We met the next day at my place. Mother-in-law came dressed in her military best. She had her hair up in a chignon, a crisp blue pant suit on that channeled her inner Hilary Clinton, and a pair of high-end designer shoes that I’m sure Bill Gates wears to his business parties.
I was immediately intimidated. It wasn’t enough that I had a runny nose and sore throat but I had also accidentally washed my hair with my dishwashing detergent last night and so my hair was squeaky clean like the dishes and you could see each strand separately, making me look like Frankenstein’s bride. Anyway, I’m not one to be fazed by my own shabbiness. That’s a quality that I’m critical of only when found in others.
Mother-in-law took a long, hard look at me and smiled in a self-satisfied manner. Honestly I could see how she was winning this one so far. Just by appearing like this at an important meeting she had made this one all about her.
We sat down to discuss the food menu. And I felt my poise and composure slipping even more.
She had again come prepared. Darn!
She produced a long sheet of paper with a flourish.
My heart stopped at how organized and thought out her menu ideas were.
Just to give you an idea of what food means to my mother-in-law, let me give you an analogy. Food is to her as eyelash curler is to Kim Kardashian. Food is to her as extramarital affairs are to Jerry Springer’s show’s success. Food is to her as sunglasses are to Anna Wintour. Food is to her as the wandering eye was to King Henry VIII. Food is to her as gossip is to Perez Hilton. Food is to her as Denise Richards is to Charlie Sheen. Food is to her as stepping on women’s toes is to the Republican Party. You get the gist. Food is essential to her. She plans it. She cooks it. She excels at it. She has, at one time, made money with it. She lures people with it. She practices voodoo with it (I think). She is as proud of her cooking skills as she is secretive of her recipes. She has a whole unhealthy relationship with food. To her, life revolves around food. To her, people who don’t hold food in the same esteem should be sentenced to a life of their own cooking.
Now this comparison wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t tell you how high my own regard for food is. I mean I hold it just as important as she holds it. Except….. I’d rather eat excellent food that the McDonald’s people have taken centuries to perfect. I’d rather satisfy my gustatory inclinations of the seafood persuasion at Red Lobster. I’d rather break bread with old friends at The Plaza. Their steak is amazing. A lot of people think that the reason why I look twenty years younger than my age and she looks twenty years older than hers is solely because of our connection with the kitchen. She spends most time working there. I spend most time enjoying what comes out of there. Mindset is everything. I see the kitchen as my mistress who should keep me happy. She sees the kitchen as her shrine of worship where she continually pleases the gods.
So of course this is her forte. This is what she excels at and claims success of. And because I don’t care about what we serve people as long as it’s something that I don’t have to cook, I didn’t produce any such list and stared blankly at the table, my whole life a huge dark sphere of pitiable snafu.
But then the most important organ of my body spoke up. This organ is usually so busy attending to my aesthetic sensibilities that it hardly ever has time for me anymore. It really watches out for me and is always quick to put my conscience and common sense to rest if ever I’m having too much of a dilemma between choosing what’s right and what’s easy. So I listened to Heart as it spoke to me in a gentle but reassuring voice.
“Why’re you so worried that she has a better menu prepared than you? Let her have that. She’s an old lady with not much to do except take pleasure in the one thing she does better than you. No one cares about food anyway. Food is merely an accessory to the party. Why aren’t you preparing for that song that you were going to sing to your husband? That should be your focus. Let her think she’s so important because she can make roast beef better than you. Let her be happy in it. Do you have any idea how her sheer obsession with food helps keep her out of your life? She’s always so busy cooking that she doesn’t even realize that you practically live off of her cooked meals. She likes the food part of things. I say, we let her set the menu and you look to more important things”.
“Okay,” I say to Heart, “I won’t interfere in this. She can do whatever she wants. I’ll accept her menu. After all, you’re right. She doesn’t have any other big things happening for her in her life”.
“My dear, you’re so stupid! You’d be an imbecile if you let her set the menu, and then collect all the praise for a fabulous party. Food is the pièce de ré·sis·tance of any party. How could you be so cavalier about it?”
“But you just said…..”
“Forget what I said”, Heart begins a little aggressively. “Pick faults with it, make it look ill-planned and half heartedly done. Tell her you don’t like any of those dishes. Then slowly, one by one, reintroduce your menu which is going to be essentially the same as hers , because if truth must be said, this menu that she has prepared is top notch. After you reintroduce your changes which are going to be just a rearrangement of her original menu she will be under your spell. She’ll think of you as the goddess of domestic affairs. She might even let you cook in her kitchen”.
So emboldened by my somewhat rambunctious Heart, I bravely looked at my mother-in-law and said without any preamble,
” THIS is what you expect to serve at the party?”
Mother-in-law had never heard me speak like that before. Her eyes became tiny slits of anger and she countered,
I started to panic.
” I apologize for being so forward, dear mother-in-law, but I can’t help but question some of the choices that you’ve made for the menu”.
“Which ones?”, she asked me imperiously.
Which ones? I hastily asked Heart if he knew which ones. Heart pretended to be busy. I was on my own now.
“Well”, I gulped the dread that was accumulating in my throat, “this caprese salad? Can’t you add some chicken to it?”
“It won’t be a caprese salad then, dear. Would you like a Caesar salad or a Waldorf salad, may be? They can have some chicken. Even though the original recipes don’t come with any animal protein, I find turkey to go quite well with the Waldorf“.
“Okay thank you”. I was again suspicious of an ulterior motive behind her quick agreement.
“Anything else, dear?”
“Yes. Yes. Do you think we should have pasta also at the party? I love pasta”.
I could sense her becoming restless at my request. Why couldn’t she make some pasta for me?
“Dear! I know you love pasta. But I’d hardly call it a dish that I would serve at a nice party. Unless”, her eyes lit up,” you want me to make some of my home-made ravioli?”
Yum! Her ravioli is the best part about her. I started to drool. She laughed and put it down on her sheet of paper.
“Okay! Also, can we replace the steak with filet mignon?”
“I never serve anything if it isn’t the best meats.” She stated somewhat indignantly. “I always, as a rule, serve filet mignon”.
“Oh. Oh. I’m sorry”, I cowered under her passion for her food, “what’s the difference, by the way?”
She looked at me with pity in her eyes and then said in her trademark condescending voice,
“Don’t you bother your pretty little head about that. Anything else that you think needs changing?”
Why was she being so nice?
“I was wondering what to do about the cake?”
She inhaled sharply and I knew it. She had been agreeing to my menu changes on the one premise that I could never allow her.
SHE WANTED TO BAKE THE CAKE HERSELF AND BECOME THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN HIS LIFE FOREVER.