The plan was plain, the gain is Spain Paella: Seven wriggling redheads make a prize-winning Spanish stew, and win free round-trip tickets to the European country.

November 26, 1997|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Paella is a complicated dish under any circumstances. But when the shrimp has just awakened from a nap, the tomato is kicking the clam and the chicken leg is having trouble wedging himself into the stew pot -- well, even the chef at Tio Pepe's would probably quit in despair.

But not Cheri Gough, or her husband, Richard. It was their fondness for Tio Pepe's version of this Spanish stew that inspired the Carroll County couple to make a paella of their

seven children in order to win free round-trip tickets to Spain.

Right now they are going to make their paella again, right here in the living room of their rambling farmhouse overlooking the Monocacy River. But a good paella takes time, especially when the ingredients are seven wriggling redheads ranging in age from 2 1/2 to 14. So while it simmers -- and while the shrimp slumbers -- here's the story:

It was Cheri who read about the ticket giveaway on the Internet, a Spanair promotion to inaugurate its service to Madrid from Dulles International Airport. The airline would give round-trip tickets, worth $299 each, to the first 266 who showed up in costumes saluting Spanish culture.

"Paella," decreed Richard, the concept guy. It fell to Cheri to be the sous chef for their stew of children. They themselves could go as easy things, a matador and flamenco dancer.

Cheri set a budget of $100 and secured the help of her friend Tammy Eaves. With a little bit of felt and cardboard, the two women and six oldest Gough children whipped up their paella on one of this fall's many dismal weekends.

A wading pool spray-painted brown became the "terra-cotta" pot, while rounds of cardboard made serviceable peas and sausage. The children painstakingly glued cucumber seeds to the tomato costume and dyed white rice yellow. (Saffron rice, was too expensive. Remember, they had a budget.)

The rest of the ingredients broke down this way: Michael, 14, was the lobster; Bryan, 12, tomato; Mark, 11, chicken leg; Kelly, 9, red pepper; Amy, 8, mussel; Elizabeth, 6, clam; and baby Andrea as, of course, the shrimp.

The tickets were to be given away at 8 a.m. last Thursday. But costumed would-be travelers began arriving 36 hours before that deadline. By the time Cheri called the terminal Wednesday afternoon, she was advised: It's now or never.

So she left a message for Richard, still busy on his rounds as a family doctor, then threw the kids, the costumes and the wading pool into the van.

On the radio, the news was all about seven other kids, the four boys and three girls born in one six-minute swoop to an Iowa couple. The first-known surviving septuplets, these babies were being welcomed into this world with a dizzying array of freebies.

But not free tickets to Spain. Those were for the Goughs to win, if they could just get there in time.

Now big families inevitably develop systems: When traveling, for example, each Gough boy is responsible for one of the smaller girls.

They also develop thick skins. Complete strangers ask: "Are you Catholic?" (Cheri isn't, Richard is.) "Are you rich?" (Not really.) "Are they from more than one marriage?" (Cheri's still working on an answer to this one.)

But if the family had drawn stares before, it was nothing like the looks that greeted them as they sprinted through Dulles with the wading pool, then made a nest of blankets on the terminal floor. Cheri and the kids were among the last few people to qualify; Richard would miss his chance by less than an hour. Now all they had to do was get through the next 16 hours. On the floor, in the airport, beneath the lights that never went out.

"After the first few hours, it wasn't so bad," Cheri says. "The little ones could sleep anywhere."

Kelly (the red pepper) would like to provide a dissenting opinion here: "At 2 a.m. in the morning it was really hard to sleep because of all the dancing." Dancing? Spanair provided entertainment, it turns out.

Shortly after 8 a.m., the paella and flamenco mom finally took their turn before the judges. "Magnifico!" someone yelled. They walked away with eight tickets. They had exceeded the $100 budget by only $7, and that's because their parking tab at Dulles cost $27. Richard decided he could spring for his own ticket. (Do you think Cheri was going to take all seven to Madrid by herself?)

In the week since then, life hasn't slowed down. The Goughs have made their reservations, for Jan. 23 through Feb. 1. They've hunted down birth certificates for the youngest children. They've called their congressman, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, for help in getting their passports as quickly as possible.

They've found out there is no single rental vehicle in all of Spain large enough to accommodate the family. They've begun to think about key Spanish phrases. "Donde esta el bano?" for example. That's very key when you're traveling with seven children.

Wait, Andrea is up from her nap, and the paella is finally ready. The children clamber into the wading pool one more time. They appear to be happy as, well, clams.

"We like to do things with a little bit of a twist," Cheri says. Indeed.

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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