Today’s post comes courtesy of Theresa, the eldest Backyard Sister. Her story of a dinner party gone awry might be partially my fault. I’m the one who compiled the family cookbook. Did I get the recipe wrong? ~ Catherine
By Theresa Lower
January brings the hope of new beginnings. M and I resolve to perfect the art of entertaining this year. We vow to plan ahead, no more last minute preparations or improvisational meals. We’re going to be relaxed and ready when our guests arrive. And so, we decide to have a dinner party to practice, not our usual impromptu get-together, but a real grown-up evening of food and conversation, music and appetizers. Nothing too fancy, but a meal with a plan and recipes, real recipes followed to the letter, an evening to remember.
The milestones and holidays in our family have a signature dish that identifies the event as special, and many of these beloved recipes have been transcribed and compiled into a family cookbook by Catherine. We turn to this cookbook for the perfect winter meal. What better Winter-in-Des Moines offering to our friends than the Christmas Eve Chili I’ve eaten at my parent’s house for years? I’ve never made it, but how hard can it be?
Party day arrives. M and I move through most of the items on our to-do list when we begin to cook about 4:00; the guests will arrive at 7:00. We tell ourselves we’ll easily be ready on time, probably spend the last hour relaxing with our feet up. After all we just have to mix everything together and stir occasionally. M, who bought the groceries the day before, asks if the ingredients will fit into the pot. “Sure,” I say and pull four pounds of stew meat and three pounds of pork tenderloin out of the refrigerator.
Undaunted, I review the recipe. Seven pounds of meat, yes! Onions and garlic sizzle on the stove. M hovers over the pot. “Are you sure this is all going to fit?” I feel a small twinge of doubt, break my resolve to follow the recipe, and decide to use only three quarters of the stew meat and half the pork. The pot is full. I eye the clock and the seven cans of beans and chopped tomato on the counter and begin to feel desperate.
We get out the crockpot and a frying pan, put half the meat in the frying pan and the beans and tomato mixture into the crockpot. M valiantly stirs both kettles of meat. After the last can of beans is emptied into the crockpot, I review the ingredients again. Now, I worry in earnest. The beans and tomato form a congealed mass, even with the liquid from the chopped tomatoes. I can’t imagine how I’ll be able to mix in the meat. I search the recipe for liquid – water, broth, tomato sauce? No liquid, but I’m confident, I’m following a recipe with years of tradition behind it.
We add the meat to the beans in the crockpot and stir, hoping it will be transformed into the blend of succulent meat and savory beans I remember. Instead it begins to scorch. We dump all the ingredients back into the original pot. They barely fit, but at least we can control the heat. “We’ll have to stir frequently,” I say.
I wish I could tell you that we defied the recipe and added liquid. No, we stubbornly clung to the belief that the recipe was right, even when faced with mounting evidence that it was not. The mixture continued to cook only on the bottom, and because of its density, as the heat rose, so did the chili, heaving itself up and forming small blow holes that hissed when we tried to stir it with a feeble wooden spoon. I began to think of it as the Monster on the Stove. And sadly, that it remained.
Instead of developing a rich broth as it simmered, the chili got thicker and thicker as the beans broke down. When it was finally served, we presented a heavy lump of meat with an occasional bean.
Our friends were gracious. They bravely chewed and enthusiastically declared the meal delicious. We laughed and shared stories and mostly finished our servings of Christmas Eve Chili. All politely refused a second portion, claiming it was so hearty they couldn’t possibly eat more.
I’m humbled, both by the generosity of friendship and my own foolishness in refusing to trust my instincts. As for putting our feet up and relaxing before the guests arrived, at 6:15pm I was trying to re-hang a kitchen cabinet door that had somehow fallen off and M was vacuuming. Next time we practice the art of entertaining, we’ll use a recipe we know and make it the day before.
I still have to ask Mom and Dad to tell me the secret to the family chili. Then maybe Catherine can edit the family cookbook.
Want to come over for dinner soon?