On Monday morning I started cooking a Christmas dinner for 30 people. It was the annual huge Open House/Holiday Feast at my work, which is what my coworkers and I have been preparing for, for weeks (weeks!).
This means that we had a whole heap of shit to do in addition to our regular duties of helping teenagers, answering their bizarre sex questions, doing outreach work and trying to shut down the barrage of Beavis and Butthead imitations suddenly spreading like wildfire.
(TANGENT: WHAT THE HELL and WHY?! Why is every teenage boy 13-18 suddenly quoting a fifteen year old TV series ad nauseum? Where have they found it? They are testing me and I swear, I SWEAR if I hear one more individual reenacting the (dare I say it) iconic “TP for my bunghole” scene, I will forever ban TP and bungholes both and then, THEN my little friends I WILL MURDER CORNHOLIO. MURRDERRRRRR! End tangent)
So. The entirety of December has been a coffee and egg-nog fuelled flurry of sending out invitations, getting youth to volunteer as tour guides, contacting local media, soliciting donations, prepping the building, and, of course, FINALLY, cooking the actual meal itself, which features two turkeys, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, cheesy carrots, cranberry sauce, gravy and salad. And a dessert table featuring over seven different selections of home baked goods.
FOR THIRTY PEOPLE.
Do you know me? Hi, my name’s Madeleine and here is the unabridged list of what I am capable of making from scratch:
- Grilled Cheese
- Boiled Eggs
For serious guys, cooking is not my bag. I do it because I have to eat, but I avoid it like the plague wherever possible and I wish people could just take pills instead of eating, it would save so much time with the shopping and the chopping and the boiling and the timing and the cleanup and the leftovers in the fridge just waiting to destroy my marriage and the garbage and GAH.
And, if said pills came in goat cheese form, all the better.
So. There I was tasked with cooking for a bunch of community members that I might potentially poison somehow with some sort of Amelia-Bedelia-esque culinary mishap. What is a normal, mature almost 30 year old to do?
When Monday morning rolled around I got up early with a nervous stomach and went in to start cooking the turkeys.
My manager had graciously offered to come in and help me – perhaps sensing that as a vegetarian I might be more likely to cry, hold a seance and then liberate the turkeys rather than cook them- and she kindly did the more disgusting bits like bravely inserting her arm into the birds nether regions and pulling out various organs and/or foodstuffs (To be honest I’m not really sure what was in there, it could have been gold pieces or troll dolls – I was cowering in the corner at this point).
Then, inner workings removed, we gave the turkeys a delightful deep tissue massage with butter and spices, sodomized them with a few oranges and popped them in the ovens to let them bake.
The turkeys were my biggest concern, but honestly after the gross bits were over it was easy-peasy. My manager may have sensed my relief and laissez-faire attitude, because she mentioned helpfully a few times that the actual turkey-cooking wasn’t the hard part, “The hard part” she said, with a look that said she was trying to impart deep wisdom to me, “Is timing the rest of the meal to coincide with the turkey being done.”
I kind of brushed that little tidbit off while smiling and nodding, already imagining how after this day I could be all “Oh yeah, I cooked a Christmas dinner for thirty people. NO BIG DEAL kind of a big deal, just call me Martha or maybe Julia BON APPETIT!”
Cut to three hours later as my coworker V and I are rushing around the kitchen like Dumb and Dumber, not actually accomplishing anything, just walking quickly back and forth a lot and shouting out things like “The CRANBERRY SAUCE!” and “OH NO THE CARROTS” and “STUFFING! WHAT ABOUT THE STUUUFFFFINNNGGGG?!” “To hell with the stuffing! WE HAVE NO TIIIMMMEEE”
Fa la la la la, la fuck my life.
At one point we had everything under control, cheesy carrots were made and ready to be put in the oven, brussel sprouts were steaming, potatoes were being mashed, salad was being tossed (shut up), cranberry sauce was simmering and then, feeling like this all might come together, V and I made the mistake of turning to each other with a big smile and high fiving.
PRO TIP: Never smile and/or high five until the meal is over. Otherwise something will catch on fire.
