the obstacle course called dinner

by bam

some nights it’s a miracle i don’t land in my seat at the old kitchen table with sweaty beads of saltiness pearled across my brow.

or perhaps i do, but no one’s brave enough to tell me. “yo, ma, you popped a sweat. calm down, it’s no marathon.”

to which i’d argue back, “why, darlings, you’re flat-out wrong, wrong, wrong. it is a marathon, and more. some nights, in fact, it’s a flat-out triathlon, complete with swim and bike and run.”

which i’m sure would be met with that wordless but emphatic refrain put to good use at so many kitchen tables across the land: the chorus of eyeballs rolling in counter-clockwise direction.

they’ve no clue, really, just what it takes to get that one square meal roundly on the table.

take the other night, for instance (in the back corners of my brain i believe i hear ol’ henny youngman snappin’, “take ’er, please.” to which the snare drum responds, ba-dum-ba-dum. end of comic interlude).

back to dinner: so it was a wednesday, the one worknight when i am home early enough to fend for myself (the other two i lean heavily on my mama, who has made it her business to plan and shop and cook and then try ardently to coax vegetables and meat down the throat of youngest child; but that’s another tale….).

the aim here was simple: eat before 8 o’clock, so there was half a chance of getting little one to bed before, say, midnight, his preferred hour of surrender to slumber.

problem was, as there so often is, i had two carpool runs, one from 5 to 5:35, the other from 6 till 6:30.

that left 25 minutes squeezed in, or, plan B, cooking interruptus, that ill-conceived attempt to do what can’t be done.

here’s how i pulled it off, after opting for door no. 2, the plot that can’t be sanely done:

on the way home from news-gathering some 35 miles away, i found my car swinging past a grocery store where apple-studded sausages are sold. a wee noise in my brain reminded me that young children had recently declared moratorium on all sausages except for apple.

suddenly, and without warning to driver, the car was screeching off of six-lane throughway and into parking lot. with eyeballs glued to watch, keeping track of countdown till the hour when call was coming from new york, for next round of interviews for news-gathering purposes, i fairly sprinted through the aisles.

panting at checkout, the checker asked why i seemed so rushed (note to self: do better job of camouflaging frantic harried state; it’s apparently not so pretty).

when i mentioned that i had an interview at 2–a mere 20 minutes and 10 miles away–she thought i meant so i could get a job. oh, no, i tried to explain, i have one of those; a job, that is. this was interview of newspapering persuasion. which launched said checker into five-minute rant on how said newspaper had thoroughly disintegrated over the course of the last year, and how i really ought to be ashamed of working for the sorry paper. (actually it might have been a 10-minute rant, but i excused myself after five and panted toward the door. there was that call coming in, any minute, and i preferred to not take notes while driving down the highway.)

once i’d wrapped up all newspapering for the day, i set to housewifery.

catching that rush, that tinge of autumn in the air, i’d dreamed up a menu nodding toward impending crispness. stewed apples were first up, so i chopped and chopped. and realized right away i’d forgotten the second of two items on my ad-hoc grocery list: the apple cider that takes stewed apples up a notch.

oh, well. my improvisational back-up plans were bombs, according to the young boy who appeared at the front door, wearing backpack and familial tendencies. he vetoed a splash of orange juice, lobbied hard for a gurgle of gingerale, but instead i took the coward’s route, and added pure plain water. just a tad. and shakes of cinnamon, to boot.

then, going with apple theme, i decided to slice and saute a round or two. sprinkled with cranberries, we had a fine blanquette (the french version of blanket) to dump atop the sausages.

oh, the sausages. hmm. they would have to wait. get browned and sizzled once i dashed back in the door from carpool no. 2. or else i could crisp ‘em up, and leave ‘em to get, well, soggy. (which in the end, i and they both did.)
and, let’s see, what about the baked sweet potatoes?

how to get those done, when they need an hour in the oven, but that hour is one in which a.) i won’t be home and b.) they’d be blackened if i let them run their course while i run mine?


and thus was realized this: the need for carpools one and two to be interrupted by a two-mile detour back to home, for the mere purpose of turning off the oven at appointed hour and wrapping spuds in foil. sort of like aluminum pup tent, or shiny holding pen for yams.

all this to say, it’s nothing short of olympic-level competition to get dinner on the table, for even a mere humble family of four, a sum just shy of the national average. and, mind you, most folks aren’t such fools as i, and willing to charge hither and yon for mere purpose of sitting down to multi-colored plate of early autumn harvest.

so once again i ask, what’s come of the sacred time at end of day, when all are gathered to sift through the hours since the dawn, the highs, the lows, the questions?

it takes near stubborn dedication to the prize. there are obstacles aplenty to knock you off the course, to steer you to the drive-thru, to tempt with dinner ala styrofoam clamshell.

ah, but there are fools, and i am one, who will leap through hoops, stumble over hurdles, even land kerplop in water pits and puddles. if that’s what it takes to score even five placid minutes at the table.

before the milk gets bumped, and the vegetables are picked at.

but for those five sacred minutes, when we join hands, breathe deep, and whisper thanks and blessing, i will do what needs be done.

even if i look to some as if i’ve just run through the sprinkler, and come to dinner in desperate need of bath towel.

do you find it nothing short of olympic level challenge to gather serenity and deliciousness at the dinner hour? what odd hoops have you leapt through? tell us of the moments when you know it’s worth whatever blood, sweat and tears are required?