Taking Stock

I Must Admit…

[N.B. A briefer earlier version was on my FB page…]

I must admit it’s finally dawned on me that I’m getting—am already—old.
Curious feeling. Not altogether real.
But I had evidence of it on Christmas when I attempted to cook dinner for twelve.

It began as six assorted family, quite manageable, but then I discovered so-and-so and then so-and-so had no plans, naturally they must come to us and suddenly it was twelve.

Last time I did this, Bill and I agreed, NEVER AGAIN. Thought we meant it. Last Christmas we were in a condo in Kauai with lots of family, lots of eager cooks, so all I made was a Mushroom Wellington for our vegetarian. It felt odd after decades of Christmas cooking, but I didn’t mind all that much.

So this year in my customary Mrs. Gracious Cook Mode, oblivious—oblivious is my frame of mind these days–I planned the customary Christmas menu. Spent the afternoon rolling out and attaching a sheet of marzipan to crown Mr. Ottolenghi’s Festive Fruit Cake…cutting up persimmons and feta cheese for the salad…making sure there were enough Idahos for the mashed potatoes…dumb stuff.

Not dumb was that at 4:00 o’clock, I’d checked the roast beef’s temperature—it was beyond where it was supposed to be, so I pulled the pan out of the oven, an hour prematurely. Covered it with the requisite foil, fretted.

Lord a’mercy, suddenly it was 5:00 o’clock and guests were due at 6:00! Had to feed Uschi. Poured myself a glass of rosé, poured Bill a glass of cabernet sauvignon. I didn’t need to get dressed because with the full-length brace on my left leg (supporting my mending fractured kneecap), every morning after freshening it in the dryer, I pull on the long denim skirt with the elastic waistband I made eleven years ago, the only thing I can reasonably wear…

So I took stock. First I needed to clear spaces on the counters in the kitchen so everyone could come in and serve themselves buffet style.

Quarter to six, my daughter and son-in-law arrived. Then three more grandchildren. Then our friend John who asked what was I doing in the kitchen? No idea. As I recall, I wasn’t altogether there…numb…spaced out.

What on earth was happening to me?

With a thud I realized I hadn’t even started the mashed potatoes. Abandon them? No way. I’d promised mashed potatoes to Potato-Loving-William. Got them started (terrific method in the old America’s Test Kitchen “The New Best Recipe” master volume—you put whole Idahos in a pot, cover with water, boil to fork-tenderness, drain, pick each up with a cooking fork and pull the skins off, pass potatoes through the food mill—largest blade—into the still-hot cooking pot, stir in soft butter…except it’s supposed to be melted but who has time to melt butter at that point?…cream…actually oat milk because of our vegan…salt and pepper, divine). Grandson Arthur had the Brussels sprouts under control in the toaster oven… Arthur is a sophisticate, mentioned great Brussels sprouts he’d eaten in a New York or was it Parisian restaurant that were crispy…Grandson Cameron loves Brussels sprouts (do you also know a fourteen-year-old boy who loves Brussels sprouts?) so I’d bought one of those yard-long sculptural stalks at the market, pale green orbs attached up and down it like outer space baubles. Arthur popped them off, sliced each in half, tossed them well with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a drizzle of light yuzu vinegar, laid them on a baking sheet, and roasted them (he says 400 degrees for about 25 minutes till crispy, only there were too many for the toaster oven baking sheet, they had to be in two layers, Arthur was disappointed they didn’t finish crispy…still were wonderfully delicious). Daughter Catharine began dressing the salad (David Tanis’s inspiration of navel oranges and persimmons, I added feta and mixed baby greens) with best olive oil and her gift of the exquisite yuzu vinegar.

Okay. But it was 6:15 and I was still under water.

Son-in-law Supercook Gary came into the kitchen, looked under the foil tent at the $142 chunk of meat. (Actually, much as I enjoy the flavor, I do not approve of serving beef—too much water needed to produce each pound of eating, too much farting polluting the air, besides, it’s eating an animal.) I asked if he’d do the carving honors. Got out the carbon steel knife I’ve cherished since the mountain, sharpened it on a honing steel, grabbed a cooking fork, handed them to him.

Gary began slicing. I could feel something uncomfortable hovering in the air. “Uh, Sylvia, it’s not cooked in the center.” I looked. Bloody. Holy Toledo.

