Monday, November 02, 2009

Four Potlucks Chapter 1 - A Collaborative Novel

Tip-toe-ing to the fridge, as if the slightest quake from his feet will obliterate his dish for tonight, Todd opens the door with the slightest pop and peers in.


The appearance of the fresh strawberry jam he made yesterday did not improve with a night of chilling. Instead of the smooth texture promised by the recipe’s accompanying photo, what he made looks more like a gelatinous, red, overgrown amoeba in a bowl, jiggling its seedy, lumpy pseudopods this way and that as Todd brings it out of the 20-watt-lit icebox for further inspection.

He peels away the plastic wrap and plunges a spoon in for sampling. Not bad, even if the texture is a little thicker than expected, it definitely tastes like the original fruit he bought from the farmer’s market two days ago. Maybe even a little better, since he added a little vanilla (bean scrapings and extract) to give it a fuller and more intriguing aroma.

Except for Celia, he’s sure none of the other Foodie Follies will mind the jam, tendrils and all. It’s just a simple spread, afterall, meant to be spread and eaten in mere seconds. But Celia, with her Martha Stewart approach to all things edible and potable when entertaining, will surely fault him with a jabby quip.

 “It looks presentable if I took my contacts out,” he imagines her saying, followed by curt, pretentious guffaw.

Maybe he’ll call it country strawberry jam when he brings it to the potluck. People are always more forgiving of a dish’s looks when you add terms like country or rustic or poor man’s somewhere in there, the working class have no time to fuss with how their meals looks, particularly if it’s going to be ravenously shoved down the pie hole before tending to other to-dos. And rustic food taste just as good, if not better, and it’s sure a lot more approachable. Instead of an arsenal of exotic spices, the flavor comes from copious amounts of fats. Turmeric and coriander may be confusing and disagreeable to some; bacon, not so much . . .

Tasting another spoonful on a saltine cracker, Todd toys with the idea of a more glamorous name, maybe Provencal strawberry spreadable gelee – suggestive of a simple-yet-elegant souvenir recipe that has been passed down through gaggles and generations of French grandmothers before serendipitously making its way into this notepad. But that certainly won’t fly, Celia will definitely call him out it (“I don’t think I’ve ever tasted, or seen, anything like this when I vacationed there!”)

He ponders on perhaps plucking a few sprigs of lavender from his neighbor’s yard and sprinkling it on top to give it a definitive Provencal feel, but the sudden shrill of the coffee maker distracts that thought, and he quickly re-wraps the jam, puts it back in the fridge, and grabs a mug to pour himself the much-needed morning brew.

Sipping on the lukewarm latte that her boyfriend left for her before taking off for his sunrise run with his friends,  Jenneke is surprised how easy making lavender honey is, stirring the sticky infusion in her improvised double-boiler (a Pyrex bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.) Maybe she’ll make this again as a Christmas present for her more-peripheral friends, it has that personal touch and certainly a lot cheaper and less stressful than looking for appropriate, and appropriately priced, gifts on Black Friday. But she still has a few months to think about that.

Turning off the stove and taking another quick whiff and sip of the milky brew, Jenneke thinks about how infinitely tastier the coffee would’ve been if Albert woke actually woke her up. And also about the irony that her twice-to-thrice-a-week ritual at Intelligentsia (and countless bags of beans in between from regions she can barely pronounce, let alone remember) is probably doing more damage to her budget than her monthly culinary contributions to the potluck, even the Gourmet-themed nights when Celia hosts.

But she writes it off as a worthwhile emotional investment, Celia and all, the Follies are a great way to re-connect with her college friends and suitemates, the dozen of them who squeezed into that tiny kitchen together and unofficially starting the monthly Foodie Follies. Thankfully, over the half a decade the food, for the most part, got a lot better – even if the Follies have gradually whittled down to a party of six as others moved away. Maybe five, Rebecca has missed out on the last few gatherings, even if she does e-mail her declines far in advance and apologize profusely after. But Todd and Randall seemed more at ease when Rebecca's absent, since the men:women ratio evens out a little bit better and the talk is less rom coms and more college sports. But when conversations start sliding a bit too chicky, they (and even Celia too) would groan, "Davis, come back!"

