Failure: A Classic Tale of Romance
At a very young age, I determined that I wanted to become a seducer of women. Eight year old Paco, chubby and sporting awkwardly thick glasses, was convinced that some day, he’d be the dapper, suave sophisticate who dated fancy women in opera gloves who used words like “delightful.” I planned it all out while the other, less charming, kids were out playing kickball, socializing and engaging in other such non-debonair things.
Those plans—which were often scribbled in colored pencil (you know, for emphasis… charming adults emphasized things, after all)—had me looking like Cary Grant wearing only the highest fashion in my swanky big-city apartment overlooking whatever was most fashionable to overlook. I’d send for my car to collect one of my many elegant lady companions; when she arrived, I’d make them wait at the door until I saw it fit to smoothly answer. The door would open just quickly enough to indicate that I wasn’t all so eager and I’d deliver an insincere “Sorry, I kept you waiting” with a smirk that said “whatever it is I was just doing was desperately fascinating; you’re lucky I answered when I did.” She’d undoubtedly forgive me using the word “darling” as I took her coat.
After a few minutes of terribly witty small talk, I’d escort her to my dining room and say with feigned humility “I must warn you; I’m not much of a cook.”
And she’d say, deliberately and without employing contractions, “Come now, darling. I am sure it will be wonderful.” Then I’d wow her with seven (or so) courses more tempting than an apple in
I know what you’re thinking. And, yes, I did have my act together as an eight year old. Only, I ran into a minor problem at this point in the plan because there wasn’t a colored pencil for what, exactly, adults did after the charming man makes the elegant woman dinner. The movies I’d seen did, however, suggest that it ended in a bed with cigarettes.
Whatever it was, I wanted it!
I’ve matured some since. I am no longer chubby, but held on to the glasses. I have the swanky downtown loft, although it doesn’t overlook anything. I religiously read male fashion magazines so that, if I can’t afford to keep up, at least I know what keeping up looks like. I even started smoking… because even the most beautiful line of prose looks clumsy without a period.
The key, I thought, was in that dinner. So over the years, I’d taught myself to cook through whatever means were available. It started, of course, with eggs, macaroni and the other things children should be capable of doing and eventually progressed to trickier meat dishes, all the while focused predominantly on presentation. Surely a basic understanding of preparation and flavor would develop over time, but a sexy looking meal was important to master immediately.
I came to discover that living on my own presented a number of challenges. I’d only ever cooked in the kitchens of families who had collected utensils over decades and knew which spices did what. Buying pots, pans, spatulas and the like became prohibitively intimidating because I didn’t want to get the kid set. I was an adult now and I didn’t want opera-glove-clad ladies scoffing at my Batman themed kitchen ensemble. Plus, I felt obligated to obtain all of the necessary accoutrements at once; I didn’t want to be stuck mid-recipe only to discover that not only did I not own a paring knife, but I had no clue what a paring knife did. What if something needed to be whisked? I’d look like an amateur using a salad fork.
Six-hundred dollars later, I was a bona fide chef. Nothing was safe from a mean braising or julienning. No detail was overlooked; I even acquired an apron. Girls would know I meant business if I looked as though my cooking was so serious that I hadn’t the time to worry over errant specks of pan sauce.
Or something. The point was I looked cool.
Everything was falling into place. I only needed a little more practice with some of the sexier dishes before I unleashed my charm and mysteriousness onto unsuspecting women. Sure, it would be expensive cooking sexy dishes just for myself; sure, I could make a lobster bisque and could do the flippy thing with the pan to show off my chefly prowess… but casseroles? What the hell goes in a casserole? Practical things that average Americans eat virtually every day eluded me. Moreover, I’d focused so much on the presentation and what can only be called flare-skills that almost everything I made was over or undercooked and fell far from conventional standards of tasty.
No worries; when all else fails, I thought, I’ll learn how to cook the same way I learned virtually everything else… television and the internet will make me suave. Hours upon hours were invested in the Food Network and associated online recipes. It didn’t take long before I realized a number of things. While Emeril Lagasse is very likely good at what he does, he has dozens of people in his employ who work exclusively to ensure that everything looks easy. Yes, Rachel Ray, it does take YOU 30 minutes, but what about those of us with bottom-of-the-line electric ranges and haven’t the slightest idea how to “infuse” something?
Huh, Rachel Ray, huh?
Another thing TV chefs don’t tell you is the ingredients they use are only available to TV chefs and wizards. I’ve actually convinced myself—Ralph’s and Albertson’s have confirmed—some of the herbs and particularly obscure cheeses were invented to ensure that your final product is never as awesome as Food Network’s. Gruyere? Zatar? Fiddlehead Fern? It never occurred to me that grilled cheese sandwiches could become more mature and complex than me.
I just want to impress girls, Bobby Flay, not place a curse on my neighbor's house.
Somehow, ingredients I think are imaginary aren’t nearly as troublesome as ingredients that actually exist in my local supermarket. Now I was forced to make decisions that were sure to make or abysmally break my chances at being that devilishly charming host. Once in the super market, it wasn’t just a salad anymore; the roughage riddle would determine the course of the evening. If I were to make the rookie move of choosing arugula instead of watercress (the colorful signs above certainly aren’t any help), then I’d be dead in the water before she even got to the main course.
Why, oh why, did cows have to be so damned large and plentiful? I’m just looking for a package that says “steak,” but there seems to be 3,500 parts to a cow. Chickens, they’re easy! Chickens are the only animal alive to have only three body parts: breasts, wings and thighs. If only she hadn’t specifically said she loved steak, I’d happily go with chicken. You can’t mess up chicken. When God created Adam, he said (boomingly, I’m sure), “Now, before I get around to the girl… I give you chicken. I’ve designed the chicken so that even you, young Adam, can’t mess it up.” Then came Eve, then came buckets.
