My little house was heaving at the seams this past Mother’s Day weekend, which also marked the 92nd birthday of Paul’s mother, Christine.
Family descended upon us a couple of days beforehand, from Florida and Texas, but as Christine is Dutch (with a twin sister in Holland), her niece, Connie, along with Connie’s husband, Dick, delighted us all by making the long trip over from The Netherlands for this special event.
“You realize that when the Helfrich and Zimmerman clan gather,” Paul warned me as I scrubbed away at the baseboards with 24 hours and counting, to go, “there will be copious amounts of cooking.”
“But not me, right?” I said, looking up, blowing a piece of hair out of my eyes.
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“Of course not you cooking,” Paul replied. “This is meant to be a joyous occasion. And besides, even if you could cook, you couldn’t cook this. Connie and Guusje have planned a rijsttafel.”
“Gesundheit,” I shot back, scrubbing hard.
“In English,” Paul explained, beginning to lay down in the fridge several bottles of sauvignon blanc, which he buys on purpose, knowing I detest its taste (like GERD, if you ask me) and therefore won’t raid the supply before guests arrive. “It translates to ‘rice table’ and is a traditional Indonesian celebratory feast with lots of different dishes.”
“And I’m thinkin’, rice?” I said.
“Oh, yes, rice, but also chicken and pork and shrimp, and since you and I don’t eat the other meats, fish for us. It’s great, but it means hours of prep time the day before and hours of cooking on the actual day. We’re going to have a blast – I can’t wait for us all to be cooking together.”
I have to tell you, gentle reader, that the above comment sounded like roller skating through hell to me. How anyone could define “hours of cooking” and standing over boiling pots, “a blast” is beyond comprehension. Especially when you could be playing outside. With an ice cold beer. Which is exactly what I did.
When the big day arrived, I sprawled across one of the deck chairs, drink in hand, and every now and then, gave a curious glance back through the doorway at the sight of Paul and Connie, Dick and my nephew-in-law, Jason, all chatting up a storm, chuckling merrily away as they chopped and peeled and exalted the exotic spices brought in by Paul’s sister, Guusje.
Feeling a bit useless, I made an attempt to play hostess and asked Connie if she’d like a glass of wine while she cooked.
“Oh, yes!” she nodded, her face steaming over a hissing pot of boiled eggs and chunks of mahi-mahi that I could have sworn was pot roast, “Please!”
I dutifully poured the first of the dreaded blanc.
“Pam, you might want to open all the windows,” Dick warned. “I’m about to add a cake of terasi bakar. It’s quite a strong odor but goes away soon.”
“Oh, have you ever had bakar?” Connie turned to me, her eyes gleaming, “It’s fantastic! When the shrimp dies and its body begins to decompose, you know, it releases this substance and, oh, it tastes incredible. Incredible!”
Now, I could have gone my entire life without hearing this description. I poured myself a glass of blanc to steel my stomach and returned to the deck.
As I set stacks of dinner plates, cutlery and napkins upon the dining table for this buffet, I was rolling polite declines about in my head:
“Oh, I would love to try bakar, but I am just stuffed!”
“Sadly, I have developed an allergy to the sediment excreted by decomposing crustaceans – otherwise I’d be wolfing this down!”
The feast was ladled out onto a dozen platters: skewers of chicken and pork, fried rice, shrimp swimming in onion, garlic and Indonesian sweet soy, blanched vegetables in peanut sauce, vegetable and tofu coconut soup and the mahi-mahi, cradled next to boiled eggs in sambal oelek (Google is your friend here). Our cooks had gone through two bottles of wine before we began to line up for the buffet, and one could only wonder how loose they had been with the bakar.
As it turned out, I ate it. A lot of it, as a matter of fact, because it had been sprinkled into everything. And you know what? It was marvelous.
But then I had also downed a lot of the blanc. ...