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. I was imagining things going along the same lines as when my mom cooks dinner, in which everything arrives on the table at exactly the right time, all piping hot and ready to eat. But, as I was about to discover, this was going to be a learning experience.
The rules I gave myself for cooking this dinner were:
1. for once don’t worry about where the food comes from, just stay under the spending limit.
2. try to stay as close to my mom’s recipe as possible, but I was allowed to change things if I needed to.
The dinner plan was simple: chicken tetrazzini as the main dish. Not only is that my favorite food ever in the history of the universe, but it has many happy memories attached to it. The first time I ever had it was in fifth grade at a friend’s house on Halloween because that was what her mom cooked for dinner before we went out trick-or-treating. I don’t remember my costume, but I remember we had chicken tetrazzini for dinner. My friend didn’t like her mushrooms so I ate them for her. Eventually I split from that friend, but my mom had already gotten the recipe from my friend’s mom and she put her own twist on it, 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, because no one else in my family liked it. It kept its place in my heart as 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. I had my own cooking utensils, because last year my mother sent me a box full of them. 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 layman’s terms, I asked my mom. She emailed me the recipe she based hers off of and then told me what changes to make. I also already had a vegetable in mind, because my mom had sent some squash home with me when I came back from midterm break, but I hadn’t gotten around to eating it yet, so I decided that squash with homemade maple syrup as a sweetener would probably agree with everyone. And if they didn’t like it, 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 a friend to chauffeur me to the store and back when I mentioned I was making a meal even though she wasn’t invited, because she’s 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, as luck would have it.
Thus began the Great Sherry Hunt. I looked on the shelf where it was marked “COOKING SHERRY,” but alas, there was no cooking sherry. So my friend and I walked around, trying to think of other places Meijer might put something like cooking sherry, because sometimes Meijer has the same things at two different places in the store. 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 my friend and I kept getting weird looks from adults because were both too young to be buying any alcohol.
There wasn’t any cooking sherry in the liquor aisle either.
I thanked the man for his time and my friend and I went check out. By that time, was past six, I was cranky, hungry, and my friend needed to get back because she was late for a practice, but using the final shreds of my patience, I decided to stop in at Target to see if Target had any. Voila, Target had exactly…three bottles. I guess I got lucky that nobody else wanted cooking sherry that night. I felt sort of like Michael Pollan hunting for wild mushrooms, only I was hunting cooking sherries.
|Me, wondering where the sherry was.|
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 everything 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 took 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’m used to having several family members at my disposal to do things like chop onions and garlic and mushrooms.
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.
I hate electric stoves.
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 half the burners on the stove, which was interesting. It was no problem to me—I only had one pan to cook with.
Now, I’m used to smelling the progress of dishes as they are prepared: onion, then added garlic smell, then added chicken smell, and so on and so forth. Not so in this case. To be honest, the smell of whatever they were cooking clashed horribly with the beginnings of my sauce on the stove. And all the while they were talking in Chinese. Since I was excluded 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.
When it came to finally eat the food, I was really nervous 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. 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? I was also busy trying to figure out what I was going to do with all the extra chicken I had because I’d forgotten to buy enough ingredients to double the sauce recipe. I ended up being so preoccupied with other things and worrying that I didn’t actually do all that much talking with my friends, I just let them talk amongst themselves while I dashed in and out checking on the brownies I was baking for dessert and scarfing dinner in between. Later I realized that the whole point of this had been to make time for an evening just to be with people I liked who wanted to eat food that wasn’t prepackaged, but it had turned into me worrying more about the food than whether or not my friends had a good time.
I served them on plates they had brought since I didn’t have enough for all six of us, and then passed the squash around the table. A few minutes of silence were followed by various outbursts of “oh my god this is delicious!” but 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 because I had to, not because I wanted to, and it really changed the experience. 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 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 is 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.
Doing dishes was on me, even though two of my friends were nice and offered to stay behind and help. That’s what I’ve always hated about cooking: I have to clean up my own messes. But I didn’t drop or break anything, and nothing else went wrong. Maybe it was my dishes’ way of apologizing for the hard time I’d had making the meal.
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. I guess I’ll have to try again, and next time, it will be better.