The dinner party you prepare in the kitchen that isn’t yours

— can be a haphazard affair, to put it generously. Also complicating matters: when you help create the shopping list, but then are not the one who does the marketing. Things can go awry. For example, the man who has written down on the list “white rice,” and who needed to grab only a simple, inexpensive bag of good old American white rice, like a cheap bag of Carolina, or even store brand rice, has come home with a tiny little box of hideously priced, completely ill-suited to the recipe, arborio rice.

You don’t use arborio rice to make rice pilaf. But the man driving to Stop and Shop didn’t know that, clearly. I am sure he thought, “Well, this costs more, so it must be what she [my food-snobby, overly obsessed with cooking daughter-in-law] would buy.” But he would be wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So while I’d planned to make a nice, simple rice pilaf with white rice and orzo and a little bit of shallot, I was suddenly forced to reconceive my plan. I made a risotto, with orzo thrown in for the hell of it (and to bulk up the pot, because the 12 oz. of arborio was not going to cut it).

The dinner was a birthday dinner for my father in law’s lady friend, a nice woman with a good sense of humor and, I had been told, a certain level of skill in the kitchen. Would my husband and I be willing to cook a dinner for her? Father in law was certainly not capable of it. Husband and I agreed immediately to do it, and began to wonder what the menu should be. We arrived at the following: roast chicken with lime and garlic (to use up ingredients my husband had added to our Christmas stockings — yes, he put limes, garlic, shallots, and artichokes in the stockings); rice pilaf; a green bean casserole; blondies for dessert. I would be in charge of the blondies.

Cooking at my father in law’s house is always something of an adventure. His kitchen is not very well organized, which is fine, if sometimes a little scary. He does not cook, but has a tendency to purchase ingredients nonetheless without any real sense of how they should properly be stored, or how long they might last (especially given their storage). In other words, it’s quite possible you might open the fridge to find a bottle of Frangelico in there (which needs no refrigeration) along with a can of breadcrumbs (ditto), and then, on the door of the fridge, a bottle of mango juice with mold growing in it that makes it resemble nothing so much as a tasty bubble tea drink. I can assure you: that is not tapioca in there. It is mold.

We preheated the oven, which had no thermometer in it, and has probably never been calibrated since it was installed when the house was built in 1963. “It doesn’t really feel that hot in there,” I mused, when I opened the oven to see what I thought. “But I’ll put the blondies in first, and then we can turn it up so you can start the chicken at high heat.” Husband agreed this was a reasonable plan. I opened the cabinet where, I knew, the white flour should be kept, and measuring cups. The first thing I saw when I opened the door was an open box of D-Con.

I closed my eyes for a moment, reached in, and took out the flour and the measuring cup. After I’d washed the cup, I measured out the flour (it looked like a reasonably recent purchase) and put the rest of the bag away in its protective (that’s sarcasm, there) Ziploc bag.

The bag of brown sugar had a cobweb growing around the wire tie closing the bag. But the sugar felt soft. I was in good shape.

I assembled the blondies and baked them; they came out beautifully in about 20 minutes, so the oven was, presumably, reliable enough. While the sweets cooled, my husband got to work on the chicken. He’d already set up the béchamel for the green bean casserole. I surveyed the kitchen: we were in excellent shape.

At six thirty, the meal was served. It was as good as anything we’d’ve cooked at home, though we had improvised on a lot of little details, and were working with decidedly inferior cooking equipment. (For example: the handles of saucepans are supposed to be attached to the saucepans, not come off as soon as you try to lift the pan of hot liquid from the heat.) No one reacted to the food by vomiting profusely (indicating to me that the box of D-Con had not tainted my blondies). Will my father in law ever understand that he is, in fact, capable of roasting a chicken? That nothing we did was difficult at all; that it all merely took some time and effort — and not even much effort, at that (it is not hard to pull a dead chicken from a bag, put it in a pan, and shove some garlic and lime into its cavity and then bung the whole thing into a hot oven). I don’t know. I don’t know. I know that he’ll never really appreciate that meal, but the birthday girl did, and for that, I am grateful.

I am also exceedingly grateful, today, to be back at home, where the pot handles are all firmly attached to the pots; where I know how to clean things properly; where there are no smelly sponges that I’m supposed to use to clean the dishes; where the knives aren’t so dull they are going to hurt me; and where, most of all, I can cook what I want and only worry about pleasing myself, my husband, and my child. They are easy to please: if it’s good, they’re happy. Home is where the food tastes right.


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