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I have made no secret about the fact that I am not a housekeeper.  Nope, no Donna Reed genes here.  And I am not much of a cook.  (Hence, my Facebook status this morning:  “I’m cooking. Alert the media. And the fire department.”)  But sometimes, it just has to be done.

The kitchen in the Cottage is sizeable enough, but has about a yard of counter space.  If I don’t do dishes for a few days, it looks like a scene from a dish station in a college cafeteria.  Piles and piles of them.  When I wash them though, they quickly consolidate down to a 10-minute dish washing session and a neat stack in the little dish drainer.  I wish I were like my Mother, who could never sleep if there were dirty dishes in the sink.  She’d have get up and wash them.

The first dishwasher I ever encountered was in the house Pat and I had up in the mountains for a few years.  I loved it.  But I hated unloading it.  Ever before that and ever since, I’ve always had to wash dishes by hand.  Since I’ve never known anything different, I guess it’s what I’ll live with.  The new house doesn’t have a dishwasher either (though it also doesn’t have a stove, refrigerator,washing machine or dryer, so I might cough up the extra money for a dishwasher if the kitchen is plumbed for one.) 

This morning when I was washing dishes, I encountered a pot that I had been soaking because I had burnt whatever I was cooking onto the bottom.  Hey, that’s how I roll.  Or cook.  It was a cheap little pot, a WalMart purchase when I moved into the Cottage with no utensils or cookware.  I contemplated said pot.  I started scrubbing.  Not much happened.  I contemplated said pot in a different light.  I could toss this pot, I thought.  It was cheap anyway and I’ve almost destroyed it.  Then I remembered a conversation that I had a long time ago with my former guy.  I think it was from a book he had been reading.  But it was about a monk who was instructing an American about living in the moment, and finding the peace in small things, in doing a task well.  In this tale, the monk was talking about washing his one bowl, and spending time – like half an hour – washing a single bowl that had contained only rice.  It was about becoming one with the bowl, and healing, and consciousness.  I remember at the time we discussed it, we liked the concept, but didn’t see how we could ever have the time to devote to washing a bowl as the monk did.

You know how you remember things.  It all comes together in your head in a blink, is processed and is gone.  But as I looked at that little pot, I remembered that moment in time.  And so I went back to work on the little pot.  I scrubbed, rinsed, scrubbed, rinsed, scrubbed, rinsed.  I put some muscle into it.  I put some care into it.  And finally, the little pot was as sparkling clean as the day I bought it, a day when I remember a country music song about starting over at my friendly Wal-Mart running through my head.  Now I’m trying to start over again, just not at WalMart.

So now, the makeshift stew is simmering on the stove.  Beef, peppers, chiles, okra, tomatoes, a little red wine.  Pretty healthy, even if it does have carbs.  I have learned not to knock the entire closed container of a spice into the pot.  I have learned that yelling “Stop!” at the spitting oil in the pan does not make it stop spitting.  I have learned that aprons are my friends.  

I know that tears can add a touch of needed salt to a dish.

And I know that it takes patience to create something bright and delicious in your life.

Many people of the current generation (whatever that is) likely haven’t seen the classic Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie “Woman of the Year”.  Amazingly, it’s one of those that I’ve never seen in its entirety, only in snips and bits.  It’s a strange movie, painful and poignant and funny and frustrating, and in the end, happy.  I love watching Heburn and Tracy, moreso because of what I know of their real-life relationship.

But here I have started by digressing.  My point is: if you’ve never seen the movie, and don’t want to, I understand, but it’s worth seeing one segment:  where Hepburn attempts to make breakfast for Tracy.  After putting 4 scoopfuls of coffee in the bottom of one of the old-style (well, then it was perfectly modern) percolators, and a teacup of water in the top, she gamely and cluelessly tries to figure out how to open the stove burners.  Finally and noisily succeeding, she tries to make waffles.  Seperating the eggs is beyond her, so she gives up on it and mixes them all together in the batter.  The waffles, once in the waffle iron, poof to an oozy four-inch height, the coffee bubbles up like lava from the percolator, and the toast is continuously popping out of the toaster, into the air, and onto the floor.  She finally gives up in tears. 