You see while we were rushing around earlier, trying to do everything in the kitchen while simultaneously keeping our eye on the 5-10 teenagers that had arrived early, the cranberry sauce boiled over. (Yeah that’s right, we were making it from scratch – cause that’s how we do). “No big deal” we thought, “It’s still good”. We mopped up as much of the spill as we could with all four burners in use, and although some cranberries and juice had collected under the burner we didn’t think it would be a problem.
ANOTHER PRO TIP: Things spilled under the burner are always a problem.
So we had just high fived and were sort of standing back, proudly surveying the fruits of our labour when I noticed flames licking the bottom of the pot that the cranberry sauce was in.
“That’s weird,” I remember thinking, “This isn’t a gas stove.”
And then I realized what was happening. “Fire! Oh my god, Fire!” I started shrieking, “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!”.
As I was shrieking, I was running back and forth from the stove to the doorway to the sink to the stove and back to the doorway. That’s all I could do, just run in jerky circles and scream “FIRE! FIRE!”.
It was just like this! Except way, way, WAY smaller.
I couldn’t for the life of me remember what to do. I knew we had a fire extinguisher in the main room but we couldn’t use a fire extinguisher because it would get all over everything and poison the food!
I also knew we couldn’t put it out with water because it was a grease fire and that would make it worse. I thought about smothering it with a tea towel but then the tea towel would probably catch fire too and burn us all! So I just continued running in the general direction of each of these things screaming “FIRE! FIIIRE!” while desperately trying to remember what exactly I was supposed to do.
Right now, you tell me, what are you supposed to use to put out a kitchen fire? (Of you think the answer is easy? Feeling smug are we?It’s way easier when you’re sitting at your desk than actually staring an ACTUAL fire, I can assure you)
“BAKING SODA!” V screamed, and then did her own version of my jerky circular running, “BAKING SODA! BAKING SODA! WHERE THE FUCK IS THE BAKING SODA?!”
I always liked to think I would remain calm in an emergency. I always imagined that I would be the one with a soft, modulated voice, serenely issuing instructions to the panicking hordes. But this fire proved indisputably that I am in fact part of the hordes themselves, probably the leader of the hordes in fact, the one inciting them into a panicky, riotous state. V wasn’t far behind.
In short, faced with disaster, we had both lost our damned minds.
“IT’S UNDER THE MICROWAVE!” I screamed back and V grabbed the box of Arm & Hammer and poured the entire contents on top of the fire.
It went out.
We stood, staring at each other, gasping and out of breath, me holding the offending saucepan of cranberry sauce in one trembling hand.
The whole thing had taken maybe thirty seconds but it had felt like fifteen minutes.
Later on when I poked my head into the office, my manager, who was keeping an eye on the teens, asked how everything was going,
“Hahaha oh man it’s going so great” I replied, talking a mile a minute in between staccato bursts of nervous laughter “It’s just great I mean you know, we started a small fire but whatever shit happens right otherwise everything’s pretty copacetic yep doin alright hahahahaha!”
She laughed too and thought I was joking, mocking my own cooking prowess. I didn’t correct her.
After the fire, the dinner went off without a hitch. The table seemed to groan under the weight of the food and I stood back and watched happily as 21 teenagers chowed down on a warm meal. Later we recruited one of them to play Santa and distribute gift bags containing some chocolate, candy canes, a good pair of socks and warm mittens.
I sometimes complain about my job, it can be emotionally exhausting, patience-draining and sometimes, just profoundly irritating. But as I stood there surveying the scene and watching the brightly lit faces of these kids who had let me into their lives, trusted me with their secrets, shared their triumphs and heartbreaks and made me laugh almost every day, I felt so, SO proud.
Proud of what I have accomplished in my four years as a Youth Worker, proud of what I’ve taught and proud of what I’ve learned, and proud, in the most cheesy and sentimental way, of these kids who have formed a sort of surrogate family.
It was the warmest of warm fuzzy moments and I loved it. I understood then what food can do for people, why we do all of the shopping and chopping and boiling and baking.
Nothing brings people together like a meal, and no pill (even a goat cheese flavoured one) can replace that.