Cooking with love, and a little help

Real life

True Tales From Everyday Living

July 02, 2006|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Among my older siblings, it's a subject of some curiosity that I claim to enjoy cooking for crowds. My three sisters and brother have heard about my "famous" summer barbecues and Christmas parties but, since we all live in distant cities, they've rarely seen me spread a table.

Of course, like most chefs do, I tend to gloss over the toil involved, making my style of entertaining sound like a gentle breeze of last-minute garnishing, lighting votive candles and making sure there's enough wine. I've often maintained it's not much different to cook for five or 50. Deep in my lying heart, I half believe this is true.

Not that culinary topics arose immediately when Martha called. My sister sounded uncharacteristically fluttery. A widow for nearly two decades, ever since her husband, Roger, died of cancer, she'd raised their two boys alone. In all that time, she'd never had even one date.

Now, over the telephone, Martha revealed that she'd met someone, Ben (he'd lost his wife to cancer, too) and they were -- surprise! -- getting married. She was scrambling to arrange a small ceremony at her house in suburban Philadelphia followed by a lunch somewhere nearby.

Clearly, this was a fast-moving stream, and I should have watched it rush by. Instead, I jumped in. "Driving off to some restaurant 10 minutes after we've all met Ben for the first time sounds like a terrible idea," I began. "How about if I cook at your house, and then we can all sit around and get to know each other?"

I liked the sound of this, I really did. Especially since I couldn't imagine Martha would accept my long-distance hospitality. Ah, but she did. Immediately.

My bluff called, I dreamt up a menu and Martha agreed to buy groceries. The next day, I fired off a multipage memo stuffed with stipulations such as "not plum or beefsteak, but Holland tomatoes, each the size of a toddler's fist" or "black olives, preferably oil-cured (the wrinkled kind) and pitted if possible."

What bowls, cooking utensils -- not to mention, serving pieces -- did I recall Martha owning? Would it be indelicate to inquire if her knives were sharp?

These anxieties were rendered moot by an ever-expanding guest list. When it topped 40, Martha decided to be wed at her church, with dinner afterward in the Fellowship Hall. Great. Now I would have to decorate a basketball court as well as cook the meal. And forget sharp knives. Would New Life Presbyterian even have cutlery?

I decided no, and brought all my own -- plus two Cuisinarts, many mixing bowls and cutting boards. I was glad I did. Though the church's kitchen boasted two ovens and an eight-burner cook top, its implements of haute cuisine were in scant supply. Indeed, it seemed the lone recipe prepared here was coffee and -- judging from the absurd number of percolators scattered about -- lots of it.

Early Saturday morning, as I unpacked all the ingredients, I was nervous. Get a grip, I told myself. This isn't an Iron Chef competition. It's not about you, but Martha. Cook with love, and the kitchen gods will come to your aid.

Fortified by these self-chastisements, I went to work: peeling, chopping, slicing and dicing. The sheer quantity of food was astounding and caused fresh worries that my normally deficient sense of portion control -- I always prepare way too much -- had gone even more wildly awry.

Midafternoon, my other sisters, Deborah and Ann, arrived and began arranging tables, draping them with Indian batik tablecloths and garlands of bittersweet vine. With the lights low, the room's NBA ambience was greatly improved.

Pressed for time, I suddenly found my groove. Whack! Off flew the asparagus' thick ends. Whir! A dill sauce for roasted salmon took shape. Hiss! Garlic-topped tomatoes went under the broiler. Rub-A-Dub! Peppery spices coated the beef tenderloin.

My brother Douglas sauntered in, deeply tanned and gloating over two weeks spent sailing on the Chesapeake Bay in his boat named Vacilando, Doug's whimsical Spanish for "messing around." This wasn't the time for Vacilando-ing, I barked, and got him busy icing champagne. When Ann asked how to use a salad spinner, I nearly bit her head off. Mercifully, she ignored me. None of my siblings, in fact, wondered aloud whether things became this tense before my Christmas parties. Bless them all.

Just before 5 p.m., Martha floated by the kitchen, serene in a claret-colored suit and a strand of pearls. I was in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, with a sweat-soaked bandanna wrapped about my forehead. I briefly considered lurking in the shadows to watch the nuptials, like hired help. Thinking better of this, I quickly changed into a pinstripe suit.

Following the "I do's," I raced back to the kitchen. Miraculously, the kitchen gods kept the tenderloin medium rare. Guests sipped bubbly and ate canapes, while I quickly assembled a buffet. How ever had I managed such a feast, they later asked?

Winking toward my siblings, I breezily replied it was hardly more work to cook for five than 50. Really, it's nothing more than lighting candles and making sure there's enough wine.

To listen to podcasts of Real Life essays, go to baltimoresun.com / reallife.

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