How I missed my sister and her bacon.
Well, not really. But I did miss the days when my sister and her bacon were my biggest worries. The days when we had our family dinner parties and I would bring my standard bag of chips and she would fry her bacon. Naturally, her bacon was superior to my chips, but at least the chips went with the bacon. They could co-exist in harmony on a cheap paper plate.
Now it was time for another one of our company potlucks and the theme this month was International Peace. I went to check the sign-up sheet again. You could pick one of six continents, but it was filling up rapidly and I was running out of continents.
I read the entries. Fried miniature speckled duck eggs. Special cheese from Iceland. Grape-flavored hummus. Chicken encrusted in dark chocolate and mushrooms.
What the hell was all this? Where did people get this stuff? With the food prices going up, I could barely afford my non-encrusted chicken and a bottle of discount cola.
“So, what are you making?”
I spun around to find Leah standing behind me. She was wearing a very high ponytail which swung from side to side when she talked, like a whip.
“I was thinking barbecue potato chips,” I faltered.
She wagged her ponytail at me. “No, you probably shouldn’t bring those,” she said. “How do barbecue chips contribute to international peace?”
“They don’t. They’re clearly a vulgar American food.”
“I’ll grant you that. But is it fair to ask the working class to buy exotic foods for this thing?”
She bristled. “Our workers are just as capable of buying gourmet food products as they’ve ever been. We’re going to prove this with the potluck. And you’d better help us prove it, too.”
“Fine. I will bring something…” I bent down to peer at the sign-up list. “Something, um….Australian with me.”
“Like what? Kangaroo steaks?” Julian wondered.
“I don’t know,” I snapped. I looked around, feeling lost in my own kitchen. Unless a recipe involved the microwave, I did my best to avoid it.
“I have no idea how to cook a steak,” I lamented. “I don’t even like steaks. Is there anything else Australians eat?”
“Why don’t you make something you like and know how to do? Make a salad. You love salads,” Julian suggested.
“I can’t make my Caesar salad. It’s too ordinary. So is my spinach salad. There is nothing unusual about it.”
“Seeing you cook is plenty unusual enough,” Julian said and then, following the time-honored tradition of boyfriends everywhere, slowly backed out of the kitchen.
I pulled out my shiny, hardly ever used cookbook, and leafed through it. It was hopeless. The book was called The Old Batchelor’s Kitchen and the recipes were all five-minute meals for non-cooks like me. The potluck was no place for amateurs.
Then a tip on one of the pages caught my eye. “It’s easy to turn a dish into a unique experience. Simply add an extra ingredient which reflects your distinct personality.”
Maybe I could make a salad and add a unique ingredient. I searched my mostly empty cupboards for something different. Out of desperation, I finally opened up our stash of Apocalypse canned supplies. We were keeping them in case of societal breakdown, but hey, this was urgent.
Pickled beets…herring in mustard sauce…peach halves. Which would go best with a Caesar salad?
I dumped some lettuce into a plastic bowl. Well…wasn’t cooking supposed to be an art? Weren’t you supposed to be fearless, to throw clashing flavors together, like you would contrasting colors in an abstract painting? I opened one can, then another, sprinkling the contents into the bowl. As I went along, I added ingredients faster and faster, in a blur of panic, never tasting what I made because I was so scared of it.
When the time came for the potluck, I called what I brought the Grand Mixture, and for its ethnic origins, I wrote in “The International Waters of the Pacific.”
“It appears that Blue has made the least nationalistic dish of the potluck. Hooray for her,” said Cassie, one of my co-workers. “A symbol of the perfectly blended mixture we may one day become upon this planet.” Cassie got a little carried away by the poetry of the moment sometimes.
“It’s what I strive for,” I said modestly.
She put a spoonful of it into her mouth and spent a few minutes working on maintaining a pleasant expression.
“What did you base your recipe on, Blue?” Leah asked with suspicion.
