What’s the most elaborate, complicated meal you’ve ever cooked?
Once upon a time, I lived in a house with five other people. Being moderately adept at mathematics, I can say that that means that there were six of us. Six (nominally) adult males. Six tidiness-impaired individuals, six individuals highly resistant to direction and organization and six… healthy appetites. The appetites are important because….
Despite the intrinsic resistance to organization of the undergraduate male, we had some rules.
In particular, we had six (really eight, but some of them were small) jobs that we decided had to be done every week. So we had a schedule and it rotated so that everyone had to clean the upstairs bathroom but only once every month and a half. And, there being six of us and six nights in a week (we decided Sundays didn’t count), everyone had to cook dinner once a week.
Cooking for six adult (ish) males can be a little tricky (due to volume) but not too tricky (they’ll eat almost anything, after all). It’s made trickier by the inevitability that in any group of six people — let alone six males in that age range in that time period — there will be some that are not overly gifted in the kitchen. One guy, for example, had to be convinced that things like onions and garlic were not the work of the devil and could be useful additions to some dishes. (It took about a year.) Another guy had a dish that he liked to prepare that he called “chef’s revenge.” (Often the people tasked with shopping — one of the
eight six jobs on the schedule — would ‘forget’ to buy him the right ingredients. Damn.)
One night it was my turn to cook. I knew this. No problem. I had this. That week I had decided to make a dish created by an American humorist in around 1960. I had made it before, it was fairly quick, fairly easy, scaled conveniently and everyone (well, everyone in that group) liked it. Win for everyone. I gave the assigned shoppers the ingredients that I’d need and waited for my day by doing other things like going to class, doing assignments and ridiculing med students. Eventually Der Tag arrived. I went home and started slicing onions.
The first crack in my carefully constructed facade of calm came from the guy that lived downstairs in the front room. Could his girlfriend come for dinner?
Now, this wasn’t all that unusual. Some of the guys had girlfriends. Sometimes they came to dinner. And let’s face it — none of the girlfriends ate all that much. (Certainly not compared to the walking stomachs that inhabited the house.) No, the addition of a girlfriend wasn’t a problem; it meant setting another place at the table but that’s all. No problem.
A little while later another guy (or it could have been the same one — this is one of the details that I don’t remember and it doesn’t really matter anyway) came into the kitchen and said that his sister was in town and could she come to dinner?
That was, of course, a slightly different kettle of fish. For one thing, I didn’t know this sister. Did she have a dainty girlfriend-like appetite? Would she be hungry after a day on the road? Heck, would she even like grayish sludge? And no matter what the answers to these questions were, she did represent a second extra person at the table; perhaps it would be prudent to extend the recipe a little.
We had a can of cash over the sink for situations like this. And we lived a short walk from a supermarket that isn’t there any more. I snagged a roomie (an electrical engineer if that matters — engineers are often detail-oriented people and he wasn’t doing anything right then anyway) and sent him to the supermarket that isn’t there anymore to get some more ingredients, mostly protein and ballast (#4). End of crisis.
By the time the engineer came back with the supplies I had set another place at the table. Things were going okay when the roomie-with-the-sister came in and counted the place settings. He looked unhappy.
“Didn’t I tell you my sister was coming?”
“You did. That’s her place right there.”
“Well, yeah, but she’s bringing her husband and two children.”
I panicked. Three extra mouths? How could he have forgotten to mention that? Three extra mouths? The kids were a huge wildcard — I didn’t even know how old they were — but another guy? Guys eat a lot. I definitely didn’t have enough food and there wasn’t time to send the engineer back to the supermarket that isn’t there anymore. I had two options. The first of these was to lie on the kitchen floor, scream and kick my feet. The second option — the one I decided to take — was to go through every cupboard in the house and examine every single foodstuff I found. For each one I asked myself a single question: “Would it be a disaster if I added this to the pot?”
A lot of things wound up going into that pot.
After dinner the sister came up to me and said “I’m told you made dinner.”
Uh-oh. I remember thinking that she probably thought that I’d poisoned her kids — I had been told they had no food allergies, honest — so she was going to have to kill me. I wondered if I could make it to the back door before she got to the knife block. (No cleaver though. The comic potential of a cleaver in that sort of scene cannot be overstated.)
I counted the steps to the door while I faced the music. “I did.”
She smiled. (She smiled? What was she, some kind of psycho? But wait, she was talking…) “That was really good. I was wondering if I could have the recipe.”
So I did what anyone in my situation would have done. I said “No.”
She was taken aback. Apparently you don’t often get told “no” when you ask your host (me? a host? doom!) for a recipe. Clearly I was some sort of culinary snob. But I wasn’t — it’s just that I had almost no idea what was in that pot and even less idea in what proportions.
Is it any wonder that, thirty years later, I still don’t like the sobriquet ‘host’?