Kim and I were newlyweds, and we decided to invite our friends, Des and Sally, over for dinner. Kim would prepare a wild rice and mushroom soup – something she had made before. We soon learned that she had not made it before using well-named elephant ear mushrooms. What makes this funny is that Kim was not an inexperienced cook. She was and is a great cook, with a lot of knowledge about ingredients as well as techniques – the stuff she is trying to teach me. She probably sent me to the store to buy mushrooms, and I brought home dried elephant ears. (This probably explains why, even now, she is reluctant to have me shop for groceries.)
We served the wild rice and mushroom soup, with the mushrooms, as I recall, overflowing the bowls and dripping onto the plates. Instead of simply doubling in size, they soaked up all the moisture in the soup and looked about the size of a frisbee. Kim apologized, but Des and Sally were very gracious, complimenting the taste and texture of the soup and ignoring the appearance. (I wish cell phones had been invented then so I could share photos here.) Their compliments made it more embarrassing, as you can imagine.
Genné had a similar experience. She was newly married, and she was cooking a meal for her new in-laws. The main course was beef stroganoff, and one of the final steps was to sprinkle it with flour to make gravy. Genné, who was carrying her baby on her back, was being “helped” by her new (now: divorced) husband, who handed her an unmarked Tupperware container that was supposed to contain flour. Nope – it was powdered sugar. She still recalls how nice her in-laws were, smiling and complimenting her on her creativity (which, of course, made it worse), and insisting on choking down as much of the meal as they could so they wouldn’t waste the meat – this, despite Genné’s begging them to get a pizza.
Kim also remembers a Thanksgiving when she was to prepare roast duck. The problem: She neglected to take the duck out of the freezer. There followed some frantic efforts to thaw the duck – a project I wish I had witnessed.
My own parallel experience illustrates a Truth that I have learned through my years: If you are going to do something poorly, do it poorly on purpose.
When I first moved to Ann Arbor I ran into a college friend, Dan, who was a student in Law School. He was with his wife, who was mortified when he invited himself over to dinner despite the fact that I had not even hinted at an invitation. His wife was mortified at his rudeness, though I immediately recognized it as what we called “humor.”
So, when they came to dinner I served them pork chops that I had burned to a crisp and potatoes that I had baked for about ten minutes. Dan gave me a knowing look of appreciation, while his wife gamely tried to eat the pork chops and drive her fork into her potato, smiling as she tried to come up with compliments. Dan and I never acknowledged the game. I wonder if they are still married.
That was not my only culinary triumph. After I was divorced and occasionally cooking for my sons in my apartment, I would often present them with what I called “the yellow meal”: boxed mac and cheese, applesauce, and carrot sticks. I told them that if there were any complaints, they would get “the green meal.” They never asked for specifics.
Meanwhile, this morning I cooked a perfect piece of raisin toast.