I shifted my eyes away from her. “It comes from an old tale about sailors in the Pacific…It is about several ships that all crashed around the same rock, and it was Christmastime….and the men from the ships had Christmas Eve dinner together on the rock, and they made this dish out of everything they had on board. This is also why it’s made out of canned items.”
“Hmmmm,” Leah said.
After a struggle, Cassie had managed to swallow down her mouthful. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate daring food choices, but this just doesn’t…taste good.”
The co-worker to my left must have noticed my worried face, because she nudged me. “See, someone very important is enjoying it.”
It was true. The head manager of our floor, a big healthy man with red cheeks, was shoveling my Mixture into his mouth.
“Seconds, please!” he roared. “Just like my Nana used to make back in the fatherland, God bless her!”
He was quickly handed more. In between bites, he inspected everyone else’s plates. “It’s delicious! Why aren’t you ladies having any? What, are you afraid of real food?”
The ladies hesitated, then spooned out small portions of it for themselves, and ate along with the manager. They faked smiles while they chewed, as difficult as that was.
“Mmmmm!” one of them said in a strangled voice.
“This really is quite interesting,” another one added. She then had to put her head down on the table and her shoulders heaved a few times, but she got herself back under control and raised her face again, her forehead covered with droplets of sweat.
Leah made no move to try it. “Why aren’t you having any of your own creation?” she questioned me.
“I already had a full bowl at home,” I explained.
“Believe me, some more padding won’t hurt you!” the manager boomed and he ladled a sizeable chunk out onto my plate.
I hadn’t realized just how bad it was until I tasted it. It was so bad it was existential. It made me question the balance of the universe. Every possible flavor was in there, and when all the flavors of the world were unified, they became a nauseating mush. I leaned my head on my hand and closed my eyes, acting as if I was savoring the taste. The women at the table watched me, and this time their smiles were genuine.
As I forced myself to keep eating and everything was swimming in front of my eyes, I heard the manager say that I was the winner for best dish of the potluck. I passed out before I could find out what prize I’d won.
When I came to, weak and clammy, I was on the sofa in our apartment and Julian was standing over me, concerned.
“Don’t ever cook again, okay?” he said.
“You gave yourself some serious food poisoning. You made everybody else at your office sick, too. Except the manager guy, he was fine. He said he’s inviting you to his house for dinner as a reward.”
“Oh, no.” The nausea was back, stronger than before.
“I don’t know about some of those women you work with. That Leah chick said she was happy you were in the upper management’s good graces. She sounded kinda threatening.”
I stuffed my face into a pillow. “She’s pissed off because the manager is her direct supervisor.”
“So you think she’ll be gunning for you?”
Gunning for me? Even though she made a big deal of girl power and women having each other’s back, she was always gunning for me. There was only one option for me: I had to make myself look bad at the dinner. It would put my job at risk, but getting promoted ahead of Leah would be much more dangerous.
I was going to do what I should have done in the first place—bring a bag of chips.
“Wow! Just like the brand I used to eat in college!” the manager yelled out. “I love it!” He tore open the bag of chips, and he and his two kids began devouring them.
Failure! I thought not bringing his favorite Mixture would be the surefire way to irritate him, but my plan didn’t seem to be working.
“Well, I have to confess this isn’t a foodie type of food!” I said.
“As you can see, I’m not a foodie!” he replied, wiping the crumbs off his shirt. He slapped a plate with a steak on it on the table in front of me.
There was a wilted piece of broccoli next to the beef. “Gotta have your greens, it’s good for you!” he lectured his children.
“Aw, Dad, do we have to eat that?” the older boy complained.
I hung my head over the steak, unable to get started on it.
“The chips were excellent! I’m going to promote you to senior complaint associate, the same pay level Leah is at,” the manager said. “Congratulations! And don’t look so worried! Keep making that salad and you’ll do great.”
“I will,” I murmured. “Thank you for the honor, sir.”
I bit into the steak, feeling as if it was my last meal.