it’s fun, trendy, addictive, and can lead to More Menu Mania. But here is why; this entire bookcase is FULL of cookbooks. For crying out loud, I don’t need MORE choices:
(Claire guarding the bookcase so I won’t be tempted)
I read Julie & Julia and saw the movie. Loved the movie; thought the book was really clever but it hit too close to home. Pressure in the kitchen, even a BIG one like mine, is some of the worst.
One night, after probably two martinis and discussing Julie and Julia, we pondered the idea of trying to work our way through THIS book in one year:
But I digress. This is about Gary’s 70th birthday dinner last year. A few weeks beforehand, he had said “I just want to go fly fishing and mushroom hunting on my birthday.” Thanks to my big mouth, his Big Day turned into a 7-course dinner for a few close friends.
Seven courses? Are you kidding? It all looked so easy on paper.
In addition to my Menu Mania, Gary put his two cents’ worth in, THE DAY OF. “What if we have that super-duper creamy, delicious, cheesy thing too? I’ll run right to Costco and get the ingredients. I wanted to check for that other thing anyway. Wait, I have to clean the garage first. Don’t worry, I’ll be right back. When do you need it by? No problem! I just have to run to Cabela’s.” You can see where this is headed.
THE DAY OF, I don’t need more to do, plan, or worry about. My brain is already full of the sordid details of my own Menu Mania. I’ve already created a Monster that I can’t possibly pull off. And I know it.
I forget to eat breakfast. So, I switch from coffee to chocolate-covered espresso beans. It seemed like a good idea at the time, along with moving deck chairs on the Titanic.
Everyone arrives and things are going swimmingly. The appetizers are good, gin & tonics are flowing, and then someone (you know who you are) asks for a vodka martini with a twist. I can do that.
I reach for the good Idaho vodka (we live in the Potato state, you know) and then she utters those fateful words: “You’re going to have one too, aren’t you?”
Far be it from me to be an ungracious hostess, I oblige her and make two martinis.
Suddenly, I realize that I had ignored my #1 Reality of the Kitchen:
Don’t have a martini if there are more than three courses.
I’m 59 years old, for heaven’s sake. You’d think I’d know this by now. Game on.
Martinis are magical things. When made by a good bartender with Ciroc vodka and enjoyed with good company, time absolutely stops. Great ideas come out of nowhere. Secrets are told…but hopefully not remembered. Promises are made…but not written down. One martini is perfect; two are dangerous, depending on who you’re with. Martinis can coerce me to admit I still love The Eagles…and Alan Alda. Maybe he’s to blame for my love of martinis…
But this is not my first rodeo. This martini is a game-changer.
It’s one thing to figure out a fun menu: Done. It’s another thing to figure out how to get all of the pieces and parts prepped and cooked: Done. But it’s still quite another thing to figure out how to do all of that PLUS pick up one course’s dishes, toss them into the dishwasher, and plate the next course. Plating? You’ve got to be kidding.
Four pots for three different courses are blazing away on the Viking range. Gary is a little tipsy but happy; I’ll be the same way at my 70th birthday dinner, I’m sure. But tonight, he won’t remember to clear this course’s dishes because he is telling that great story about how we traversed a frightening road to get from Chile to Argentina…the road grader guy was stuck on the side of the road…we were the first people through the pass that Spring…our Honda used to be a taxi cab…garlic potato chips were involved…we thought we were in deep trouble at the border crossing…lots of military guys with very big guns, etc.
Oh, I do alright for a while, especially considering that one person is a half-hour late. I rewrite my schedule accordingly, but then there are always two slow eaters in every crowd. Actually, compared to me, everyone is a slow eater. What is the rule on this; does anyone know? When can I whisk their plates away? Can I beat them into hurrying up? Can I tell them to shut up and eat?
Need I mention that I am not keeping up with the dishes…
I make it through the appetizers and scallops. The Lyonnaise Onion Soup from Jacques Pepin threatens to throw off my fragile timing, but I manage.
The wedge salad is enthusiastically hurled onto plates as if done by chimpanzees.
But I suddenly realize, as I am tossing the main onto the plates, that I am OUT OF FREAKING FORKS.
Not a big deal for most people. But, with a martini coursing through my veins, this is a TOTAL DISASTER. You may know by now that I have strong feelings about hot coffee. Well, that’s nothing compared to my feelings about SERVING hot food and EATING food while it’s HOT, dammit. I know, it’s stupid, but I have few obsessions, and this is one of them.
Gary sweetly staggers to the kitchen and innocently asks:
“Can I help?”
Are you kidding me? My entire main course is perched on the precipice of disaster and he wants to know if he can help? And then I realize.
I’m NOT in this alone. I never was. I’m just really, really bad at asking for help. Like I should probably seek professional help for asking for help, but that just doesn’t make any sense in my head. I peek under my black sweater to see if there is a big gold “W” under it. There is not.
I give in. “Forks – wash – HURRY!” I scream to Gary who thought he was just there to carry plates to the table. Or maybe he was just on his way to the bathroom; I’m not sure.
Of course, the downside of living in Kitchen Heaven is that people want to be in it while I am trying to semi-drunkenly juggle a complicated dinner. And now, no matter where I stand, Gary is in that spot. He’s trying so hard to be helpful.
Our friends see the panic in my eyes and stagger to the dining table, sit up straight, and await instructions. Gary is washing forks with his characteristic thoroughness.
I consider stabbing myself with a now-clean fork and feigning an injury. I think back to an old Pop Tart injury I had as a kid; it got me out of PE one day. My mind is reeling.
Instead, I commandeer the only person who was stupid enough to make eye contact to help schlep plates to the table.
Eventually the main course is served and, through no skill of mine, it is still fairly hot. And then, for the umpteenth time, I realize my #2 Reality of the Kitchen:
I never want to eat the main course.
It’s a genetic thing. My mother was the same way. By the time I get done shopping for, planning, and cooking the meal, in my head and in reality, I’ve eaten it at least four times. I no more want to eat this main course than run for Congress.
So, for the first time this evening, I sit back and relax. I toast Gary on his birthday, drink deeply of a glass of red wine, and look around. This table is full of good friends and great laughs. The martini is sure to have cut off the blood supply to my brain by now, so I am happy to just sit back and listen.
Gary gets his second wind during the main course and leaps up to clear the table, start the coffee, and prepare his dessert. I can’t get out of my chair. I appear to be unhelpful, but actually I’m just exhausted.
In his lovable and hedonistic way, Gary offers after-dinner drinks with the coffee and dessert. I pass on the coffee; someone hands me a snifter of something golden and heavenly with his amazing chocolate torte. They go SO well together. A bite, then a sip. Repeat. Which brings me to my #3 Reality of the Kitchen:
Anything I drink from here on out is a BIG mistake.
And then I realize: I forgot a course. Before dessert, Gary wanted to have a cheese and fruit platter. I look over at him. He looks happy and 60, not 70.
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.