As I had mentioned in my previous post, my student Jonathan is overly helpful. However, he is also a very intelligent young man and he has a lovely girlfriend names Mary. Together we have enjoyed many meals out and, as they were both graduating this spring I felt I should honor them by inviting them to my home and preparing a meal for them.
DISCLAIMER: Not all is peaches and cream with Jonathan. Remember the bus card incident? He tends to be rather pushy and sometimes can be very arrogant about his Chinese-ness, namely that I could not possibly know anything about China, Wuhan, or the Chinese culture. This trait is not particular to Jonathan; it seems many Chinese feel the need to caution me as I go about town or perform functions that are deemed too Chinese for a foreigner.
However, in my first few months here he did reach out and become a friend. He is one of the few students who made it a point to visit with me and invite me out once a week, and we do have some nice conversations. You take the good with the bad, you know.
So I invite him and his lovely girlfriend to my home for a meal. My goal was not to dazzle or impress anyone; I just wanted to offer them something personal in return for all of the time and attention they had lavished on me over the past months.
I’m not a half-bad cook. So I’ve been told, and so I judge myself. Neither my children nor I have ever fallen ill or died from anything I’ve ever cooked. The food I prepare generally turns out fairly tasty. No dinner party I’ve ever hosted or contributed to has resulted in a single case of ptomaine poisoning. No salmonella either, for those of you who just have to crack wise! For these reasons I deem myself a good cook.
On the menu: sauteed chicken breast in a sweet/sour sauce, spicy vegetables, beef with green beans and egg with tomato – a Chinese standard. All of this served with rice.
My guests were due to appear at 6PM. The original invitation was for 5:30, but Jonathan told me they had to take a test that was not scheduled to be done until after 5:30. Hence, the later time. I started in the kitchen at 5; chopping, slicing, washing, dicing. One hour’s prep time is plenty for the fare I was preparing, unless things go wrong. And they did, almost immediately.
I did not have a lot of rice to cook, but what I did have should have been plenty with all of the other food I was preparing. The next thing that went wrong: Jonathan and Mary showed up at 5:15. I was in no way prepared for them that early; fortunately I had some appetizers I could quickly lay out for their consumption, and I served them hot tea and invited them to watch a movie while I finished preparing the rest of the meal.
A few moments after I had installed them in front of the TV and gone back into the kitchen, Mary slid open the kitchen door and offered to help. I should explain that I am rather particular about my kitchen. I see my meal preparations as orchestrations; each movement being played just so in order to achieve the desired end result. Unless we are very close friends and you know my culinary routines, please do not intrude on my kitchen. Therefore I told her: “Not necessary, go unwind from your examination and spend time with Jonathan. Enjoy the movie and the snacks.” She left, albeit reluctantly… and then returned, insisting on being of help (here we go with the ‘more help than needed’ syndrome again!)
This was not quite rude. Showing up 45 minutes early was also not quite rude… until I divulge that originally I had invited them for 5:30 and Jonathan himself moved the time back to 6. But, no matter! No overt rudeness has yet occurred; I can deal with this.
I got everything done and ready to put on the table by 5 minutes after 6 – which is what I had planned on. As we gathered ‘round the dining table, they commented that everything looked delicious and the chopsticks started digging in. Jonathan sampled the beef and green beans and… immediately spit the mouthful he had out! Apparently I don’t know how to cook green beans; he said I did not cook them right. I was supposed to cook them until they are soft, not leave them crunchy and half raw.
I was shocked at his reaction: not necessarily the spitting out – although that was a bit shocking to me, but the fact that he chastised me for not cooking them properly. “But I always cook them this way!” I told him. He then went on to express his concern for my health because I eat raw vegetables. To listen to him speak I was in imminent danger of some sort of vital organ failure because I eat raw vegetables.
To forestall the issue, I jumped up and threw the food back into the wok in order to cook the beans longer. Mary again came into the kitchen, insisting that she cook them for me. I urge her back to the table to eat while the food is still hot. Now I’m getting the idea that maybe they don’t trust my cooking and she wants to supervise. That impression is borne out when I return to the table to find them only picking cautiously at the other dishes I had prepared.
When I return to the table with the beef and beans dish Jonathan immediately tells me I must be careful of how I cook food and what I eat so that I do not get sick and die. Mary chimed in with the same refrain, and I’m gathering the impression that, in their opinion I should never venture into the kitchen. I finally told these two young pups that I have been alive for 48 years and cooking since I was 7; seeing as I’m not dead yet, I must know something about cooking. That ends that argument.
I do get kudos on the sweet chicken, and the veggies make the grade. Mary asks if I had beat the eggs before frying them prior to taking a small bite and deeming them acceptable. Not good, just acceptable. She did declare that I cooked the rice very well. If I were a small child or otherwise inexperienced as a chef, I would have beamed at that compliment.
Now comes the problem with the rice… because they do not trust my culinary skills they filled up on rice. Jonathan asked for more; unfortunately I do not have anymore. I had cooked all the rice I had in my kitchen. “Never mind,” I say “I’ll cook you a potato.” I go into the kitchen and get a potato, and while in the act of peeling it they both come into the kitchen! Jonathan tells me I should let Mary cook and Mary is practically taking the paring knife out of my hand while I’m peeling the potato. Now my temper is getting rather short…
I don’t bother urging them back to the table. I’m actually getting too mad for words and want to throw them out of my house, is what I really want to do. Yet gamely I go on with the charade of hosting this dinner for these rude children. As I place the peeled potato on the cutting board and grab a cleaver to start chopping it, Jonathan urges me to caution. I resist telling him that I am 48 years old and have all of my fingers still, therefore I do not need him to constantly caution me. As he looks over my shoulder at how I’m chopping the potato, he apparently feels I am not doing it right and grabs my arm- the arm holding the cleaver and actively chopping the potato – and tells me to let Mary do it.
Ok, the gig is up. I surrender the knife and stand back while Mary takes over my kitchen and Jonathan supervises her. He also instructs me to go to the table and sit down. “No” I reply. “I want to see how Mary cooks this potato.” I’m more than a little hot under the collar and I stand there, arms crossed as they go through my kitchen, looking for what they need to cook this potato with instead of asking me where they might find things.
At this point I will end this post. I’m getting mad all over again just in the retelling, and I hope you are not getting too chapped at the reading of it. I will tell you how the dinner ended though. Mary did not cook the potato right either, but Jonathan ate it anyway. Apparently her cooking deficiencies can be tolerated but not mine. The dessert, fresh fruit and cake, also did not go over well, and I told the kids that from now on, we should enjoy meals out instead of my cooking for them.