Sounds like a typical day in the kitchen at my house.  Except without the tears.

Where has my kitchen confidence gone?  I have talked about this before.  For the last decade or so of my marriage, I was constantly told that I was incapable of doing anything right.   I actually started to believe it.  It will take a long time for me to realize that it’s not true, that the dynamics behind that belief are complex, multi-faceted, and have very little to do with me.  A dear friend is onto me, though, and is vigilant about not letting me continue with this kind of talk and attitude.

But still…I have issues in the kitchen.  Which is why the kitchen scene from “Woman of the Year” so resonates with me. 

Back in my college days, when staying with my boyfriend at his house in the Bronx, I was on my own one morning and needed breakfast.  He had one of those old gas stoves – I’d never seen one before, but he’d given me basic instructions before he’d left that morning.  I confidently set out to cook some bacon and eggs.   However, I had considerable difficulty lighting the stove.  So much difficulty, in fact, that I filled the entire apartment with gas.  At some point, I realized that there was so much gas in the apartment that if I were to light another match to try to light the stove, the whole place would probably go up in an incendiary ball.  At which point, I opened all the windows, laid down, and tried very hard not to be sick.  I never did get any breakfast.

As I’ve said before, I’ve gone through phases of cooking well and phases of cooking like a three-year old.

I made some stellar mussels the other day – and it was my first attempt at mussels.  I was so proud!

But then again, I made steaks for Kelsea and myself the other night, and they were awful.  Tough, flavorless.  Perhaps it was the meat, but I’m more inclined to think it was me. 

I suppose the reason I’m thinking about this again is because I have to prepare party food for an Open House for work for Friday night.  In my tiny kitchen, with about a yard of counter space and my itty-bitty oven, this task is particularly daunting.  Pat used to do the cooking for these events, and he did it so well.  This time, it’s all up to me. 

I’ve been trying to come up with a fairly simple menu, which so far looks like this:

Fruit  (no cooking required – yippee!)
Cheese and crackers  (ditto)
Veggies with Ranch dressing (double ditto)
Devilled Eggs
Spicy Garlic Shrimp
Bacon Jalapeno Poppers
Guacamole & Chips
Artichoke Bread
White Trash Puff Balls (!!!!)
Chicken Wings
Greek Meatballs with Cucumber Sauce
Lemon Bars
Brownie Bites

That sounds like a lot.  Hopefully it will be enough.  But you can see how it might feel a bit intimidating.

On the other hand, planning for this sort of thing is exactly what I do best.  So the shopping list is made, the cooking tasks are listed, and I’ll be going to the store this afternoon or tomorrow morning.  And after that…

Well, we’ll just have to hope for the best.  And perhaps have some Alka-Seltzer handy.

One of the humorous, questionable advantages of having an older brother is that he always remembers your “classic” moments.  E-Bro loves to recount the tale of how, one summer morning when I was in my early teens, I asked him how to boil water.  I don’t think he’s stopped laughing yet.

But it’s true.  Although I admit that I learned a lot about how to make bacon and eggs that summer, a dish which became my signature breakfast through senior year of high school, I couldn’t cook anything else.  The kitchen was my Mother’s for dinner and my Father’s for baking.  Mother wasn’t a gourmet cook.  Her cooking was basic, normal, pretty good.  Nothing she was particularly proud of – it was a have-to-do, not a want-to-do.  The repertoire included such things as Spam, pot roast, chicken and dumplings, creamed chipped beef on toast, county-style steak, the ubiquitous canned/frozen veggie, and a hunk of iceberg lettuce with carrots, olives, etc. for salad.  When she wanted to drive me out of the house, she would make sauerkraut and sausages, naturally one of E-Bro’s favorites.

