The Perfect Meal
While I was cooking my idea of the perfect meal, I was knee deep in the responsibilities of cooking, parenting and most importantly—not killing anyone. I’m not a parent yet, thankfully, but I was busy babysitting four of my cousins as I tried to cook a meal that would please everyone. To put it into context, every Sunday I drive thirty minutes south from my school Kalamazoo College to a little farm town known as Three Rivers to attend church and to spend time with my distant cousins. The miles of farm land is a pleasant change of pace from campus life. If it wasn’t for their care and support I know there is no way I would have made it through the difficulties of college my first two years. On this particular evening I would be babysitting my third cousins’ four children: Nic, Luke, Aubrey and Shelby. Every Sunday my family treats me to some elaborately home cooked meal, or insists on paying for my lunch. So, when I called Jennifer and told her I would be cooking for her and her four children on Friday and staying the weekend to help babysit, she was thrilled.
It was reassuring to know that I would be cooking in an actual kitchen instead of a dorm, but the task presented was daunting to say the least. I went to the store to pick up the ingredients for the perfect meal: boneless chicken breast with Swiss cheese, cream of mushroom soup and stuffing all baked in the oven casserole style, with green beans and mac and cheese as a side. The only other time I had made the dish was with my boyfriend the previous summer and we made it for us and his mom. The meal was our first, clumsy expedition of cooking. Cooking was something we were both interested in, but certainly not skilled. Steven’s mom watched, eyes peering from over her glasses, like we were five year olds who didn’t know that the oven was hot. She offered advice, read us the recipe from our church cookbook and laughed as we fumbled over frozen chicken and chunky soup. When the three of us sat down to eat, perfection. We had taken ingredients and made something edible, and quite tasty for ourselves, spending precious happy time together. That was enough for me to want to recreate it again for my family.
Before I knew that I would be flying solo in the kitchen and with the kids, I was concerned with the amount of food I would have to cook: that’s seven people, including myself. In Harding’s grocery store I lingered over the differences between boxed and bagged stuffing, Tyson’s $10 bag of chicken, or the off-brand, three pound $12 bag. I started to feel overwhelmed. I don’t know how to cook, I thought while staring at the frozen chicken, and if you undercook chicken you could kill everyone! Okay, so my thoughts were a little over-dramatic, but I was concerned.
After grocery shopping and a half an hour drive I arrived to find my cousins anxiously awaiting dinner. Their dad was gone at work planting legumes, and their mom was at the school for a mom-2-mom sale. I was originally under the impression that they would both be there to offer a hand, but I was unfortunately surprised. I walked into the small yellow house that is surrounded by nothing but farmland, and took a breath. You can do this I told myself, you’re nineteen now, you don’t need anyone to tell you how cook. Figure it out.
When I was thinking about how I would frame my assignment of the perfect meal I decided on two rules: 1. I would cook the meal myself and 2. I wouldn’t ask for help. Broken and broken. Being in a new kitchen I had no clue where their cooking utensils were, not to mention my cousins love to help make mac and cheese. I also had to call my boyfriend and ask him to tell me the recipe because I was cooking from memory, and my mom to ask how to dispose of raw chicken. I put the effort in to enforcing my rules, but let’s just say they were more like guidelines.
I started by putting all of the frozen chicken into a bowl and putting them into the microwave to defrost. In the meantime, I chatted with my cousins pacing back and forth between the kitchen and the living room so that neither of the rooms would divulge into chaos. I resolved bickering between Luke and Shelby arguing over whose turn it was to play on the Wii and rushed back of the kitchen to smell the putrid smell of sad looking chicken cooking in the microwave. It was this time that I realized that I could never kill my own meat because merely the smell emanating from the microwave was more than I could handle. The foreign, unnatural smell and touch of rubbery uncooked chicken was less than appetizing and made my stomach turn on end. I cut the thick chicken breasts in half and began placing them in a glass casserole dish, only to take them out because I forgot to grease the bottom of the pan. I then placed half a slice of baby-swiss onto each piece of chicken and then globbed over them with a little too much cream of mushroom soup. The stuffing bread crumbs were then caked on top and my casserole was complete. I slid the dish into the oven and then slapped my forehead. Oops! I forgot to put butter on top of the stuffing so it would cook! Second try is the charm, and dinner was up and running.
I learned during this process that I pace a lot when I cook. I can’t rest knowing that there is still more to be done. After a half an hour more of pacing, it was time to move the casserole from the bottom shelf to the top and it was time to start cooking my side dishes. I remembered my mom telling me a few years back that you wanted all of your food to come out at the same time, and so with fifteen minutes on the clock, it was time to make it happen. Aubrey filled a pan with water, with the arm that wasn’t broken, and started it boiling. Luke boastingly reached for another glass bowl on the top shelf for the green beans, laughing that his lanky twelve year old body was taller than me.
My one regret of the meal was that nothing was fresh, but I did my best on my college budget. And so the canned green beans went in the microwave and the kraft was on the stove and simmering. Shelby approached the stove and pointed to the very edge of the stove remarking, “My mom lets me put my chair this close to stir the macaroni.” I was not about to burn her seven-year-old, “Well, mom’s not here” I replied and she shuffled across the ranch style house back to playing the Wii. With eight minutes left I told the children to wash their hands and get ready to eat. I forgot to tell them not to wash their hands over the noodle strainer, but you win some you lose some. I re-rinsed the strainer and combined the rest of the mac ingredients into the pan. As soon as the ingredients were stirred the oven timer went off, and the green beans were already on the table. Perfect timing. I unburied a piece of chicken and cut it open to make sure it was fully cooked, and success! It was time to eat.
I said grace over our meal and then proceeded scurrying around the table to get the food onto everyone’s plate. My cousins were already eating away by the time I finally served myself and sat down. Nic, the oldest of the four turned to me and asked “Can you cook this every time you come over? It’s so good.” The food went over much better than expected. For me there was too much soup on it, and I couldn’t get the smell of the uncooked chicken out of my nose so throughout the meal I was paranoid, but to everyone else it was great. The pungent taste of the swiss was tempered by the cream of mushroom soup, and the stuffing provided a nice crunch among all the mush. Nic let his jaw sloppily chomp up and down on the mixture, while Aubrey struggled to cut her chicken with her left, unbroken hand. Shelby, the youngest and notoriously picky eater told me before the meal “I don’t like stuffing or Swiss cheese. Yuck,” yet actually daintily finished her entire plate and then some. I was expecting to have plenty of food left over and there was hardly anything. The casserole dish was nothing but soup and bread crumbs and the mac and cheese was practically licked straight from the pan. There were green beans left, but what kid eats his veggies anyways? I was happy to give back to the family that did so much for me, and I really appreciated the opportunity to learn how to cook and balance kids, even if it is a ways of in my future. I tested the theory that I could cook with no hands there to save me, and I did. The food was well-received by my picky eaters, and even better—I didn’t kill anyone.