Sunday, November 25, 2012

Are you gonna eat that?

I notice that a lot of people who write blogs include their own versions of domestic advice, recipes, life skills coaching, and platitudes.  I started writing the Jugular Vein stories on the advice of our long-time friend Betsey Grecoe who suggested that other people might enjoy reading about our family adventures and mishaps.

Now that I have half a century of experience and gathered wisdom, I can join the ranks of those who offer unsolicited advice, snobbish culinary expertise, and household hints for frugality from their poorer days. And I can easily disseminate this wisdom via the internet with my blog! Let's see what I can pull together.

Some of the finest, most fun, and most fulfilling experiences I've had in my life have been in the camaraderie of a kitchen, creating a meal for a crowd, or at the table enjoying a meal with friends and family. The more, the better.  I thought about recounting them here while including recipes, helpful kitchen tips, and proper etiquette reminders, like other blog writers do so successfully. 

These days, on the rare occasions when we're enjoying fine dining, we often find ourselves comparing the experience to past meals and the atmosphere of a little out-of-the way restaurant in rural New Jersey called Duo Fratelli (the Two Brothers).  It was a small restaurant that featured Italian haute cuisine, where the staff outnumbered the guests.  On our first visit – a wedding anniversary dinner – we were greeted and our reservation status was confirmed by the maitre d', who was dressed in black tie service uniform.  We were shown to our table in the dimly lit but spacious room, where the panorama of windows were draped with expensive fabrics offering privacy with taste.  The fresh white linen tablecloths and napkins were smooth and clean, under a full dinner setting of gleaming flatware and glassware.  My chair was held while I sat and my napkin carefully laid in my lap.  The meal that followed was exquisite, the service impeccable, and their recommended wine has become one of our favourites.  Though this was an expensive restaurant, we enjoyed sharing meals there for special people and special occasions.

On one of those visits, we were seated at a rear table far from the entrance.  As we leisurely savoured the many courses of our meal, we noticed the special attention given by the staff to the large round table in the far corner.  Most remarkable was one large dominant man.  He was dressed in an expensive-looking dark suit with gold chains and rings that caught the light.  As each new (and similarly attired) guest arrived and approached the table, he stood to give a large shoulder-forward embrace, ending with a flat-handed slap-slap on each other’s back.  One after another, his guests arrived and were seated until there were approximately ten imposing men gathered.  Each was greeted with the kind of respect usually seen only in a tense episode of The Sopranos.  Wide-eyed with wary observation, we were torn between staying to see a fascinating first-hand glimpse into what appeared to be a mob meeting, and leaving immediately in case tommy-guns suddenly appeared in a gangland shoot-out of epic proportion.  But we couldn't possibly have left, as Duo Fratelli’s crème brûlée dessert is simply the best – it's to die for.

When Kathryn and I took a cross-country road trip and finally landed in Los Angeles, we were eager to shop and see where the rich and famous shop.  To fully appreciate the contrast, we spent a day thrift store shopping in Santa Monica and Venice Beach first. Then we headed to the fabled stores of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive.  We dressed up to help ensure we received the full-service treatment (just like the people who actually could afford to be there).  Kathryn, naturally, had a fashionable outfit, and I tried my best not to look too dowdy, and actually brushed my hair.  Since it was hot and sunny, we wore big sunglasses, and I kept on my wide-brimmed straw hat.  Kathryn's trendy sundress, impeccable makeup, and gorgeous looks in general were the perfect attire for the outdoor cafe we visited for a late-day lunch.  If a celebrity passed by, we had a great view and prime photographic opportunity. 

We were quickly seated in a crowded outdoor section of the small café. Shortly after we received our water (with lemon!), a family of four was seated at the table next to us -- just far enough apart for the disinterested wait staff to pass between us.  Staggered by the price points of toast points, we opted for a simple cheese plate with fruit and wine, and amused ourselves with wishful conversation about what we would like to have purchased to augment our wardrobes and jewellery chests.  Brooks Brothers and Harry Winston would have been very happy to accommodate us, but our wallets could not.  At their table next to use, the mother, father, and two adolescent girls chatted amiably, while Kathryn and I finished up. Neither of us removed our sunglasses as we sat under the awnings.

Our waitress, totally indifferent about quality of service though not unpleasant, eventually brought our bill, and I presented a credit card for payment.  When she returned with our receipts and offered a cursory "have a nice day" in mid-retreat, I frowned at Kathryn, who shrugged her shoulder in acknowledgement.  So I replied loudly enough with a bright cheerful sigh of satisfaction for the family sitting next to us to hear, "Well, that was really nice -- just what we needed!" to which Kathryn cheerfully agreed.  I then added, "… and for once, NO paparazzi!"  The two young girls at the next table immediately looked up and around.  So I drove it home with one final comment to Kathryn: "I don't think the waitress even recognized you!" and then we made our way out. All eyes were on Kathryn until we were down to the sidewalk, where I took one last glance back to see the two girls extending themselves over the railing, desperate to see who they'd just missed. 

At home, cooking for our large family was usually routine, but when my folks visited they sometimes seemed overwhelmed with the volume of food, preparations, and portions that four growing teenagers required.  One simple dinner we often made to feed a large crowd was fettuccine that we'd make ourselves.  A bowlful of flour with eggs, water, oil, and salt added in the right proportions can quickly become a homemade pasta; add just about anything to make a complete dinner.

