The Party Planner

A chill ran down her spine as she pulled up to the huge wrought iron gate. She rolled down her window to hit the button on the call box, but while she was reaching toward it, the gate opened inward without a sound. She slowly pulled her arm back in her car and drove forward.

The driveway was so long that she hadn’t caught her first glimpse of the house yet, but judging by the neighborhood, this was shaping up to be her fanciest gig ever. The Craigslist ad she’d answered to get it was enough to guarantee that it was certainly the strangest.

One person needed for dinner party prep. No catering or cooking required. 12 guest table. $2000 flat rate compensation. Only serious inquiries, please.

She gripped the steering wheel a little tighter and let her foot off the gas as she rounded the last curve and the house came into view.

The mansion.

The castle.

It really almost looked like a fantastical medieval castle, turrets and crenellations and all, only lacking a moat, but the small black BMW convertible parked in front of the entrance ruined the authenticity. Still, it remained a glorious sight.

The engine knocked, nearly stalling, and she shook herself back to the present and stomped the clutch. She was a hair too late, so she restarted the car and cruised up to park behind the BMW.

She pushed the button to pop the trunk and snagged her messenger bag from the passenger seat beside her. Without grabbing anything from the trunk, she headed for the front door to see if she would ever need any of the supplies she always carried with her as a professional party planner.

She crossed her fingers that the door would open as mysteriously as the gate had before she was presented with the dilemma of knocking or ringing, and she was not disappointed. The massive wooden door swung inward to reveal a small, clean-shaven man in a navy suit and tie.

“I apologize for not meeting you outside, Ms Clark. You will not be needing any of your own supplies and may either latch your trunk or disregard it. I assure you that your equipment is quite safe here.”

He gazed softly, expectantly at her until she made up her mind to close her trunk. She didn’t know whether or not the trunk light would drain her battery, and as her mother always said, why take chances, Suzie Q?

She pushed the trunk closed and trotted swiftly back to the door, where the mystery man had remained, waiting for her.

“This way, Ms Clark,” the man intoned, turning on his heel to lead the way.

She followed.

“As it is now two o’clock precisely, you will have four hours to completely set up for tonight’s festivities,” the man briefed her as they walked the empty hallways.

“You have complete creative freedom in this endeavor. Our employer’s only request is that the decor remain tasteful. Toward this end our employer has acquired any and all supplies you may possibly need in the two pantries adjoining the dining hall. This way.”

They turned left and entered a gigantic dining room. The crystal chandelier hung low over the dark walnut table, and five chairs were evenly spaced along either long side of the table, with the remaining two neatly placed at the shorter ends. Ms Clark gasped at the opulence, overwhelming even in its simplicity.She couldn’t wait to see what supplies lay in wait for her to make this space even more inviting.

She followed the still unnamed man around the table and into a room beyond. Shelves on all four walls were packed chock full of tablecloths, vases, and napkins. The next room contained nothing but tableware: flatware, dinnerware, and glassware of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

She reached to run her fingers over some of the most impressive, but was startled by the man clearing his throat. He extended a check to her, and she took it, quickly verifying that it was indeed for $2000 and made out to her. She didn’t recognize the signature.

“My duties are fulfilled here, Ms Clark. I trust you will not let our employer down. Have a good evening.” And with a slight bow, he turned and left as silently as ever.

She shrugged and began inventorying the precious goodies that surrounded her. Food or no food, this was going to be the most beautiful party she’d ever set up.

She still wondered about the host…and the guests. Maybe it was a cult meeting and they were forbidden to eat? She laughed the silly notion off, but the chill returned to her spine as another idea hit her.

Maybe it was a dinner party for ghosts.

dinner party

Date Night

We went to Shogun and had sushi and steak and fried rice and vegetables. 

Then we got tattoos. 

Pics tomorrow, it’s late. 

Strange Bedfellows Part Four: Ben’s Secret

Links to parts 1-3 can be found here.

The ride back to the parking lot where Betty and Ben had left their cars began in silence, but not an uncomfortable one. Betty watched Shepard drive from the corner of her eye, unsure of what to say. It had been quite an experience opening the storage unit, more than any of them had expected.

Eventually, Betty tried to break the silence. “So what do you boys feel like having for dinner tonight? My treat,” she added, pivoting to look from Shepard to Ben.

Shepard took a deep, cleansing breath. “I’ll have whatever Ben decides, but I refuse to let a lady pick up the tab on the first date.”