The irony of my first job being that of cook in a restaurant was not lost on me.  I worked the grill/deli side of the restaurant, occasionally venturing into the salad station downstairs in the fancy French part when the need was dire.  But as a grill cook, I learned to make a few things well: grilled cheese, pastrami sandwiches, cole slaw, chicken salad – nothing complicated, but enough to survive on.  And I sliced my hand to the bone on my 18th birthday, while demonstrating (most impressively as it turned out) what NOT to do when the meat slicer was running.

Moving onto college, my first important college boyfriend still stands by his accusation that my chicken-in-wine (one of my Mother’s special recipes) gave him food poisoning.  That was the first time I ever tried cooking for a boyfriend.  Come to think of it, I didn’t risk it again for probably six years.  Really.

I still stayed in the restaurant world for work.  After two and a half years in a pizzeria, I can make a mean pie. And I toss a mean dough.  Always a useful skill.  (I also severely burned my arm on the inside top of the pizza oven during one lunch rush.)  I basically survived on pizza, as I had convinced myself that I couldn’t cook.  At my apartment, I managed to boil artichokes, and eat peanuts out of the shell in bed.  That was pretty much how it was when I met Pat. 

Once we moved in together, he tried to help me understand that I COULD cook, I just WASN’T cooking.  He actually taught me a lot about things like not measuring and not following a recipe exactly.  I guess he taught me to relax in the kitchen, and in our pre-kid years, we enjoyed cooking together.  While I did have some notable failures, such as forgetting the baking soda in the banana bread, I reached a point where I felt confident in the kitchen.  (Though never with baking.)

But after Kelsea was born, and I was working so much, the kitchen became Pat’s domain.  In one of those many bizarre power plays that contributed to the downfall of our marriage, I let him convince me that I was an incompetent cook.  Any confidence that I had gained in the kitchen vanished, along with any joy in cooking.  It was just more work to me, and I didn’t like it.  I still experimented sometimes when things were still okay in our marriage, but the worse our marriage got, the less I wanted to be in the kitchen.  Maybe I’ll take that to the Red Couch for analysis sometime.

Then, I moved out.  And in my own little kitchen, with the basic implements that I remember my Mother having, I am pretty clueless.  I still love my cooking magazines and cookbooks – I like the idea of cooking.  I have limited counter space.  I still lack confidence, even though I now have time.  Being on the Atkins Diet (still working well, by the way), limits my culinary options fairly significantly – perhaps simplifies them would be a better term.  But I do try. 

Honestly, it’s a joke with Kelsea and me.  We reached a peak of lowness last weekend, when I attempted to broil pork chops while boiling water for crab legs.  Sounds like two simple and distinct actions, doesn’t it?  Well, the cottage is equipped with high ceilings and a smoke detector as sensitive as a bipolar woman with severe PMS.  Between some kind of grease build up on the broiler unit (from roasting chicken – and don’t tell me to clean the oven, because the last time I did that, I got a chemical burn on a very delicate body part, and so am gun-shy about repeating the process without body armour) and the steam from the crab legs, the smoke detector went off.  Permanently.  We opened the window in the kitchen, with Kelsea fanning the smoke away from the smoke detector with a full-size flag of Ireland.  We also opened the kitchen door, accidentally loosening the Mexican porcelain sculpture suspended from the kitchen ceiling, which fell with a splendid shattering crash to the tile entryway, spewing little pieces into the lawn.  Kelsea’s arms gave out, just as smoke started belching from the burners on the stove, so I turned everything off, and waved my sweater in front of the smoke detector until it stopped.  The pork chops and crab legs were overdone and Kelsea and I were done in.

I’m not ready to figuratively throw in the towel, but clearly my current strategy is not working.  Wait, I don’t even know what my current strategy is.  But tonight, as the chicken is roasting away, I have defeated one nemesis.  I took the battery out of the smoke detector.  Talk about living dangerously.