The recipe said to roast at 250 degrees but around noon I discovered my oven thermometer had capriciously disappeared (popped into my head the French term il se cache which means it’s hiding itself—found it the next morning tucked invisibly in the crevice between oven and oven door, wretched thing) and I think my oven is 25 degrees off. We ran to three neighbors asking to borrow their oven thermometer but nobody had one (I didn’t have the luxury of pondering how you can cook without an oven thermometer to test the verity of your oven but clearly people—bright and good people–do), so I crossed my fingers and hoped. But when the instant thermometer read 130 degrees, I took the roast out as instructed, maybe the instant-read thermometer was off, too.

Dear Gary pulled the big flat roasting pan onto my front burner, began sautéing raw slices in drippings, resourcefully saving the day. I just stood there, awestruck, dumbfounded.

Salad tossed, I set the enormous bowl on the table, asked everyone to come seat themselves, enjoy the first course. We were seated refectory style at three narrow tables fitted end to end, napped with my mother’s old pale blue plaid cotton tablecloths and our newish red cotton napkins. I never managed to add decorations—no time, no space, no wits. Picardie wine glasses in hand, family and friends sorted themselves out nicely.

The salad was exquisite I’m told. Didn’t get to taste it. I was still in the kitchen, slogging my way through cobwebs. Was I just too tired? Was it beyond my strength, my capability? Was this nonsense hobbling about with a long steel brace on one unbendable leg for two months sapping my energy?

I forced myself through the machinations of Mashed Potatoes. I was feeling a little more present, pushing away the circumstances under which I Was Making Mashed Potatoes. Lordy, the peas! Opened the three bags of frozen peas I’d set by the stove, emptied them into a big pot, threw in butter, heated them quickly, and I seem to remember someone snatching the pot and whisking it off to the table. It dawned on me that dish by dish was being carried to the table and handed around—or perhaps someone was serving, I’ve no idea. The time I’d taken clearing up counter surfaces in the kitchen to make space for a buffet had been wasted. Oh well. This was way better.

Never got to taste the peas, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, or sautéd roast beef. I’d bought Pillsbury’s pop-open-the-carton dinner rolls (very good) but had no heart to cope with them. They’d keep.

But time came for dessert. Would it be better?

That morning I couldn’t find my tart book—“Festive Tarts”–that I was proud of, had delectable recipes, wanted to make something from it, but I COULD NOT FIND A COPY ANYWHERE IN THE HOUSE!!! I’ve just found it in my study. (You should see my study today. Did you see the photograph I took of it when I wrote about Einstein, Calder, and me and our messy studies? Well at this moment, that study was neat as a pin.)

So I made Ottolenghi’s short crust pastry, fitted it in a shallow 12-inch tart pan. Ottolenghi had no apple tart recipe so I poached thinnish slices of Honeycrisp apples with a handful of golden raisins in a light syrup, when they were cool, spread them over the tart pan, baked it, then glazed the apples with some of my Meyer lemon marmalade. I think I’ll make it again and give you the recipe, it was splendid. Ottolenghi’s Festive Fruit Cake was the finest fruited cake ever. So at least dessert passed muster. Maybe I’m not completely over the hill…

I finally did sit down at the table next to Bill, was pleased at the murmurings over Christmas dinner. Ate nothing that I can remember. I think it was around 8:30 that I had to disappear, collapsed into bed. Didn’t want Bill having to clean up, but in the morning I discovered that four—or was it five?–darling elves did the cleanup…so blessed!

Now got the garage to clean up after diving into it for holiday stuff. And my study!!!!!!! There are still gifts I haven’t sent off. And we postponed our Christmas Letter to make it our New Year’s Letter…got that to do…

At any rate, I’m not going to spend any time worrying over what happened, why it happened. My mother’s motto was Avanti! Forward! The proper attitude for old people (she ended her days at 100). I would imagine the lesson I learned was, as the saying goes, Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Maybe next year we really will send out for Chinese. But I hope not.

In the meantime, may 2023 be bright and beautiful for us all. With pax in abundance.

And now instead of the lentil soup I’d planned to make Bill for supper, he agreed he’d be happy with poached eggs on spinach (Eggs Florentine), my go-to-when-out-of-kilter supper. Served with kisses, the best finish. Oh, and grated Parmesan…

Cheers, dears. And a Very Happy New Year.

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