Jenneke is even more thankful that Todd picked a “brunch for dinner” theme for this month, it’s simple and she doesn’t feel as nearly guilty about splurging the calories. Who really tries to be good for weekend brunch anyways? It’s the start (or end) of a week, you’ve confessed your sins at church, and therefore a practical clean slate just waiting to get dirty again. Bring on the eggs, yolks and all, the bacon and pancakes (with ricotta cheese in the batter, please) along with half-inch-thick pats of rich, flavorful French butter from grass-fed cows and Grade A medium amber Vermont maple syrup too.

Ok, so maybe in a café she’s seen a pencil-thin model or a dozen restraining themselves to an egg white omelet with a side of fruit, but even then they are sipping on carb-loaded mimosas and sodium-ladened bloody marys. Jenneke smirks as she pictures them bloating up in the middle of the day from that spike of sugars and salts, perhaps popping a button on their size 00 tops or bursting open the buckle of their skinny belts. In the middle of a photoshoot, or better yet, a live interview on the news during one of those softy “how to eat right and look great” segments that airs on weekends.

But she really should start watching those segments as well as what she eats, even her looser set of jeans is start to cinch a bit too snug around the middle. After this potluck, she’ll switch out the latte for the regular drip (black… OK, maybe a splash of milk and a little sugar,) and stop with the Belgian truffles made with bittersweet Valrhona chocolate – even if they are 20% off this week at Whole Foods.

Pouring the fragrant honey into Tupperware and strategizing over her plan of attack against the flab, her boyfriend bursts into the living room, with the front door making a thunderous boom against the dry wall. Jenneke could feel her eardrums cracking, even if the wall remains resilient.


He turned around, drops of sweat spinning around and away from him like a lawn sprinkler, “Sorry, hon; I forgot,” walking over with outstretched arms, displaying the armpit stains on his shirt in full morning glory. Jenneke held out the honey-covered wooden spoon just in time to prevent his wet embrace.

First, puppy eyes and a pout, then a quick lick of the spoon. She raised her arm, but before she had a chance to spank him, he bolted – leaving the kitchen floor with mini puddles of sweat, mud and honey. Looking at the mess, Jenneke re-considers abstaining from that truffle today.

Truffles, truffles, truffles – both sweet and savory, that’s what Randall has been indulging on for the past few weeks, whether dining out or cooking in. Its seductive flavor definitely takes the edge off Derek, who initiated the breakup a month ago. It wasn’t serious yet, but Randy definitely saw promise going that direction. Randy hates to admit it, but Derek is a total cliché of that boyfriend you can be proud to bring home: smart, funny, handsome, athletic, charismatic. And Randy hates to admit it but that Derek could’ve been the one. Except now he’s not, and now that he’s single again, there’s not much point coming out to his family now – except to possibly get mother to stop playing matchmaker.

And so he gorges on truffles like a pig, though he still looks anything but with his tall, lanky stature blessed, or possibly cursed, with minimal fat and musculature. But for Derek he sacrificed truffles, who hated the dank, earthy smell of the fungus and the fat and calories packed into the chocolate (which equals that much more time at the gym to burn it off, not having his Randy's naturally fast metabolism.) That was one consolation prize of the dissolution. Though at least one night a week he would glad trade all the truffles in the world for another night over and a few nookies.

Despite all the truffle-related cooking and dining he’s done, Randy is still at a loss for a potluck contribution. With an excess of sausages in his fridge after he went wild at a storewide sale at his local butcher (and feeling the irony every time he opens the refrigerator) his intention of making biscuits and sausage gravy (topped truffled salt, of course) was trumped when Jenneke e-mailed the group that she’ll bring “Southern-style biscuits with homemade lavender honey.” And while he replied “Mine will be a surprise,” he was thinking What the fuck?

