I cooked for people last night. I thought that planning a dinner party and cooking would drag me back into myself, from a strangely sustained depersonalised sense I have been steeped in these last two and a half weeks since my father died. I was partly right, though when I came home from the veggie shop, I found that I had two packets of basil: not prepacked in neat punnets, but those which you gather yourself in handfuls and put into plastic packets provided. I did not notice that I had done that twice: that is how removed from myself I have been feeling. In my kitchen, when I unpacked the carton with goods, I stood half laughing and half crying, a packet of equal amounts of fresh basil in each hand.
Halfway through the afternoon I thought of cancelling: my usual enthusiasm and excitement when I’m in my kitchen getting the mise en place done was totally lacking. I looked at the duck breasts waiting to be prepared, and instead of briskly taking them out, scoring the fat, admiring the dark gamey meat and anticipating the sighs of pleasure my guests would sigh, a juicy, slightly rare slice of duck just chewed and swallowed, I stuck them back into the fridge and got under the duvet in a darkened room and slept for an hour.
Of course, that meant that I had to rush to be ready in time for my guests: a second cousin of my lover’s and her husband, who we have not had over for dinner before. I had decided on veggie tempura with two dipping sauces to start, and in my detached state had gotten the tempura mix wrong so that the batter kept sliding off the veggies. That almost had me in tears too. I added ice cubes to the flour mix and waited for the oil to heat up more, and salvaged some, so that when they arrived, I had managed to get some right. But I forgot in all of this, that I had a Woolworths bought selection of prawn wontons and spring-rolls in the oven, which I managed to, true to my prevailing mindstate, burn the bottoms of. My fiancée cheerfully and very creatively scraped the worst blackened bits off, and those too were salvaged.
I usually also check when I first cook for people whether they have any dietary preferences or issues, and of course I also failed to do that, finding out five minutes after they arrived that the husband was vegetarian. At that point I felt like pouring myself a stiff scotch and sending out for pizza, but instead coolly sipped chilled champagne and seemingly effortlessly scuppered a pot of shrimp noodles(tipping them into the bin, not having the energy to think of something creative to do with them) and cooked ordinary egg noodles in it’s place.
This is one of my favourite things to do with duck: dry marinate them in Chinese five spice mix and orange and lemon zest, grated garlic and ginger and brown sugar. Make a generous amount of dressing of soy sauce, orange juice, lime juice, more zest, honey, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, sesame oil, chopped spring onions and fresh coriander. The noodles are tossed into the wok with stir fried oyster mushrooms and sugar snap peas and tenderstem broccoli and black sesame seeds, dressing tipped in, and this forms the base for duck breast sliced on the diagonal heaped on top and eaten with chopsticks..
I had a pang of guilt this morning for not telling the vegetarian that there was some fish sauce in the dressing: he of course only had the noodles with the stir-fried veggies: in fact, I had forgotten until I this morning put the sesame oil and fish sauce back into the fridge having left it out on the counter.
Despite all of this, the food was delicious and we had a wonderful evening. I persuaded my fiancée to play a jazz tune or two on his sax which he brought over We spoke about deaths of parents, and the necessary sadness and inevitable losses which we have all had experiences of. We turned on the gas fireplace and sat there by candlelight and the scent of stargazer lilies and sipped a goodish shiraz which we did not finish at the dinner table, and when they left round midnight, I felt almost happy. Lives affirmed, sadnessed recognised, appetites rekindled, friendships confirmed. Not quite totally back in myself, but getting there with each meal I prepare, every word I write, this morning to the beautiful and in moments rather plangent sounds of sax played by my lover, and even as I cry when I think that I will never cook a meal for my father again.