One of my favorite spontaneous questions to ask is, “You can pick anything, from anywhere in the world – what would your last meal be?”  It takes people aback and it makes them think about the best taste or the best emotion that they have attached to food.  I’ve found that people truly are divided into two camps – the ones who focus on tastes that struck them as orgasmic, and the ones who focus on sentimental foods that their mother made.  Perhaps that’s partly dependent on how good a cook one’s mother was.

(bottom image courtesy of www.jgfreedman.com)

Now, for me, if I were on death row and they had to get me whatever I wanted, they’d need some notice, as they’d have to fly some dishes in.  And I tell you, I’d be an absolute glutton.

My last meal would consist of (as a start):

Fresh Mango

Seared Ahi Tuna appetizer from the Blue Crab Lounge in Chicago

Soft Shell Crab Sandwich from the Crab Pot in Surf City, NC

Seafood Pasta from Foxy’s on Jost van Dyke

Fried Clam Strips from the Breezeway, Topsail Beach, NC

Guacamole and Chips from Zamas in Tulum

My very own Better Than Sex Soup  (they’d have to give me access to a kitchen)

My Mother’s Country Style Steak (though she’d have to be resurrected to make it, since neither I nor E-Bro have quite gotten it to turn out like hers)

Biscuits and Gravy from Dot’s Diner in Boulder

Shrimp and Grits from the Pink House in Savannah

Kentucky Fried Chicken (original recipe)

(Extra) Pepperoni Pizza from Pizza Colore in Boulder

Key Lime Pie from Rhymer’s in Cane Garden Bay, Tortola

Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes from a now-defunct Chicago restaurant whose name escapes me

A Butternut candy bar

Coconut water straight from the coconut

Veuve Clicquot (Orange Label) Champagne

Special Label Mojitos (it’s okay if I get drunk for my last meal, you know)

Apparently, it’s also okay if I go to the chair weighing 300 pounds.  They’ll just need to be sure that Old Sparky is extra-sturdy.

I’m sorry not to have a curry on the list, but I haven’t yet found one worthy.

A few notable last meals received (which, in reality, are not always what was requested):

Dobie Gillis Williams (Louisiana): Twelve candy bars and some ice cream.

James Edward Smith (Texas): requested a lump of dirt (request denied).

Odell Barnes (Texas): Justice, Equality, World Peace (request denied).

Philip Workman (Tennessee): He asked that a large vegetarian pizza be delivered to a homeless person in Nashville, but the prison denied his request.  However, many in the Nashville area fulfilled it.

Ricky Ray Rector (Arkansas): Steak, fried chicken, cherry Kool-Aid, and a pecan pie — which he did not eat, because he said he was saving it for later.

Victor Feguer (Iowa): requested a single olive with the pit still in.

If you’re interested in the actual last meals of death row inmates, you can find them here: http://deadmaneating.blogspot.com/.  Morbid, but fascinating.

And for lighter fare, check out My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals by Melanie Dunea and Last Suppers: If The World Ended Tomorrow, What Would Be Your Last Meal? by James Dickerson, both available at www.amazon.com.

But in reality, very few of us get to cherry-pick our last meals.

My paternal grandmother died at age 90.  The last few months of her life, she ate almost nothing.  Except she still loved chocolate.  My parents tried to get her to eat something healthy, but at some point they asked themselves “Why?” and gave up the fight.  She was 90 years old, for heaven’s sake, let her eat what she wants.  And so she did.

I cared for my Mother in her last 10 days or so, and could get her to eat very little, as much as I tried to tempt her.  But during her last few days, it was so difficult for her to swallow, she wanted nothing but Dibs – those little chocolate-covered ice cream nuggets that she could melt in her mouth, and then, finally, on the last two days, nothing but orange sherbet.  She loved it.  When she couldn’t really find the right words, she would just waggle her tongue at me to feed her a spoonful, and then sigh with pleasure.  It’s a nice memory.

I hope my last meal doesn’t come too soon.  There’s a lot of world to eat out there.  But next time you feel the dinner party/first date conversation flagging, try the question – it’ll make everybody think.

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