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I was, at the time I started this blog, part of a class at Kalamazoo College on food and travel writing. So if you like food, or travel, or participating in interesting discussions having to do with both or either of those things, you are in the right place. Also, you should check out my classmates' blogs because they're awesome.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Perfect Meal-Final

            My “perfect meal,” as it turned out, was more of a series of challenges I had to overcome in order to make this dinner work, but in the end I found parts I could laugh at and I was satisfied with it. In the beginning I was imagining things going along the same lines as when my mom cooks dinner, where everything goes smoothly and all the dishes arrive on the table at exactly the right time, piping hot and ready to eat. But, as I was about to discover, this was going to be a learning experience.
I gave myself two rules for this dinner:
1. For once don’t worry about where the food came from; because in the time frame I had I couldn’t waste time finding better ingredients that cost more, I had to stay under a $100.00 spending limit.
2. Try to stay as close to my mom’s recipe as possible, but I could to change things if I needed to.
It began with a simple plan: chicken tetrazzini as the main dish. Chicken tetrazzini is my favorite food ever in the history of the universe because of the many happy memories attached to it and how it makes me feel every time it eat it. The first time I ever had it was in sixth grade at a friend’s house on Halloween because that was what her mom cooked for dinner before we went out trick-or-treating. It was cold, I was hungry, and I was on cloud nine because I was with my best friend for the first time in months. After fifth grade we ended up at different schools, so I no longer saw her every day. I don’t remember my costume that year, but I remember we had chicken tetrazzini for dinner. It was one of those magic moments when you taste something and go “What is this stuff? I want to eat it every day for the rest of my life!” After I split from that friend, my mom put her own twist on the recipe, which changed it from being the dish I’d eaten with the girl I wasn’t friends with anymore to being something my mom cooked when it was just going to be the two of us home for dinner or when she wanted to make me very, very happy. It became my special dish because no one else in my family liked it. And, of course, because of the fact that it’s my favorite dish and my mom makes it especially for me, it is the king of all comfort foods.
I already knew the basics of what I’d need—pasta, chicken, cooking sherry, parmesan, milk, garlic, mushroom, and onion. But other than that, I had no idea what I was doing, especially not when I was cooking for five other people besides myself. So I did what any smart chef would do when they’re out of their depth, and I called upon a better chef than myself. In other words, I asked my mom. She emailed me the recipe she based hers off of and then told me what changes to make. I already had a vegetable, since my mom had given me some squash to bring back with me after midterm break. I hadn’t gotten around to eating it yet, so I decided that would probably agree with everyone. And if my friends didn’t like squash, well, that just meant there would be more left over for me. Once I knew what I was going to serve, I thought I was all set. But my adventure as chef-for-a-day was only just beginning.
First I had to get my ingredients, a chain of events which involved a lot of text messaging and finally an out-of-the-blue offer from my friend Caitlin, who said she would chauffeur me to the store and back when I mentioned I was making a meal. I couldn’t invite her because she had something important going on the night I was planning on having the meal, not because she isn’t a wonderful person. She took me the day before I was planning on making dinner. I knew I had to get everything for under $100, so I decided that Meijer was my best shot. We got to Meijer and I found almost everything I needed—except the cooking sherry. That was bad.  The cooking sherry is what has made this dish amazing in the past. It gives the creamy sauce that’s similar to alfredo an extra twist of flavor that goes extremely well with chicken, parmesan, mushrooms, and pasta.
Thus began the frustrating but amusing Great Sherry Hunt. I looked on the shelf where it was marked “COOKING SHERRY,” but alas, there was no cooking sherry. Caitlin and I walked around, trying to think of other places Meijer might put cooking sherry, because sometimes Meijer has the same things at two different places in the store, but no such luck. So I asked one of the salespeople to help us. When he saw that there wasn’t any on the shelf, he offered to go back into the stock room and see if they had any there. Strike two. There wasn’t any in the back. So he thought maybe there might be some down the liquor aisle, which I guess makes sense, but Caitlin and I kept getting weird looks from adults because were both too young to be buying any alcohol. We looked at each other and had to bite our lips to keep from laughing.
There wasn’t any cooking sherry in the liquor aisle either.
I thanked the man for his time and then Caitlin and I went to check out. By that time, it was past six. I was getting a little bit cranky and very hungry, plus Caitlin needed to get back because she was late for a practice, but in a last-ditch effort, I asked her to stop in at Target to see if Target had any cooking sherry. Voila, Target had exactly…three bottles. Fortunately, I only needed one.
When it finally got around to the night I was planning on making dinner, I quickly learned that cooking enough for six people in a college dorm is an immense amount of work. First I had to transfer my ingredients and cooking utensils from my room to the kitchen before I could do anything else, which in itself took fifteen minutes. What did I learn from this? Start earlier. I had planned for dinner at 6:30 or 7 in the evening, since that’s when my family usually eats dinner, but it was quickly becoming obvious that everything was going to take longer—or at least seem like it would take longer to accomplish—because I was on a time constraint. It also didn’t help any that I was doing this all on my own. I’d told my friends that I was cooking dinner, so they took me at my word, but I was used to having several family members at my disposal to do things like chop onions and garlic and mushrooms, so it was harder than I was expecting.