Betty smiled at his wink.

“Um, that’s a lot of pressure,” Ben said. “How about the Perkins on Fourth? Everybody likes Perkins.”

Shepard nodded his assent as Betty glanced over at him to make sure that Perkins was an acceptable dinner destination. “I like Perkins as much as the next guy.”

“Sounds good to me, too,” said Betty.

“Um, I guess that’s settled, then,” Ben gulped, impressed that he had so easily and quickly made a pair of new friends.

Betty turned again to face Ben. “We’ll have you out of your shell in no time,” she grinned at him.

Ben’s offering was a nervous chuckle, but its authenticity rang true. Shepard smiled in response.

“We’re almost there,” Shepard announced as he rounded a corner. “Only a few more blocks. So, what’s the plan? Meet at Perkins at five?” He checked his mirror. “I know that’s a little early, but I’m already getting hungry, and it’s nearly four now.”

“That works for me,” Betty agreed. “Ben?”

“Um, I think I can do five,” Ben said. “I’m starting to get hungry, too.”

“Do you want to eat now, then?” Betty asked. “I was going to change first, but if you guys are hungry, now would be fine by me.”

“That sounds even better than five. I was going to head there now, anyway. I don’t live close enough to make a trip home and back worth it,” said Shepard.

Ben’s stomach growled in response. He might have seemed a little uncomfortable, had Betty been looking, but she wasn’t. “I think we have Ben’s answer!” she laughed.

“And we’re here,” said Shepard.

“Okay, I’ll see you there,” said Betty as she got out of Shepard’s car and started digging in her purse for her own keys. “Bye for now, guys.”

“Thanks for um, driving,” Ben said, loudly enough for Shepard to hear him clearly.

“See ya!” Shepard threw a hand up as he circled around to exit the parking lot. He saw Betty behind him, but he’d lost track of Ben. He chalked it up to traffic, and headed towards the Perkins on Fourth.

Betty slowed when she saw Ben tugging what looked like a bundle from beneath the shrubbery separating this parking lot from the next. Hadn’t Ben said his car was here? she wondered. When he set off on foot towards Fourth Street, Betty made a quick loop to intercept him.

Ben paused when he saw her behind the wheel, the expression on his face a mixture of surprise and shame.

Betty leaned her head out of the window. “Benjamin, if you don’t have a car, come around and hop in right this instant.

After a brief moment of wavering, Ben came around and sat in the passenger seat. “Um, I could have sworn I saw you get in a different car. I thought you were gone already.”

“Ben, I know we only met a couple hours ago, but I thought you would know me well enough by now to know that I would never let you walk all the way to Perkins. I also would have hoped that if you needed a place to stay that desperately then you also would have known that I would do anything I could to help you out.”

Ben’s fingers fidgeted with the broken zipper pull on the backpack he held in his lap, the thing that Betty had seen him pull from his hiding place in the bushes.

“Um, it’s not something I’m proud of,” he began.

“I’m so sorry,” Betty interrupted, contrite. “I’m not trying to order you around or tell you how to live your life. I just want you to know that I’m here for you. Do you have money for dinner?”

Ben looked up at Betty, weighing his options. He settled on the truth. “Um, I have some money left, but I was only going to order some eggs,” he said. “I’d rather spend a dollar on a loaf of bread than ten on just one meal.”

Betty fished in her purse for her wallet and handed Ben the twenty dollar bill that she removed from it. “If you didn’t want me to know, you don’t want Shepard to know. You can tell him when you’re ready,” she said. “Have a real meal and feel like it’s better days for an hour, at least. And my dog won’t mind you crashing on my couch if I tell him you’re okay.”

She reached over with her left hand and wrapped Ben’s fingers around the twenty dollars that he hadn’t yet taken from her. “You can pay me back,” she said. “And I’ll tell you a story later so you’ll understand why I would do this.”

Ben held the money when she took her hands away. He could tell that Betty somehow had at least a slight understanding of what his life was like.

“Thank you,” he said, and he tucked the money into his pocket.

“Let’s go,” said Betty. “We’ll just have to tell Shepard your car wouldn’t start, and you flagged me down for a ride. Sound good?”

Ben nodded his agreement.

“You can put your bag in the backseat,” Betty gestured with her chin.

