November 20, 2006

Confessions of a kitchen fascist

Yesterday, I bought a turkey.

Today, I bought a new roasting pan and pie plates.

Tomorrow, the cooking begins.

I love Thanksgiving. It's a holiday about being thankful. It's a holiday about food. I love gratitude, and I love food.

But there's another reason I am excited.

The cooking.

I've got a small crowd to feed - just Sam, my sister-in-law Kirsten, and myself. I'll probably sneak a nibble of turkey to Oedipa, but she has notoriously low poultry standards, since she subsists mostly off of Purina One.

Despite the intimate crowd, I'm still planning a formal feast. I'm indulging my inner Martha Stewart. I'm going all out. Wedding china, homemade rolls, the whole shebang.

The best part is, Sam and Kirsten are leaving me in charge. I couldn't be happier. Whether it's a holiday with family or a dinner party with friends, I can be something of a control freak when it comes to entertaining. Maybe I'm a kitchen fascist. But I'm also a pretty good hostess, as long as my guests can respect my rules:

10 Things You Might Want to Know if You're Having Dinner at Monica's House.
1. No, you really don't need to bring a side dish.

I blame my Polish upbringing, which taught me that feeding a person is an unabashed expression of friendship or love. If I've invited you to my house for dinner, I want to feed you. If you insist on bringing your own potatoes, that tells me you don't trust me enough to fully surrender to my hospitality.

Even worse, if your delightful quiche upstages my entree, I've utterly failed as a hostess.

2. The tastiest foods are fattening. Please try to deal with that.

When I'm preparing my own meals, I'll happily embrace artificial, low-calorie products like Lean Cuisine dinners or Snackwell cookies. But if I'm entertaining, I just can't sacrifice taste for calories.

If something needs to taste buttery, I'm using butter. If it's supposed to be creamy, that's real cream in my mixing bowl.

I know there are people out there who substitute applesauce for sugar and fat free yogurt for sour cream. I may envy their waistlines, but I still pity them and pray for their culinary souls.

3. Yes, that cake is soaked in booze.

I'm sorry. It's my heritage coming through again. We Polish love our alcohol, both with our food and in it.

Even though I'm pregnant, and am for all intents and purposes abstaining, I'm not going to compromise my baking integrity by preparing dry cakes or using any blasphemous "rum extract" product available in the spice aisle.

4. Yes, I know there's an easier way.

I take some shortcuts when I cook, but more often, I enjoy the long and winding road. I get a thrill out of saying "I made it myself."

There is something primal and exquisite about drawn-out endeavors like mashing my own potatoes, whipping my own cream, or baking my own bread. It makes me feel accomplished and self-sufficient, almost like I could have survived in the olden days, just as long as I had my oven and Kitchenaid mixer.

5. If I can look it in the eye, I'm not cooking it for dinner.

Truth be told, I wouldn't have lasted through a single meal in the olden days.

I'm not a vegetarian, but I like to pretend that meat and poultry exist only in their processed, cooked forms. After a few Thanksgivings' practice, I can stuff a turkey with only a rubber glove and minor psychological trauma, but I still wouldn't peek inside that giblet pouch on a double dare.

My squeamishness causes me to draw the line on many true gourmet experiences. I refuse to buy fish with the head attached or shrimp that needs "de-veining." I love lobster, but cooking a live one is completely out of the question.

I may be delusional, but I want to continue living in a world where chicken comes in boneless, skinless strips, turkeys are hollow on the inside, and the seafood I buy in the store bears absolutely no resemblance to the pets I keep in my aquarium.

6. No, I really don't want your help.
I may look frantic in the kitchen, but I'm not just declining your offer of assistance out of politeness or modesty. I have my own way of doing things, and if you start manipulating my meringue or asking probing questions about my potatoes, you are just going to stress me out more.

I am generally a nice person, but unless I specifically tell you "Please stir that sauce for the next 3 minutes," stay in the living room, or I might try to stab you with a wooden spoon.

7. You really want to help? That's sweet. Here's a sponge.

When I cook, I create more destruction than a tornado. I cover the counter in cooking implements, and regardless of what I am making, I always end up with flour on my shirt and rice on the floor.

I read somewhere that a good cook cleans as she goes, while a great cook has someone else clean as she goes.

I think that might be why Sam and I are such a good couple. He's the perfect enabler to my cooking addiction, sweeping in to wash dishes or wipe off counters just when I'm ready to give up and order pizza.

8. Flattery will get you everywhere.

As I said earlier, I consider cooking an expression of friendship and love. No one offers up those sentiments without paying close attention to how they are received.

Watching someone eat and enjoy a meal I've prepared is one of the best feelings imaginable. If they clean their plate, my heart sings. If they ask for seconds, I'm on cloud nine. And if they ask for the recipe, I'm positively giddy.

9. You don't need to return the favor. Seriously.

I love the idea of being a spectacular hostess, but I don't expect my friends to put on the same type of show. In fact, if they did, it might feel competitive and intimidating.

If I'm having dinner at someone's house, I'm perfectly happy if the menu stops with pizza and wings. I seldom notice what kind of dishes or flatware are used, and I don't expect homemade desserts unless I've been asked to bring one (which I always consider a compliment).

I'm not just saying this to sound nice or garner more dinner party invitations. I'm really only a fancy-dinner fascist in my house.

10. You really want to repay the favor? That's very sweet. How do you feel about cleaning up?
Have I mentioned that I hate cleaning? The cleaning after a party is sometimes stressful enough to make me want to call off the whole event and go out to a restaurant.

I hosted a luau for Sam's birthday in July. Last Sunday, we finally took down the tiki lights that adorned our back porch. There are still umbrella straws on the kitchen counter, and the inflatable palm tree is still inflated and likely to outlive us all.

The friends who stick around after parties and help us put things away earn a special spot in our hearts. They are the ones who inspire us to host more parties to show our appreciation and reuse our festive decorations.


Thanksgiving is my next adventure in entertaining, followed by Christmas Eve.

I'm already planning the Christmas menu, which will blend Polish traditions with personal favorites. Now if I could only come up with a way to incorporate the inflatable palm tree....

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