Monday, 12 May 2003

Vanessa and I had been dating for a little over a month when she decided it was time I cooked dinner for her once. Until then, either she cooked or we went out whenever we got together. Not this time. In spite of my warning, she insisted and we made a date for Saturday.

I spent all day getting ready; cleaning the living room and kitchen, dusting furniture, straightening the mess that was my office.

I decided on pasta because it’s fairly easy and I make a mean red-sauce. Early afternoon I went shopping. Italian Sausage, tomato sauce, tomato paste, oregano, rigatoni noodles, cheese from the deli, garlic bread, a few other bits, and a decent bottle of wine.

My plan was to have dinner ready for when Vanessa arrived at 6 o’clock. I set about making the sauce, which would need to simmer for about an hour. I opened the tomato paste and tomato sauce, dumped them in a saucepan, and added a touch of oregano and a little something else to give it some zip. After that, I put the sausage on to brown and started water for the noodles.

Checking the sauce, something was off. Way off. It was runny and tasted horrible. Turns out I got the wrong stuff and had something closer to tomato soup than spaghetti sauce. Maybe I can recover.

The sausage needed a few minutes more, so I started the oven on low, put the bread in, and tried to find something that would save the sauce. Rifling through cupboards turned up nothing useful and there was no time for another trip to the store.

Right about then, Vanessa called to see if we were still on for dinner and if there was anything she could bring. Unwilling to admit defeat so early, I lied, “No thanks. Everything is fine on this end.” There was no turning back now.

It wasn’t enough that my kitchen skills weren’t the greatest—and I knew it. I really had a thing for this woman, so I had to complicate matters by trying to impress her. On top of it all, it had been a miserable week at work and I wasn’t feeling well. I wrote off the queasy stomache to simple nervousness and started thinking about what music to play.

To me, the right music is almost as important as the right food or the right wine. Choose wisely, and it helps make an entire evening. Choose poorly, and it can ruin your night, leaving it a crumpled, tattered mess.

Somewhere between The Cocteau Twins and Elvis Costello I was wrested from my musical reverie… What’s that smell? A sense of dread washed over me and headed toward the kitchen. Oh my God! The stove is on FIRE! As if to drive home the point, that was about when the smoke alarm started screaming. Thankfully I had the sense to cover the pan and get it off the heat before any real damage occured, but not before the room was completely hazed over and the sausage was beyond ruined. Opening a window, I tried to calm down and thought “OK, we’ll go meatless for the sauce.”

With cleanup operations underway and less than 15 minutes to go, I was getting desperate. I put the noodles on and made a quick check of the neighbors. Two not home and the third with nothing more than sauce in a jar. “No thanks, but I’ll Keep it in mind.” A call to my brother and my mother, both excellent cooks, for advice was no use; nobody home either place. I was on my own.

The noodles were doing fine and the smoke was cleared with help from a good size window fan. Looking in on the bread revealed no progress. No heat. No pilot light. Oven broken. Great. Wonderful.

Moving the noodles off the stove and over to drain them, I dropped the pot. Boiling water and rigatoni noodles exploded everywhere.

What I should have done was give up, but I was determined to see things through. Vanessa was supposed to be there any minute, so I had to think fast. There were regular spaghetti noodles in the cupboard, so I got the water going again and put them in, then back to the neighbor’s for that jar of sauce.

I had just finished dumping the jar into a pan when Vanessa arrived. In an effort to catch my breath and to hide my frazzled nerves, I sat to chat for a just a minute. One minute turned into five and then ten. All the while I didn’t let on what had transpired. “Is every thing OK? I think I smell smoke.”

“Not to worry,” my keen sense of understatement running full-tilt, “just a small problem with the stove earlier.”

Then she asked how long ago I had started the noodles and that should probably check on them. Too late; they were already over-done.

There it was, my abject failure on a plate. Sticky spaghetti under mediocre sauce with cold garlic bread and a passable salad. To top it off, the wine wasn’t very good either. Culinary disaster in three courses. Make that two–I completely forgot about dessert.

Awful as it was, Vanessa still found something nice to say. With as much sincerity as she could muster, considering the tears rolling down her face from trying not to laugh, she said “The sauce is good.”

“Here’s the thing,” I confessed, “it’s from a jar.”