The kitchen itself wasn’t all that welcoming. The cupboards were empty and the fridge was mostly empty as well. The microwave and the oven were brand new, so that was nice, but then I noticed the stove. The stove was electric, and I hate electric stoves. They’re like an evil younger sibling: annoying and difficult. Trying to control the temperature of them is next to impossible unless the person trying to cook something knows the quirks of the particular stove they’re trying to work on. I did not know this stove, which immediately told me I would have to watch things extra carefully so they didn’t burn. Added to that was the fact that I was tripping myself up over how long different things were taking to do—the onions didn’t get soft fast enough, the mushrooms took longer than the recipe said to get brown—and the abrupt arrival of two Chinese girls, chattering away in Mandarin and looking around at the mess I’d successfully managed to make within ten minutes of beginning to cook. I’d bet money on the fact that they probably thought I was a little bit nuts. They then proceeded to take over two of the four burners on the stove, but fortunately that was no problem to me because I was only using one.
Now, I’m used to smelling the progress of dishes as they are prepared. In mine I had started with sautéing onion and then adding garlic and chicken, and the smells kept combining into something delicious. Until the other girls started cooking. To be honest, their soup clashed horribly with the beginnings of my sauce on the stove. There was a sharp, almost fermented smell that I didn’t recognize, plus raw tofu and fish. None of those go particularly well with chicken tetrazzini. And all the while they were talking in Chinese. Since I was excluded for the most part from their conversation, I felt a little bit like I was invading someone else’s space without permission, which was odd because it was a public kitchen.
Trying to share the kitchen was like a circus clown act, or a movie scene where everything goes hilariously wrong but comes out okay, because I was getting in their way just as much as they were getting in mine. There wasn’t enough counter space for the both of us, so we kept having to dodge each other on our way back and forth from the counter to the stove. At least one of them could speak English, because a couple of times she had to ask me to move so she could get to one of the cupboards. Then the stove itself began causing problems. One of their pots would boil over, or I would accidentally spill some of the tetrazzini sauce because my frying pan was too small. That added a layer of burnt smells to the kitchen. Eventually they left, which gave me some room to breathe while I finished cooking the pasta that would be the base of the dish. I had to make two boxes, because I knew that one of my friends—Marquise—would eat three times as much as everyone else. He’s a weightlifter, so he always eats a lot. My friend Stephanie showed up early, so I employed her help making sure the second batch of pasta didn’t boil over while I warmed up the squash my mom had given me in the microwave. It took slightly longer than I was expecting, but I eventually got everything onto the table in the third floor lounge of the dorm. As my friends and I all sat down, I apologized for the horrendous smell, and said it wasn’t my fault. They laughed and Andrea said: “It’s fine, Rachel, the food will taste good anyway.”
At first I didn’t believe her. I was really nervous but also excited to see what my friends would think. I had invited everyone was closest to here at college, which added up to all of five people: Stephanie, Sara, Andrea, Ashley, and Marquise. But because they were my closest friends, I started worrying about things that could go wrong. What if they weren’t hungry? What if they didn’t like what I’d made? Then I told myself to stop it; they were my friends and they loved me. So I sat them all down and started serving. Marquise was late because I’d sent him to go get milk, but everyone seemed genuinely impressed with the food. Andrea, Sara, and Ashley each said it was delicious at some point during the meal. I scarfed down a first serving and then I just let them talk amongst themselves while I dashed in and out checking on the brownies I was baking for dessert. I don't actually remember tasting the food all that much, because my brain was so occupied with everything else. Later I realized that while it hadn't tasted as good as my mom's—nothing ever could—I'd given it my best shot, and though I had been nervous in the back of my mind, I had enjoyed myself. I was probably nervous because I’m a perfectionist and very little involved in getting this meal together had been perfect, but it had been fun. Not as relaxing as I had hoped, but fun. After we finished eating, we talked about Ebonics and code switching between when we went home and when we were at school. We kept trying to get Marquise to speak Ebonics, but he couldn’t. He kept laughing and protesting, saying “it’s difficult to do when I’m not among other people who speak it too!”
Though it was fun, it didn’t feel the same as sitting down to a dinner with family. This meal was an assignment for a class, so I somehow felt that my friends were going to be judging my cooking skills. I was cooking not because I needed food or because I wanted to, but because I was supposed to cook something “perfect” and this really hadn’t been perfect. I can see how professional chefs would end up yelling things if their kitchens didn’t work like clockwork, because having to do things within a certain time period where people are expecting a certain level of proficiency from you definitely adds a stress that wouldn’t be there if, for example, I was baking bread at home on a Saturday morning during the summer.  If I had to deal with that stress all day every day as my job that people were paying me to do, it would make me want to yell and throw things too. I guess I see it as kind of like someone asking me to read them every single poem I’ve ever written, whether I like it or not. I see cooking as an art form, one that apparently I’m decent at, because my friends finished everything except the squash, and that was only because my mom sent me a heck of a lot of squash. Three of them asked for the tetrazzini recipe.
Sara and Ashley offered to stay behind and help with dishes, so that was nice. That’s what I’ve always hated about cooking: I have to clean up my own messes. But I didn’t drop anything and break it, and nothing else went wrong. It was actually rather enjoyable, because we gossiped about boys while we cleaned up together.
When I got into bed that night I felt the same kind of tired as I do after I’ve finished six hours of work editing, proofreading, and expanding a story or poem: an accomplished tired. I had done what I set out to do successfully, despite the problems that arose. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that getting everything on the table at the same time hot and ready to eat was either much harder than my mother made it look, or I just wasn’t quite proficient at it yet. Next quarter I’ll try again, and because of my experience with this meal, it will work better and be less stressful for me. It won’t be the same as if I was at home, but I am determined, so maybe next time I will be more successful at bringing a little bit of home to college.

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