Ben put his battered backpack behind him, as Betty had suggested. When he faced forward again he pulled the seatbelt across his body and buckled himself in. He saw Betty twisting her hands on the steering wheel from the corner of his eye.

“It gets better,” she whispered. Ben wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or not, so he turned his head to look out the window.

“It gets better,” she whispered again.

This time Ben was certain that she wasn’t talking to him, so he looked over to make sure that Betty was okay. The first tear fell from her eye, and she lifted her right hand to her face to wipe it away. She sniffed hard, and gave Ben a rueful half-smile.

“I’m okay. I’ll tell you about it later, okay?”

Ben nodded. “Okay.” He wasn’t going to push for any answers. He felt that he didn’t deserve any, after how he’d acted today. The rest of the short trip went by in silence.

The Perkins was not far, and Betty caught all the lights green; they arrived only minutes after Shepard, who was waiting leaned against his car.

Shepard drew his eyebrows close together in a frown when he saw Ben in Betty’s car. Ben thought Shepard looked a little overprotective.

Shepard opened Betty’s door for her. “Fancy seeing you two together,” he said. “Is there something I should know about?”

He’s jealous, Ben realized.

Betty took the hand Shepard offered to help her up. “Ben’s car wouldn’t start, so he rode with me,” she lied so gracefully, Ben almost believed her.

“Oh,” Shepard almost seemed disappointed. “I can have a look at it for you, Ben, if you want.”

“Um, no, thank you,” said Ben. “I know it needs a new starter, so I’ll just hit it a few times when I get back, and, um, it’ll be good.”

“Alright then.” Shepard was completely at ease again, much to Ben’s relief.

Shepard escorted Betty to the door, Ben trailing behind. Ben remembered the money and quickly, surreptitiously checked his pocket; it was still there.

They sat together at a table.

“I feel trapped in a booth,” Shepard explained his aversion.

…to be continued.

Inspired by TBP.

Three Stars

I wondered what to write about on day five, so I checked the NaBloPoMo prompts, and found this:

Tell us about a dish you attempted to make that ended in disaster. Have you ever re-attempted the meal?

A specific meal immediately came to mind. It wasn’t a disaster, per se, but it wasn’t a raging success, either.

It was hamburger helper, and I’d invited my best friend and my then-fiancée over for dinner.

That sounds horrible, doesn’t it?

Now, now, I was young, poor, and at the very beginning of my first experience living alone. Sure. I’d cooked plenty of meals at my parents’ house, but those were actually mostly breakfasts. I used to cook a mean breakfast–eggs and grits and bacon and biscuits–but I credit that to working nights for a couple years and being awake all night when everyone else was sleeping. It was appreciated on occasion.

So yeah, hamburger helper. I don’t remember what kind it was, only that it was a red sauce, not a white sauce. Which are two of the three styles of hamburger helper anyway, the third being cheesy. Literally and figuratively.

Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely not above some hamburger helper. I love me some tuna helper as well, especially the broccoli one. But when I compare it to the wide range of comfort food recipes I am now an expert in, it seems–tawdry. Maybe that’s just me.

But I didn’t even make a side. And I didn’t stir enough, burning the bottom layer to the pan. Oh, the humanity! No, not a disaster, but not the best meal I’ve ever prepared.

I wonder how that works, that I expect more of myself than I should, given my age and experience at the time. I certainly didn’t know everything I know now.

Like, at least serve some store-bought garlic bread with your hamburger helper.

Man, I love me some store-bought garlic bread. Depending on the store.

Pork Grillades

The latest issue of Cook’s Country arrived a few days ago. I haven’t completely read it cover to cover yet, but that’s coming. It always does. I cannot resist a Cook’s Country.

The second recipe in the magazine is for a Louisiana classic: pork grillades. Ian made them for dinner last night.

Y’all. That was some kind of good, cher!

See? I lost my good English, it was so tasty.

Grillades is all about the sauce. You start with a roux, and when the onions, celery, peppers, tomatoes, and all the spices make it happen, it happens.

The bread is our new house favorite, a roasted garlic loaf from the local grocery store’s bakery. We’ve had it with white sauced pasta, red sauced pasta, tenderloin, roast chicken, and now grillades–all in the past two weeks.

I am so glad I married such a good cook. Thank you, sweetie!

By the way–we had homemade Rice Krispies treats for dessert. I know you’re super jealous now.

And I had leftover grillades for breakfast today.

Don’t drown in that drool.

