I come from a family that has mastered the art of the production. So when I found myself at the grocery store after a long day of classes with an even longer list on a highlighter colored sticky note I couldn’t help but take an anxious breath. I am nothing like my mother. I realized I have no idea how to cook a meal for actual people.
I traced my memory back to the shuffle of the kitchen when my mom threw dinner parties for her and her friends, and well, my mom could pull it off better than anyone I’ve ever met. In my memory there was my mom holding a glass of wine in her soft hands. She was sliding plates of appetizers into the foyer with the sounds of her necklaces jingling. There was everything from clam dip to cilantro dip. She was pulling buttered and baked noodles out of an oven in heels, fixing a flank steak, all while carrying on a conversation with a family friend. The long oak table was elegantly set with seasonally appropriate table runners and candles. She was smiling, she never forgot anything, and there was music softly playing in the background. I never remember being left with a bad taste in my mouth.
I must have picked up something. I had forty-five minutes to complete the shopping for the perfect meal in time to meet my sister back at Crissey Hall, Kalamazoo College.
When I thought about the perfect meal my mind first came to comfort food, however the comfort food I think of has nothing to do with the comfort food in the cafeteria.
Mac n Cheese, a comfort food staple, has been ruined by the cafeteria. The flavorless noodles that are saturated with some strange cheese glop just doesn’t have the same appeal as Mac N Cheese made with actual cheese. So, that’s what I set out to do, ease my friends’ nearing exam stress with the perfect comfort food.
The menu planned was my mom’s baked Mac n cheese with a breaded top, green beans, and for dessert, Funfetti cupcakes.
Next I needed rules. Don’t all well planned events follow some sort of etiquette? I decided that I would do all the planning, buying, cooking and baking alone as a present to a few friends who had been extra supportive over the course of my fall quarter. My roommates Tess, Maddy, and Erin would be attending, my sister Grace, a new friend Morgan who lived in the same dorm, a writer friend Eric, and my ex boyfriend Jordan. We were a motley crue to say the least, but it was okay as long as everyone came hungry.
Into my cart went Gruyere cheese, pecorino Romano cheese, and sharp white cheddar cheese, soft white bread, vanilla frosting, and pounds of elbow macaroni. I snatched other necessities for a meal off of the neatly organized shelves. I traced back and forth through the fluorescent lighting of Harding’s. As I checked out I realized that feeding a huge group of people for fifty dollars wasn’t that bad. I was glad I had splurged and gotten the nicer cheese.
I unloaded my plastic bags on the table of the Crissey Hall Kitchen while my roommate Tess carried down skillets, salt, and a mixing bowl. Jordan arrived with cayenne pepper, and black pepper.
I have never wished that I could have more arms as much as I did then. I needed one to shoo Tess away from the stove, another to whisk the hot milk with the butter, and another to toss the bread in a buttered mixture while grating the three blocks of cheese.
I realized then I didn’t have any cupcake papers. Something once as trivial as cupcake papers then seemed like I had forgotten something as integral to cooking as say, one of the two arms that I actually do have. Tess ran upstairs only to bring down a flimsy silicon cake pan, it then looked as if dessert would consist of funfetti cake instead.
My sister Grace arrived from my hometown with a casserole tin and a cheese grater. I was in business. I had two ovens blazing, noodles cooking, and milk, butter, flour and cheese hardening into a cheese sauce.
“But I’m hungry now,” Tess said, “Let me help.”
Breaking my own rule that I would cook the entire meal myself, I handed over the whisk. Eric and Morgan arrived next.
The kitchen was hot but my friends kept the conversation going over the Modest Mouse CD I had playing quietly. They were laughing about how horribly a Developmental Psychology exam had gone, they were talking about the first jobs they ever had. It started to feel less like a stressful production and more like comfort. I put the cake in the oven, sliding it in natural just like my mom would have done.
But then, the cheese sauce wouldn’t thicken, but it was something that we could laugh at. Jordan told a story about how once I had broiled a tin of banana bread by accident. Eric explained how overrated perfect is. We were all friends. It was fine.
The cheese sauce became a whole with the noodles and was poured into the buttered casserole dish. I didn’t even spill, but I held my breath the whole time. I felt like a kid playing the game of Operation. I layered the buttered, torn bread over the top of the noodles.
The pan was heavy like good comfort food should be, and the oven was warm as I slid the Mac n cheese into its open mouth.
The cake was ready to come out of the other oven and I set it on the cold burner to breathe.
I set my eyes on steaming the green beans next. I had already clipped the ends and I carefully placed them on the steamer above the boiling pot of water. The lip had to rest on top of the beans’ slender stalks, as there wasn’t as much room in the pot as I had planned. Lifting the lid to check on them led to instant steam burn.
“Shit,” I said.
Grace misinterpreted my use of shit to mean that I had done something horribly unalterable to the food.
“I’m willing to lie to you and tell you that the food is good,” Grace said.
That’s what sisters are for.
Next I had to figure out how to get the cake in all of its confetti colored glory out of the cake pan.
“Flip it,” was being chanted throughout the Crissey basement kitchen, and I’ve never been one to not take a dare, and so I did it. I took the flimsy pan with the funfetti cake and turned it upside down onto a piece of paper napkin. The no stick silicon had decided to take a few chunks prisoner, but the cake, on the whole, flipped. I used the whole can of frosting, apart from what fingers had already swiped from the jar.
What I couldn’t forget is that cake tastes like cake no matter what shape it’s in. I am not my mother. Not yet, anyways.
Modest Mouse had switched to The Mountain Goats and the smells from the baked Mac N Cheese were starting to gush out from the oven. It was done.
I had to use huge hunks of cardboard to manage to slide the heavy casserole dish out into the kitchen. Sometimes college students have to improvise. The bread on top was golden brown and the cheese sauce had decided to thicken to its desired consistency.
Maddy and Erin, two of my other roommates arrived in perfect time with their forks. We were all ready to eat. It was a Friday night so there was talk of evening plans, but other than that it was silent and appreciative.
There is something about eating together that is such a unifying experience. We felt happy because we didn’t slide our plates along a conveyor belt in order for food to be splashed across the blue surface. We had privacy in the otherwise empty kitchen.
Even though I was the only one who had shopped, grated cheese, and attempted to create a production of comfort food, everyone had taken part in the creation of the meal just by being there. Was it a production like one of my mother’s? The answer would have to be no, not for now, but there was definitely an element of perfection anyways.