Recently a friend –– let’s call him Rudolph –– related a story to me that I thought you might find useful during this holiday season. Fair warning: The story involves irresponsible behavior and does not reflect well on the protagonist.
The story takes place about 8 years ago. My friend could not remember whether the holiday in question was Thanksgiving or Christmas. As you read on, I think you may understand why.
Rudolph fancies himself a skilled home cook. He knows enough about the rigors of restaurant kitchens to accept that he couldn’t cook professionally, but he takes the preparation of food seriously. He and his wife had only recently moved into a small cottage, and in what he later described as “a fit of utter lunacy,” he decided to invite their extended families over for a late lunch –– “dinner,” in the Southern parlance.
A little more background is appropriate here. My friend Rudolph and his wife had recently had their first child. The lad was about 6 months old. While a beautiful and friendly child, he slept approximately three minutes each day. Rudolph and his wife had an arrangement where child care was concerned: Rudolph pretended to sleep when the baby woke in the middle of the night, and Rudolph’s wife refrained from killing him. In return, Rudolph did all of the cooking. The arrangement worked until Rudolph’s wife realized the inequities, but that is another story for another day.
The day before the meal, Rudolph sat down to plan. He had never before taken on this kind of thing, but he was not intimidated. He thought back to the days when his parents took him to his maternal grandparents’ home in the country, where his grandmother would produce a spread whose vastness was exceeded only by its deliciousness. She would prepare a turkey, oyster and cornbread stuffings, a rib roast of beef and/or a roast leg of lamb, rice, greens, turnips in cream sauce, squash, green beans with bacon, creamed spinach, cauliflower au gratin, a salad, three kinds of gravy, fried chicken, biscuits and several desserts –– and this was on an ordinary weeknight. Rudolph knew that his grandmother was a better cook than he would ever be, and so he decided to forgo the fried chicken and biscuits. He felt wise.
He settled on the following menu: roast turkey and gravy, roast fillet of beef, oyster stuffing, creamed spinach, turnips in butter, potato gratin, roasted beets, glazed carrots, smothered greens, rice, a green salad, apple pie, bread pudding, pumpkin pie, cranberry relish and freshly grated horseradish. He considered adding green beans with slab bacon and sweet potato casserole, but his mother-in-law offered the latter, and he decided he had enough on his plate already. This was an understatement. He nevertheless considered himself wise.
On that same day he did his shopping. It took four hours, and when he returned home, he struggled to find a place in his small refrigerator for the bounty he had decided to cook. Then he started on the beef stock for the sauce he planned for the roast fillet. He made the cranberry relish and apple and pumpkin pies. Sometime around 2 a.m., when he was straining the stock, he began to think that possibly he had overreached. He quickly banished this thought as defeatist and went to bed continuing to believe himself wise.
He awoke the next morning at 6:30 feeling only slightly guilty for having ignored the 17 times his son had summoned his wife from their bed during the night. His wife continued to refrain from killing him. He began roasting the turkey necks and bones for his gravy, and then he checked on the turkey. He’d placed the frozen bird in his refrigerator the previous afternoon and, having never thawed a frozen turkey before, was surprised that it continued to resemble a large oblong bowling ball in texture and weight.
He put it in the sink and began to run cold water on it to speed the thawing process. For the first time he actually questioned his wisdom in deciding to cook a holiday meal for his extended family. It was, he told me, a moment of existential angst. Just then he realized that in order to complete the turkey stock, he would have to open a bottle of wine. He poured himself a small glass, just, he told me, to make sure it was good enough. Soon he once more felt wise. It was 8 a.m.
The next several hours were a blur. He peeled the potatoes for the gratin, sliced them thinly on a mandoline and layered them carefully in a large baking dish. He peeled and cut the carrots into slices and peeled and quartered the turnips. He had another small glass of white wine. He cleaned, cored and chopped the turnip greens. He cried a little. He chopped onions, celery and peppers for the stuffing. He trimmed the beef fillet of fat and tied it so that it would roast evenly. He realized he’d forgotten to buy bread for the stuffing, so he left to go to the store. He returned and then realized he’d forgotten cream and eggs, so he left again. He returned and, somewhat frazzled, had another glass of white wine. It was 10 a.m. His guests were due at 2.
He opened a bottle of red wine. He told himself it would be necessary to deglaze something or other, but at this point, he wasn’t even fooling himself. He felt less wise than previously, but he had not yet given up hope.
The turkey was thawed, and the oven preheated. He popped the seasoned bird into the oven and hoped for the best. He had, it occurred to him, never roasted a whole turkey before. He had another glass of wine before searing the fillet of beef. He began to feel wise again.
Shortly thereafter, he realized that he had not considered the size of his oven when deciding to cook a turkey, a fillet of beef, beets, oyster dressing and a potato gratin. He cursed and poured himself a single malt scotch. All pretense was lost, he told me. He felt that the only way to regain his sense of wisdom was to move forward on all fronts.
Fortunately the recipe he was using for the turkey called for the same general temperature for roasting the beets and baking the stuffing and potato gratin. Through experience with the arcade game Tetris, he managed to fit all of the food into the oven, only burning himself three times. He barely noticed, having opened a third bottle of wine in an effort to regain his wisdom.
He told me that at one point his wife came into the kitchen, their son on her hip, to find an explanation for the profanity and crying she’d heard. With a look of compassion that would have shamed Gandhi, she continued to refrain from killing him.
It was 1. He was drunk, but the cooking was almost done. He managed to make a vinaigrette for the salad and whip cream for the pumpkin pie. He added a julienne of mint to the glazed carrots, a little balsamic vinegar to the beets and butter to finish the sauce for the fillet. He told me that he has no clear memory of doing any of this, only of a determination born of the fear of failure and fueled by alcohol. There are no pictures of him from this day, but I like to imagine the scene as something from a painting by Edvard Munch, only more angsty.
Finally, everything was done. He stumbled into the shower and put on clothes appropriate for the occasion. He spent several minutes wandering lost in his bedroom and then went to greet his guests. He carved the turkey and the fillet, carried on what he thought was witty banter and within 30 minutes retreated to his bed for what he told me he thought would be “a quick nap.” His wife, in a display of grace unparalleled in human history, did not smother him with a pillow as he snored.
Remarkably, the food was excellent. The breast of the turkey was moist and succulent while the dark meat was cooked through. The fillet was a perfect medium rare, the side dishes were superb, the sauces sublime and the desserts toothsome. Rudolph has yet to duplicate the effort, and, he told me, he has no plans to make the attempt. He felt somewhat less than wise that night when his wife pretended to sleep while he attended to their sleepless son.
I believe that the message of this story, if there is one, is that one should know one’s limits. And that if you’re planning a meal for the family this holiday, you probably shouldn’t start drinking wine at 8 in the morning.