Monday, May 18, 2009

First Dance, First Kiss, First Dinner.

The instant my Darling (and Drowsy) Daughter pried open her sleep-sanded eyes this morning, I recognized it. Although nearly 60 hours had passed since her first dance (Friday night), she was still enshrouded in that ethereal, walking-on-air, anything-can-happen, post-dance fog. Even as she finally floated out the door to school, precious, girlish memories of that evening were still swarming around her, with odd bits clinging to her hair and fingertips.

Parents of infants are trained to note "firsts." The first time they roll over, the first time they sit up, and first foods. (Huh. Oddly similar to pet-training, isn't it?)

Then, it's all about those first words, the first time they eat unassisted, and eventually, mercifully, the first day without diapers.

All of the sudden, we don’t get to witness their firsts. First day at school, first sleepover, first test. First crush, first dance, first date, first kiss. We have to rely on our kids (or more likely, their chatty, less-inhibited friends) to share even the tiniest, splintered details.

My own first kiss was less than magical. Memorable, yes -- but not in a good way. Disastrous is more accurate. A slimy disaster. Like a bad sci-fi movie. We seventh graders were playing Spin the Bottle, when despite the odds, the bottle spun by my so-called boyfriend slowed to point squarely at me. We'd never kissed before, and I was thrilled. My heart pounded. As we leaned toward each other, images from movies and books flooded my mind. I may have swooned. I may have heard a host of heavenly angels.

For about half a second. Eeeewwww. What a disappointment.

Although I'd bet he has no recollection of the event, in my mind, that awkward kiss was a deal-breaker. We broke up the following Monday, and for the next 5½ years -- until we graduated high school and I went to college -- I avoided all contact -- even eye contact -- with him. Ick.

The first meal I ever prepared was more successful – but only slightly. It was a typical, sticky, swampy summer day in Charleston, and I was -- no kidding -- eight years old. I knew what the day held. Phoebe, our housekeeper/maid/babysitter (this was before the rise of nannies) would surely send us out for the day, with the usual admonishment, “I don’t even want to see you children again until lunch.”

But that day I had a plan. I couldn’t go out and play, I insisted. I wanted to make dinner. Seeing as how Phoebe didn’t cook, she agreed to let me have at it. Either I was an convincing liar, or Phoebe had mis-placed her confidence in an eight-year-old. I didn’t know which, but I didn’t care.

I dug through the chest freezer and plowed through The Joy Of Cooking -- looking for ingredients and ideas, so I could compose my menu. Iced tea with mint and lemon. Mashed potatoes, which looked easy because I was actually pretty good with a peeler. Waldorf Salad, which I’d never even heard of, but since we had the basic ingredients (apples, celery, nuts, mayonnaise) I hoped would add an exotic twist. Green beans (canned) were a foregone conclusion, as they were the only vegetable everyone in the family agreed upon. And finally, the piece de resistance – pork roast.

The recipe looked simple enough. Pat the roast down with flour, garlic powder, salt and pepper, and put it in the oven for 25 min./lb. I wasn’t sure why they tacked that “/lb.” on there, but then again, I didn’t understand a lot of things. I was eight. If Mrs. Looper had ever mentioned such a thing in our third grade class, I didn’t remember it. It seemed insignificant, like the way the Waldorf Salad recipe required a “fine dice” for the apples. Whatever.

I made a list and began tackling it. Because I was so eager to have the meal prepared, I put the roast in at about 2:00 p.m., figuring I’d just warm it back up when my parents got home at 5:30 p.m.

I was stunned and confused when I checked the roast at 2:25 p.m. It wasn't brown and succulent. It hadn’t changed color in the slightest. I consulted Phoebe (remember, not exactly a culinary wizard), and we agreed it probably needed a little more time. I kept the roast in the oven, opening and closing the door at five minute intervals, for another 20 minutes, when it finally lost that raw pink color on the outside.

True, it wasn't exactly brown, but I remember thinking, perfect, as I turned off the oven. (Plainly, we hadn't studied trichinosis in third grade, either.) I filled the remainder of the afternoon finishing up the other dishes, setting the table and thinking of all the witty ways I’d announce to my parents that I, all by myself, had cooked dinner!

When Mom got home at 5:30 p.m., she listened to my boastful description of the afternoon, and then, gaped, horrified, at the practically raw, now room temperature, five-pound, bone-in, grayish porcine slab, resting in a pool of pink juices in the oven. I could provide graphic details, but in a nutshell: my dad declared that we needed another dinner plan, my brother couldn’t believe how dumb I was, my sister just wanted to go to bed, and I sobbed hysterically.

Mom persisted, though: We were having roast for dinner. Even, she proclaimed, if it meant eating at midnight. In truth, it didn't take quite that long, but it was a good 2 ½ hours later – well past my baby sister’s bedtime – when we ate. After all the tears, my eyes were swollen nearly shut. I could scarely taste anything. It was one of the finest meals ever.

To this day, I still enjoy a good pork roast, although I usually cook it on the grill now and not in the oven. It's pretty basic. A beef pot roast, I think, can pose a bigger challenges, but even so, there are only two tricks. One, Lipton Onion Soup mix is not enough. You've got to have other ingredients to give your pot roast enough depth of flavor. Two, you've got to cook it way longer than any recipe ever tells you. It may not quite compare to a first dance or first kiss, but still, it's pretty darn good.

Beef Pot Roast
3-4 pound chuck roast
olive oil

2 onions, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thinly
10-12 baby carrots, cut in 1/2-inch chunks
1 rib celery, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced

generous splash of red wine (about 1/2 cup)
fresh ground pepper
bay leaf
1 packet Lipton Onion Soup mix
1 cup water

Thinly coat the bottom of a large, heavy-duty lidded skillet with oil. Heat until oil is rippling, then brown both sides of roast well.  Remove roast from pan, and stir in onions. Saute until translucent, then add carrots and celery. Continue sauteeing until carrots are slightly browned. Stir in garlic and continue cooking another 2-3 minutes.  Return browned roast to pan, adding wine, pepper, bay leaf, soup mix and water. Cover, and cook over low heat 3-4 hours until roast is absolutely fork tender. Using fork, pull apart roast and serve over egg noodles with broth.
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