Maybe he wouldn’t be so mad if Jenneke had done something more elaborate with biscuits, say a biscuit-topped casserole or even that maple-bacon biscuit they had when they actually brunched in that café whose recipe was deceptively simple when the local food magazine printed it. But biscuits and honey, really? Perhaps he should call her out like Celia did to Todd last year, when he tried to pass off a store-bought curried egg salad as his own.  He made amends by taking the group out to desserts the night after, and Celia and Jenneke didn’t flinch an eye when they ordered the flan topped with Ossetra caviar. Randy would have ordered one too, but he has a sort-of crush on Todd, more for the totally unattainable factor than anything else, even though he is a good, if a little oddball, fellow, and the two already did enough damage on his wallet, so he just snuck a bite of Jenneke's and got a gin swizzle to sip on.

But, alas, now Randy’s stuck eating honey on biscuits and some dish that’s supposed to be a pleasant surprise for everyone else. He knows Celia is a crapshoot, but if he’ll be happy if he can impress Heather, the only one in the Follies who actually cooks for a living. And Rebecca, if she shows up, is easy to please – hell, he still remember her orgasmic face when sank her teeth into that McGriddle two months ago. Was that sandwich laced with crack? Or truffles?

That’s It! He thought, he’ll make a deconstructed, glammed up breakfast sandwich. Some currant-walnut bread from the bakery, topped with fresh farm eggs, some mango-jalapeno chicken sausage, a few melted slices of that sharp, tangy, nutty cow’s milk cheese from that little creamery he loved up in Oregon – and of course, a generous drizzle of truffle oil. The real stuff where you can see the slices in the bottle, not that artificial chemical crap. And maybe even a micro spoonful of Ossetra too . . .

Todd moaned a little as he eyed the jar of caviar behind the fridge as his favorite Hancock Park bakery-deli, still remembering the damage from not one, but two orders of that flan from that fateful outing. It didn't shock him that Celia would order that, but Jenneke too? Then again, she is always pinching pennies and trying to save up for .. something. Todd lost track, one time it's a car, another time it's an extended European vacation, or was it to move in with Albert in a European villa? Regardless, it doesn't offer her many opportunities to eat high-end fare, unless someone else can foot the bill.

Still, she's great company and her food is great when she's not experimenting with a healthy recipe that swaps vegetable this and whole-grain that for the more conventional butter and flour. Her last healthy specimen of wheatgrass muffins had the whole group spooked, and compelled Heather to declare a "no green foods" theme the month following (Jenneke got the point and baked a sour cream and blueberry cheesecake with a raspberry-balsamic sauce.)

As he is relishing the taste of that cheesecake in his memories, the sultry call of his favorite cashier-server brings him back to the present.

"Here you go, two freshly baked baguettes, a cup of cocoa and a little something our bakery's testing out," she said, revealing a small plate with a cylindrical tower, about four inches diameter, coated in an off-white cream topped with dark chocolate shavings.

"What is it, Carla?"

"Mindy is calling it Lady Not-Godiva, partly 'cause it's dressed, and mostly because she's using way better chocolate," adding a little wink and half-smile. "Three tiers of chocolate sponge cake, Callebaut mind you, is brushed with a rosewater syrup and layered with white chocolate, topped with some bittersweet shavings for snobs like you who insist white chocolate ain't real."


"Don't even think about knocking it till you try it -- and did I mention it's on the house?"

"I was actually going to say thank you."

"Uh huh, you can thank me by letting me know what you think. Mindy's still tinkering with the recipe, she's hoping to debut it in a two weeks."

After Carla walked back behind the counter to tally up other customers' orders, Todd whips out his camera, a sleek little point-and-shoot, and starts snapping shots of the cake. Finally a little exciting scoop that he can blog about.

"HEY! It ain't ready for the big time yet. No photo postings or that's the end of cake previews for you, yer hear?"

Todd squeaks a meek "Yes ma'am" and re-focuses on the cake without noticing the towering shadow over his shoulder.

"Scolded by Carla, again, eh? Shameful!" Randy said.

"Ha! Hey there, want to try Mindy's new cake with me? It's the Lady Not-Godiva."

"Actually I already have." He lied, sharing a cake with Todd may be a little bit more than he can bear.

