Food-loving family cooks up problems on snowy Sunday


February 28, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Some of the drawbacks of having children help you prepare a meal were familiar. I knew about the long pauses kids take in the middle of a task, a habit that can transform the 3-minute job of setting the table into a 40-minute marathon. I knew about quirky work rules that dictate that only the 8-year-old can light the dinner candles.

But what surprised me was the emergence of strong culinary opinions in the offspring. The other day, for example, pecan pie was pushed off the menu by the 12-year-old. In return for working as assistant chef, he wanted eclairs. No eclairs, no cooperation in the kitchen. Moreover, the eclairs had to be prepared exactly the way they were prepared the last time he and his mother whipped them up. With a custard filling.

These new attitudes came to light last weekend when we did one of those things that experts think families should do: We pitched in and prepared a big Sunday dinner. The weather made us do it. A snowstorm hindered us from our usual weekend activity, running errands in cars. We were faced with either banding together or tearing each other apart. We did a bit of both.

Soon after the first flakes fell, the feeling of camaraderie soared. When the kids and I returned from a sledding expedition, the kitchen windows were steamed up and we could smell a pot roast cooking. The steamy window turned out to be caused by a draft from the back door, not the heat from the bubbling roast. Nonetheless, the scene overflowed with cheery domesticity. It didn't last long.

The assistant chef began negotiating with the head chef, his mother, over the menu. Mostly they argued about dessert. The head chef wanted pecan pie. She had all the ingredients, and she liked it. The sometime assistant didn't like nuts. He held out for eclairs. Years of experience had taught me what to do in this situation. When the cooks fight, you clear out. I fled upstairs to watch televised sports.

When I returned to the kitchen, the kitchen staff was still feuding. But even if no consensus on the procedure had emerged, about two dozen eclairs had.

I took the assistant chef with me on a supply run. He needed to cool off, and relished plastering stop signs with snowballs. The faster the snow fell, the more his spirits improved. "No school tomorrow!" he crowed, looking at me to see how his bold prediction played.

We plowed onto a tavern, the only spot in the neighborhood that sold bottles of wine on Sunday. The tavern, a favorite of artists, was smoky, with nudes on all the walls and dogs on the floor. As the bartender and I looked over the slim selection of red wines, the kid drank in the scenery. I ended up with a substance from New York state that had a goat on the label and a red wine-like liquid inside. The kid thought the experience was "cool" and wanted to know why children were not allowed to hang out in taverns.

Remembering an old college term paper, I launched into a historical explanation. I told him that years ago the practice of European immigrants of taking their families to big city saloons didn't sit well with folks living in rural, teetotaling areas of America. After we walked about half a block, I abandoned the term paper approach. "Ask your mother," I said. "She's from Carry Nation country ."

By the time we got back home, the mood was changing. Instead of being new and exciting, the snow now seemed cold and worrisome to me. I shoveled the driveway and freed tree limbs from heavy snow. The grand dinner had become a chore. I was ordered to set the table, an order I promptly reissued to the 8-year old, who promptly ignored it.

Eventually I set the table, luring the 8-year-old to the table with the promise of firing up four candles. The assistant chef and chef had reconciled. The assistant even printed a menu: Portabella mushrooms sauteed in olive oil, cream of broccoli soup, Caesar salad, roast beef with potatoes, and custard-filled eclairs with chocolate and raspberry sauce.

It sounded terrific, but the dining experience was so-so. The wine was awful. The kids amused themselves by sniffing our wine glasses and making faces. They also made faces when presented with the mushrooms and the soup. They rallied for salad, at least for the croutons, and made forays into the beef and potatoes. The eclairs were a major hit.

I cleaned up. A task that took about two hours, counting the time spent trying to get the wine spots and candle wax off the new tablecloth. "Nice meal," I told my wife later. "Thanks," she said, "but I'm not sure it was worth it."

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