Thursday, May 8, 2014

Throwing Off the Kitchen Shackles



After a lifetime of preparing meals, I've reached my threshold. John is going to take over in the kitchen.

"I am?" he said, startled, when I told him.

Actually, when we started dating I couldn't cook at all-- unless you consider Jell-O with fruit cocktail floaters a repertoire. It didn't take John long to notice what a useless culinary wretch I was. One afternoon several months into our courtship, he passed through the kitchen of his flat where I was struggling to prepare corn on the cob – the centrepiece of my gourmet dinner – and spied four ears bobbing about upright, in a small pan of boiling water.

"What on earth is that?" he asked.

"What does it look like?" I answered, wondering what he could possibly be referring to.
And with those five ill-chosen words, our wedding was put on hold until I could get a grip. Fortunately, I had a couple of redeeming features, like big hair and legs that looked good in a mini-skirt -- important attributes for a girl in the '60s.

Once married, I quickly made up for lost time. Wine sauces were my deliverance: I smothered meat dishes in red wine sauces; poultry and vegetables in white; and poured brandy or rum over desserts. Some evenings I served all three. I was so soignée.

In those days, it was easy to appear sophisticated. If you brought out artichokes, the room fell silent. A friend who concocted a vile little first course Рa mound of jellied consomm̩ topped with a globule of sour cream and a spoonful of black caviar Рwas the talk of the town for weeks. Even gazpacho was considered urbane.

"Jeepers, what is this stuff ? It's got the consistency of a marsh floor!" exclaimed my friend Sally the first time I served it. But after that initial gagging incident, she was charmed by its pungency.

To be safe, I always began cooking supper at three in the afternoon. This gave me enough time to prepare a second meal if the first didn't turn out, with an hour left over to shower, change and tie a velvet ribbon in my hair before John came home.

There were disadvantages to this system. For one thing, the meat would turn to porridge if left simmering for four hours; for another, the sauces would dwindle away, requiring extra lashings of wine to perk them up. Often, by the time John got home at 7:30, the food was wine-logged and so, of course, was I. There I'd be, my little hair ribbon all askew, blowing welcome-home-honey kisses up at him, horizontally, from the couch.

Naturally, there were regrettable episodes in that first year. Here are three of the lessons I learned from them: First, cayenne and paprika are similar only in colour. Second, if you've never poached fish before, you'd better like gumbo.  And, finally, it's better to be known for your salmon than your salmonella. This I discovered the evening John's epicurean boss, Frank, came to dinner and our oven would only preheat.

"What exquisite salmon!" gushed Frank extravagantly, drawing a mouthful over his famed palate. "Scottish or Norwegian? Baked, right?"

There was an audible suck-in sound from John's end of the table. His promotion seemed in jeopardy.

"Close," I burbled. "Chicken. Half-baked."

But that was 13,000 meals ago. Now I was about to be liberated.

Over coffee the other day, I told my friend Lesley about John taking over in the kitchen.

"Wow," she declared, "you're brave. When I let Rob have the run of the kitchen, the first thing he served was barbecued calf’s tongue with a mustard sauce. It made me heave. The next day I was back in the kitchen."

"Sounds like a ploy to get out of cooking," I replied. "John loves a challenge. I'll probably walk in tonight and find beef tenderloin with mixed peppercorns, and something spectacular for dessert."

Pumped with anticipation, I headed home. John was in the kitchen, surrounded by every possible pot, pan and utensil, his debut meal nestled nearby on a warming platter.

"You'll love it," he enthused, grabbing some plates. "It's barbecued calf’s tongue with mustard sauce..."

Personally, I think something that's been in a calf’s mouth for a year has no business being in mine. It took me an hour and a litre of water to get the thing down. Then, I explained to John -- admittedly 18 decibels above my normal range -- that if he truly loved me, he'd prove it by learning to cook good things. He agreed.

But later in the evening something happened that gave me pause: John was sitting in an armchair quietly studying the salad section in The Joy of Cooking. Suddenly and without any warning, he jumped up and yelled, "Arugula!? Holy cow, all this time I thought it was something you blew into a handkerchief!"

Can I really entrust the next 13,000 meals to someone so daft? 


© Alena Schram

alenaschram@gmail.com

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