One night, after a long day of visiting, I dug in to prepare a basil pesto and other sauces with some homemade noodles while we waited for Stephen to arrive home from work.  My folks were keen to watch the process, and with two extra guests joining us, I doubled up on the ingredients, and started mixing, kneading, rolling and cutting the noodles right at the kitchen table.  And then the inevitable call came from Stephen mid-transit stuck in a classic New Jersey eight-lane rush-hour traffic jam.

So my folks and I drank more wine while I continued rolling and cutting the dough, and strung the strands up while the sauces simmered and the pasta water boiled.  Since fresh pasta only takes about three minutes to cook, I didn’t want to put it in until Stephen could join us.  My pasta was hanging all around us, on open cupboard doors, the backs of chairs, and over the edge of the table.  When Stephen finally bustled in, we were all famished and eager to start eating, and the ensuing activity in the small kitchen quickly became frenzied as the dog enthusiastically greeted him, steaming bowls of sauces were waltzed about the crowded room to be set out for serving, drinks were poured, and the four kids all came in to take their seats. With all this going on, we didn’t notice that most of the heavy strands of fettuccine had stretched under their own weight, broken off, and fallen onto the floor. 

Our dog Scout noticed it first, and tried to eat as much of it as he could, as quickly and quietly as possible. Stephen noticed it second when he stepped on it and it stuck to his shoes, making him slip and slide on the floor as he tried to get around the dog, who was busy trying to eat all he could get.  It wasn't until I heard "what the hell??" from Stephen that I noticed my long beautiful strands of golden pasta were all gone. Only a few scraps and remnants on top of the doors and chairs were left.  Meanwhile, Dad stood transfixed at the chaotic scene, and my mother was absolutely hysterical with laughter as she watched Stephen hop from foot to foot, grabbing at clumps of pasta dough, and scolding the dog who was being chased around the table by the kids.  Stephen paused, looked around at the whole situation, held up two hands full of dough and said in his best Ricky Ricardo voice, "Luuucy -- you got some 'splaining to do."

When a nephew in central Tennessee was about to get married between Christmas and New Year's Eve, our family of six made the trip from New Jersey to go to the wedding. Unfortunately, our dog Scout had just had a procedure on his eye, and had to wear a large cone around his head. This took up a lot of room in the back of the van, and in the small hotel room where we stayed. 

The wedding was great, and it was nice to reconnect with far-away family and cousins. But it was at a time of the year when we couldn’t really afford such a trip. Stephen was between jobs, so funds were unusually tight, and the credit card was red-hot with transaction friction from the trip, meals, and accommodations.  On the way back home, we stopped at a Wendy's drive-thru for their $1 menu.  We could all get lunch for less than ten dollars!  Poor Scout, who couldn't easily eat and was off his food because of his cone, the stress of travel, and just being out of sorts was especially pitiful.   When we got to the window, we asked the server if they had anything that might have fallen on the floor or was too old to serve that we could give to the dog for a treat, and pointed to the forlorn cone-headed Scout in the back seat.  She said she had nothing, but took pity and gave us a box of chicken nuggets fresh from the fryer. We thanked her sincerely, and headed on our way.  When we got back on the road, we realized there was actually nothing wrong with this free addition to our meal, so we divided the box among ourselves.  They were absolutely delicious. I think we may have given poor Scout just one.

When my dad remarried, he and Anna flew to Slovakia, Anna’s home country, for a honeymoon. On their way there, they stayed with us in New Jersey for a few days. Anna cheerfully put up with our jokes of how backward and primitive Slovakia was (of course we knew differently, but anything for a laugh!) and played along.  One day we walked to a tiny mom & pop shop that featured Polish and Czech ethnic foods, snacks, and videos.  Anna was delighted to find a box of round wafer cookies and brought them home to share.  Apparently, it was a treat she rarely found in Canada, but was a well-known Slovak goodie.  The box was about six inches square and about two inches tall, with bright colors, bold Slovak words, and pictures of happy children anticipating the indulgence and decadence inside.  But the wafers themselves were awful.  The flat cookie was the size of a salad plate, pale and bland in color, and with the texture and taste of a cardboard egg carton.

We ridiculed them mercilessly.  Stephen pantomimed their many potential uses (none as an edible treat) in quick succession – they could be used to play a song, as he cranked a victrola, spinning one on his fingertip and mimicking a jolly tune from the 1800's; he flung one across the room like a Frisbee, announcing its playtime merits in a television-commercial-announcer voice; picked up another, perched it on his upturned fingers, and draped a dishtowel over his arm in full British butler mode, presenting a tray to a Lady.  Then it became the brim of a boater hat while he reminded us of our responsibility to vote for a long-past American president, finally wrapping up his performance by driving himself out of the room using a wafer-cookie steering wheel.  We were convulsed with laughter, and glad Anna took it in equally good humour, laughing along with us. She didn’t take offense, but she did close up the tin and refuse to let us have any more.  She fits right in with us.

As I wrap up this story, I've see that I failed to offer any helpful hints, tasty budget recipes, and certainly no life lessons, but thinking about what has made me personally happy in life, I can offer some unsolicited advice:

"Every day have someone to love, someone who loves you, and something to look forward to."  Allyn S. West II (1953-1988)

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