Home Cooking

Everyone has that one family recipe, right? The one that means home, whether it’s a secret or everyone has their own version. The comfort food that’s always been a comfort food.

My paternal grandmother was my only grandparent who really enjoyed cooking, and the one dish I remember her making more than once is her strawberry-rhubarb pie. She didn’t have a recipe, she just made it, and it makes me happy to think that I’m like her in that respect.

My mother’s specialty–at least, my favorite–is chicken curry crepes. Oh em geez, chicken and onions and celery in a creamy curry sauce wrapped in crepes and drizzled with butter. Love love love.

But that one dish is my stepdad’s tuna casserole. At my parents’ house, it’s his and only his. My mom never makes it. And since he knows how much Ian and I love it, he makes it nearly every time we come visit. He uses Da Vinci wagon wheels, which are, I agree, the best choice. Just exactly the right number of the spokes fill up with saucy goodness. And he usually tops half with sharp cheddar and half with mozzarella. Or one of each, when enough people are eating, because leftovers are just as tasty.

The problem with wagon wheels is that we can’t always find them here. I usually use rotini or medium shells. My stepdad usually brings a couple bags of wagon wheels when they come visit, though.

I asked for his recipe a few years ago, at Ian’s behest, but it’s morphed over time into my tuna casserole.

And now, I share it with you. Just the recipe, not the casserole that’s waiting to go in the oven as we speak.

You will need:
One package of pasta
1/2 stick butter
1/4-1/3 cup flour
1 12 ounce can of evaporated milk
2-4 cans of chunk tuna in water
4-8 ounces of cheese, grated
A sprinkle of Tony Chachere’s, or just salt and pepper for you Yankees

In a large pot, put enough water to cook the pasta of your choice. While that’s heating, melt half a stick of butter in a medium to large skillet over low heat. Once it’s melted, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking, not necessarily constantly, but fairly often. You will smell it when it’s ready, an amazing nutty goodness.

Your water’s probably boiling now, so throw your pasta in and salt it.

Slowly pour the evaporated milk into your roux, whisking away. It will be lumpy. Keep whisking.

It will be thick. Don’t worry. You want it to look like pudding. Turn off the heat.

Carelessly drain the tuna. A little extra water will thin the sauce. Shoo the cats who think you’re treating them. Dump all that tuna on top of the sauce.

Pasta’s done, right? Carelessly drain that, too. I mean, as soon as it’s in the colander, put it back in the pot. You want a tad of pasta water in the sauce as well, so don’t shake it before re-potting. Set your noodles aside for the nonce.

Back to the sauce. Sprinkle your Tony’s on. I don’t put much in because it’s better on. As in after plating.

Here’s my secret ingredient: Parmesan. Just a little bit in the sauce adds so much. Shredded is great, but green can is good. Parmesan is my favorite cheese. A nice wedge of good Parmesan is such an amazing snack. Or meal. Don’t judge.

Gently fold the tuna and parm into the sauce. Or not so gently, but surprise big chunks of tuna are a major part of the tuna casserole experience. Once it’s mostly homogenous, pour the sauce into the pot of pasta. Again, fold gently (or not).

Lubricate a 9×13 casserole dish with nonstick spray, then spread your mixture into it in an even layer.

Now for the biggest decision of your life. What cheese with which to top? Tonight we have about three ounces of Colby Jack followed by about three ounces of a Mexican four-cheese blend. I don’t hate on pre-shredded cheese, especially now that it’s either the same price or cheaper than block. Besides, if it’s me plus a grater, there will probably be blood (I keep it out of the food). Not to mention that you’re making a casserole, that red-headed stepchild of dinners everywhere. But hey, to each his own. If you’re grating, do that first. I should have said that earlier, huh? Sorry about that evil laugh.

If you’re eating now, pop that bad boy in a 400° oven until the cheese is the color you like it. If you’re eating later, cover it with a towel and let it cool down before lidding it up with a lid, foil, whatevs, and throwing it in the fridge. When you’re ready, put the cold casserole in a cold oven, then turn it to 400° for 40-50 minutes.

Et voila! If you can, let it rest for 5-10 minutes. If not, don’t burn your mouth. Cut it into squares or hexagons or whatever and enjoy!

One more tip: I have perfected the art of the tuna casserole smash. Once I have my plate, I squish the whole serving with my fork before liberally applying more Tony’s. It just tasteses good that way.