Food for Thought
Mr. Mensa lays an egg
This kind of disaster doesn’t creep up on you; it’s not like one of those super slo-mo films of a light bulb breaking, where you see each shard disengage from the others and flutter gracefully through the air, like a sharp-edged and sluggish butterfly.
No, it happens very quickly, almost imperceptibly fast.
It reminds me of an ill-fated trolley trip I took in Amsterdam. I was off by myself, with a bit of time to fritter away. I had walked to the central business district and I spotted a trolley that appeared to be headed back toward the Singelgracht and the spot where I needed to be, the Leidseplein, near enough to the Van Gogh Museum that it would be but a short walk there once I got back together with Kathy. Why not, I thought.
I jumped on board and the train lurched forward. I gazed out the window admiring that oh-so-quaint Dutch architecture and suddenly realized the trolley had made a U-turn in the middle of a large square. It was headed the opposite direction from where I needed to go.
And it wasn’t stopping. Apparently, I had hopped an express.
Long story short: It finally stopped. At the edge of the Red Light District.
Not an entirely unamusing place to be — especially the Java section. And certainly worth of an inspection. But, about as far from where I was supposed to be as possible. And someone waiting across the city was more than a bit peeved.
The point of the story?
Foodwise, you can also board what seems to be the right train and, before you know it … you are in a part of town that is less than savory, far from where you need to be.
In other words, you bomb. Lay an egg. Fail, utterly.
To make matters worse, this kind of sharp reversal of food fortune invariably occurs when you least need it to.
As in, when you have guests. Special guests who anticipate a treat.
Such was the case for me, a week or so ago.
Six guests.
Sitting down to one of the worst meals I have ever prepared.
I got too clever, thought too much about the obvious things; didn’t devote an instant to what should have been equally obvious, had it not been obscured by the gas emitted by my enormous ego.
As with most food disasters, things were going well — until it counted. Until that element I failed to reckon with kicked in and demolished everything.
Here’s the scenario: I got talked into doing a United Way charity dinner. People pay the charitable organization a set amount of money; they come to a designated home, they eat, everyone is (or should be) happy. It’s a comfy proposition: on one end, emergency supplies are purchased and stored, orphans are clothed, homes are constructed, puppies are adopted. On the other end, folks enjoy some food and drink.
Sounded like a decent thing to do.
So, I get to planning the day before the event. No need to rush things. I had pimped the affair by noting the dinner would be nothing special, nothing pretentious — nothing more than we would serve on any occasion when we have six people over for dinner (which rarely occurs).
Hmm, asks Clever Karl: What can I make that can be prepped and cooked sufficiently ahead of time to allow me to cart items to the table in an orderly fashion? I’m humming along like the guy who sets German train schedules: Everything has a time, everything has a designated place in a rigid order. All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
Brainiac has the answer: A daube — a French stew, of sorts — in this case, beef marinated overnight and braised in red wine with aromatics, with some carrot, mushrooms and pearl onions added to the strained liquid at the end of the cooking process. It can be made ahead of time and pulled to the table at its peak.
What else?
How about a roasted beet salad, the slices of beets arranged atop a bed of crisp greens and coarsely chopped walnuts, dressed in a Dijon vinaigrette, the entire mess crowned with a round of chevre? That’ll work, thinks the Al Einstein of the kitchen.
Perhaps a couple pans of the king of potatoes — potatoes dauphinoise, the ultimate heart-stopper, loaded with a truckload of artery-clogging cream and butter. Ummm, thinks Mr. Mensa, good idea. Don’t forget the defibrillator.
Then, why not a ratatouille — with eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, a bit of tomato, onion, garlic, nicoise olives? Perfect, thinks our Nobel laureate.
The dessert, he figures he will leave to Kathy, who bakes and does the sweets much better than he.
The plan is in place.
Kind of like there was a plan for the maiden voyage of the Titanic, eh?
The plan is stunning in its simplicity, just as the mind of the planner is stunning in its simplicity: Open the door, welcome the folks, have some Prosecco poured in the flutes, have two plates of appetizers at the ready — gougeres, baked that afternoon, filo triangles filled with a three-cheese, herb and sun-dried tomato mix, served warm from the oven. Have a sip, take a nibble, sit down and eat. One, two three: that easy. Thanks for coming, hope you had a nice time.
This is the point where my failure to think the thing through produces the Big Problem, the point at which my ponderous ego rears up to trash the evening.
Earlier in the process, I failed to remember that everyone is not like me.
Me … as in radically unsocial me.
The last thing in the world I want to do is stand around, sip drinks, eat appetizers and engage in jovial conversation. I like to be alone. I forget most people aren’t like this — they like to banter, get to know each other, forge social links. Be human.
Our guests are hail and likable folks; Bob and Carol, Mike and Susan, Dale and Betty get along just fine and their exchanges blossom. Kathy is right in the mix, dressed in her autumn leaves outfit that matches her autumn centerpiece on the table, chatting, nibbling, smiling.
Everyone is having a ripping nice time.
For nearly an hour.
Nearly an hour past the time the German train was set to pull into the station.
At the appointed time, the daube was saucy and moist.