"That bad, huh?"

"In fact, it was that good; I know how crazy your sweet tooth is, deep inside you probably just want to devour it all. Besides, I only came here for bread."

"Ah... your surprise potluck, what is it?"

"You'll see it when I bring it tonight. Anyways, gotta run -- enjoy your sweets," quickly turning to the cash register before Todd finishes saying "Later, dude."

"So, Carla -- I'll have a miche of that currant-walnut," then lowering his voice to a whisper, "and got another piece of that cake?"

The alarm clock wailed at 9:47 a.m. for the umpteenth time, and Heather finally mustered enough strength to sit upright in her bed, rising to the smell of cake. Her sheets, her pillow, her hair, her clothes --the same catering uniform she wore last night for that reception-- all smelling like cake. She looked over to the empty other half of the bed and hoped Bobby still have that stuffy nose.

Stumbling into the dining room, she saw a bowl of granola, a glass of milk and a spoon with a Post-It Note.

It was short and to-the-point.

The sheets smell, please wash them. Left quarters by the microwave. – Bobby

No good morning, no love, not even a chicken-scratched XOXO. Heather sighs as she pours the milk into the bowl and takes long, slow bites of the cereal. Gone are the days when Bobby offered to wash the sheets, though he always insist he’d leave them if not for the ants. Funny how the aroma of baked goods that brought him to her two years back would morph into something he loathed, a constant reminder of her chaotic work schedule around other people’s celebrations.

She still can’t get that look out of her mind when she proposed to postpone their romantic weekend getaway in Vegas. Before she can even explain the last minute scheduling changes, the new contract, the extra money that the client offered up that can take them to Vegas—in style—ten times over, he replied, “I’ll handle the cancellations” and abruptly closed the bedroom door, leaving her at the kitchen island with a contract in one hand and a pen in the other.

Come to think of it, the XOXOs disappeared not long after that. Losing her appetite, she crumbles the note and dumps the half a bowl of granola and milk down the sink.

“Damn it!” she yelled out loud as she noticed the springform pan that she left by faucet yesterday as a reminder . . . she still has to bake for that potluck. She promised cake but maybe she’ll do cookies instead. They are faster to prepare and maybe she can air out the apartment before Bobby comes home.

Shortly after 10 a.m., Randy returns home with a currant-walnut loaf, some freshly delivered eggs from the ranch at The Fussy Gourmet and salmon roe (the ossetra was highway robbery at $250 for a 50g can) and no luck on a second piece of cake (“Sorry, hon, your buddy got the last sample, why don’t you ask him for a bite?”) As he starts putting away the groceries, he came to the realization that asides from caramelizing the onions, there really isn’t anything he can prepare ahead of time for his contribution. Maybe he can borrow Todd’s kitchen, and probably bring a bottle of wine. Regardless, Todd’s definitely in for a surprise. And hopefully Celia wouldn’t be too critical (“The décor  isjust as important, and possibly moreso, than the meal itself!”)

Randy starts pondering if perhaps he can make another sausage-y, brunchy dish out of the stuff he bought and the staples in his pantry, or want kind of wine he should bring – nothing too cheap, but nothing so pricey that it can be misconstrued as something more than “Thanks for letting me make a mess in your kitchen, and fuck Celia.”

Checking out wine fridge, Randy suddenly noticed the blinking red light on the answering machine.

“Hey, Randy, it’s Rebecca . . .”

Your turn: Well, you made it this far -- time for you to help me make some fiction happen! Here are some details/plots I haven't quite hashed out yet . . . inputs are definitely welcome, as are general questions and suggestions

What's a vague and barely-believable excuse Rebecca will provide for missing out on this month's potluck? 
What dish would Celia bring to trump everyone else's contribution? 
What's a likely drink for Todd to serve? 
What wine would Randy bring that wounds up being totally inappropriate for the occasion? 
What would Heather make for Bobby as a "Sorry" while she leaves for the Potluck? 

Thanks all!


gourmetpigs said...

A novel surrounding food and foodies, awesome HC! :D
28 more days to go? You can do it!


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