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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Knife's Edge: Family meal


It’s here! A large bruised box with a Boston Harbor postmark that's cold to the touch. Stickers that exclaim, “Perishable.” Inside the box, a few layers of cold, aluminum-looking insulation cover an arm’s full of tangled seaweed and beneath that, two smallish lobsters. Its 85 degrees and sunny outside, and I am in Dunedin, Fla., for the holidays. Here, receiving lobster from family in New England is one of our traditions — along with a steady diet of rib-poking sarcasm, political debate, and an unorthodox lottery system to decide who buys who gifts.

But there’s one more understated annual occurrence. I’m in the kitchen.

If you’re a chef, you understand exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s one part obligation to your family. One part obligation to your craft. A dash of showing off, and let’s be honest, one sprinkle of trying to keep your various relatives from fucking up dinner.

It’s an odd dance for my type-A, slightly narcissistic self.

I can’t just take over the kitchen. That’s grandmother’s job, I mean, title. She’s a bit more of a Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden at this point in her cooking career. She gets the credit, though, and gives one hell of a press conference. Honestly, I don’t really want the position. Too much pressure replacing a legend.

So, instead, I taste and poke and supervise.

Making sure that my cousin doesn’t cut her hand off while chopping rutabaga with a way-too-large knife, on a wobbly, ceramic cutting board, without having squared the vegetable off to steady the hazard. The knives are Ginsus, by the way. And grandmother is telling me how these treasures are passed down from Samurai. I’m nodding like any wizard’s apprentice worth his eye of newt would.

And I’ll suggest some grilling tips for the rib roast that we brought over that's now in the hands of our uncle, the resident grill master. “Of course, having the whole roast engulfed in flames is not bad, it’s very much like a Korean barbecue,” I tell him. In my head, I know we almost lost half a cow there, and that smell of burning hair has got to be his.

“I think it’s your turn to slice the bird,” my other uncle jests.

For the record, it’s been my turn to carve for four years in a row. And this year, I brought an electric knife. I like precision and technology. But all of a sudden, my normally quiet aunt is taunting me. She’s over my shoulder expressing how surprised she is that a real chef would use an electric slicer. I’m a wiseass myself, so this is somewhat heartwarming. She’s really letting me have it, but she’s from Canada, and there’s ice wine in play, so I won’t charge the hill.

When no one's looking, I shower some salt here, hot sauce there. When the Gators score a touchdown, it’s my time to sneak in a few shakes of vinegar, and discretely emulsify the beef drippings into the sauce. My wife would not approve of this — it's not “healthy.”

I’m on a covert mission each year. Just being the players' coach and making sure, in very subtle ways, that our meal is as good as the time we have.

But as I’m reading this, I realize it’s me whose goose is getting cooked. I think I’m the one being outsmarted here. Everyone pretends to look the other way and be nice. But it’s just like the saying: There can only be one chef in the kitchen.

Happy holidays!

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