Tanya accepted that kitchen risks included scalding, splattering and dismemberment. Hell’s Kitchen had honed her culinary nerves until they were chef’s knife steel.
But tonight she was facing a future mother-in-law, first-time dinner visit. With her husband, Katherine had raised four children with minimal trips to the principal’s office and the emergency-room. She air-layered camellias, reupholstered chairs, painted rooms. Had she believed in God she would have sung in the church choir. The thought of serving a home-cooked meal to this Force of Nature spaghetti-balled Tanya’s stomach. Still, she rejected Tom’s pleas that they go to NuNu’s, which, he assured her, his parents would love.
The dinner offered Tanya an opportunity for gustatory rebirth, her kitchen past having dogged her for years. Cat hair in the Jello. Grand Marnier cheesecake soured by an enthusiastic amplification of the featured ingredient. A cream soup with dried kidney beans instead of diced potato. Tofurkey.
Tanya consulted Facebook and was lavished with a banquet of diplomatic suggestions: taco night; Chinese take-out; Annie’s macaroni and cheese; burgers. Tom had posted “Pizza,” followed by three smiley faces. Tanya politely Liked each one of these before turning to the wider expanses of web recipes, then wandered onto a Kitchen Holiday Horrors site and tumbled down a rabbit hole of poultry Hindenburgs. Forgotten gizzard sacks and dust-dry breasts; rubbery legs; bloody joints; greasy gravy. Tastelessness beyond the salvation of salt or hot sauce.
After a caffeine-fueled night, she landed on her grail, a dish that had received 4.5 stars from 485 Virtual Gourmands: pork medallions with sherry shallot sauce. Tanya raced to Whole Foods, where the pots of cheery sunflowers and containers of cubed watermelon offered a momentary respite from the mental meme of Chef Ramsay’s screaming visage.
On the night of the Big Event, Tanya careened around the kitchen, her long black hair covered by a paisley red bandana that kept slipping over her eyes. She had tossed the cat into the basement, preheated the oven five hours too soon and recited the recipe into a chant that she murmured as she dashed from fridge to stove and back again. “Trim the tenderloin of any excess fat; trim the tenderloin of any excess fat.”
Tom had stopped trying to talk her out of her plan and had tried instead to transform himself into Master Sous Chef, peeling, washing, and measuring what he could.
“How about a glass of Merlot?” he asked, pulling the cork with a pop. “Might take the edge off. Rachael Ray always has a little.”
“Are you crazy? I have to keep my focus, have to keep going. Pound the pork. Pound the pork.”
“Love to.” Tom placed his arm around Tanya’s waist and pulled her against him. She bristled.
“Stop! This is going to be a disaster.”
Tom pulled away. Snapping a blade into the Cuisinart, he asked, “When I was growing up, do you know what we called my mother’s oven?”
In that moment, Tanya despised her song-writing fiancé’s love of narrative and wished, for the first time, that she had become engaged to a sandwich-eating accountant. The shallots sat unpeeled and unchopped; the asparagus still bore their choke-inducing triangles, and his parents would be arriving soon, bringing Manchego, almonds and charming observations about their grandchildren. They could all swap stories then. Tanya was about to become shrill.
Frantic, she asked, “What? What did you call your mother’s oven?”
Tom’s reply came startling as a chilled grape, as comforting as melted cheddar on rye:
Lisa Lebduska teaches expository writing at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, where her students’ work continues to inspire her. An avid gardener, she continues her search for the deer-proof tomato.