My panic must have been noticeable; the butcher asked if he could help me.
“Is there like a beef… breast?” I asked after a couple of breaths.
He laid down whatever carcass he had in his hands and came up to the massive, refrigerated trough of beef. “Well,” he didn’t make eye contact so much, it was more like he looked into my soul, “I guess you could go with a flank or skirt.” The little he had managed to calm me with his ruse of genuine help fled my body. I cursed my parents for not teaching me the words in English that translated to flank or skirt. In fact, the only thing they’d taught me that would have even slightly helped only translated to “meat.”
And it would have seemed damn silly if I’d asked the butcher if he had any meat.
Sigh. “Fuck it. I’ll take the chicken.”
The young lady that was to come over fell slightly short of the Audrey Hepburn archetype I’d established with colored pencil. She was pretty by any standard and carried herself well publicly; despite not owning opera gloves, the girl was charming. I’d invited her to dinner at my place, adding a smooth, albeit thoughtless, “I hope you like steak.”
I started preparing the second I got home from work, hours before she was expected. All the vegetables were organized into neat, artful little stacks, dinnerware was inspected for lint or other impurities and I studied the online recipes as if they were scripture and Jesus was coming. Candles were carefully Fung Shui’d with the table settings. Music was even coordinated to both adequately accompany the courses and to grow increasingly suggestive; I even bought the most obscure jazz CD I could find and researched the musician so, had she asked, I could say, “Really? You never heard of him? I’ve loved his music for years!”
Although it had been years since I’d seen my childhood blueprint, I was confident I was representing it well.
Cigarettes were placed in my bedside drawer.
My lady-friend was to arrive at eight o’clock, so I determined that starting only slightly early would serve the dual purpose of disguising the hours of preparation and allowing her to see me in all of my cooking awesomeness. The first knob turned at 7:50. Water started boiling for the jasmine rice and a medley of vegetables hit the sauté pan. I left the fresh rosemary ready so she could see me in a skillful, yet effortless chopping fury.
At 8:20, the jasmine rice was sticking to the pot and the vegetables were limp. I needed those vegetables crisp and virile; surely a girl wouldn’t be inspired by a guy with limp vegetables. Calling her would only give away my desperation, I thought, I’ll just start over. She arrived just in time to miss me disposing of the dress rehearsal. After a devilishly cool kiss-hello, I took her jacket and said, “I was so very concerned I wouldn’t make it in time; I got stuck at happy hour with some friends and lost track of time. Your timing is exceptional.”
We made small talk over rosemary chopping. I invented a happy hour story while jasmine rice boiled. The reserves hit the sauté pan as she explained being held up at work. “I apologize we’re settling for simple,” I said as vegetables flew through the air in an immaculately executed chef-flip, “I’m not much of a cook.” I seasoned the chicken breasts with rosemary and lemon juice and they sizzled loudly on the pan. Steak would have made me look too eager; pan-seared chicken, on the other hand, may as well have been a bed sprinkled with rose petals.
“No one’s ever made me dinner before,” she said. “Everything smells just… delightful.” I was in. Years and years of planning would finally pay off. Sean Connery in his prime couldn’t have been smoother than I was at that very moment. The chicken browned beautifully and I served it with an aesthetic mastery that Rembrandt would have envied. We ate and she raved. Apparently, it didn’t matter that the rice tasted like salt and the large pieces of eggplant were cold in the middle.
Or maybe it did, because she claimed to be full after finishing the chicken.
In any event, the coup de grace would be the dessert. No one alive can mess up Bananas Foster; bananas, brown sugar, butter and rum over the priciest vanilla ice cream Trader Joe’s offered. Nina Simone came on as the first ingredients hit the pan. Bravo, Paco. Bravo.
The beauty of making Bananas Foster is that it takes maybe five minutes and you get a flash from the combusting rum. However, one of the many downsides to having an electric range is that the flash seems overly contrived when you have to pull out a lighter. Notwithstanding, I made it a point to ensure she was looking at me and I was looking away from the pan when pyrotechnics went off. I saw the reflection of the huge flame in her eyes.
After desert, we sat in what I would have called my parlor (if it hadn’t been attached to my dining room and my kitchen and virtually everything else in my tiny loft) and talked of clever things. We drank wine procured from behind the fancy bar I’d purchased with the intent of seeming sophisticated and chatted and chatted.
Two hours had passed since she arrived and we hadn’t been smoking my bedside cigarettes yet. Something was wrong. “Well,” the wine had influenced my confidence, “it’s been a fine evening.” I was Cary Grant. I was Peter Lankford. I WAS Frank Sinatra.
Only I wasn’t and she interpreted that as “Well,” sadly, “and a good evening to you.”
“Yeah, I guess I better get going. I have to be at work early.”
I could see the eight year old Paco burning his colored pencil plans with the Bananas Foster flame while saying, “Nevermind, I’ll just grow up to be a huge loser.”
How could I beg her to stay? Sinatra never begged anyone to do anything. So, “Thanks. Goodnight,” it was.
She probably hadn’t gotten to her car before I’d taken off my shirt and smoked that cigarette in my bed… by myself.
She was charming enough to skirt around the subject a few days later when she called.
Dear Rachel Ray,
You should have made clearer the importance of placing pan-seared chicken in the oven for ten minutes before serving. Your lack of emphasis prevented me from achieving childhood dreams of being suave and effectively gave my date and me food poisoning.
Thanks for nothing,