John loves food and the whole food cycle. He loves where it comes from, he loves blending flavors and dreaming up tasty combinations, he loves preparing and planning and pleasing the palate. He writes his love letters with ingredients and recipes. John "plates" a dinner with the same love, talent and raw emotion as a Shakespearean sonnet or a Hank Aaron home-run.
Christmas Eve dinner is a culinary event at our house. John has slowly trained his two (and often a third) sous-chefs and they cook with abandon. They bring out creativity, enthusiasm and delicious medleys of taste that last in our household conversation for a year. Jack and Mary Kate have now moved into full fledged chef status themselves and often create signature taste sensations of their own: home-made pasta, strawberry country cake, or brie/tart apple/arugula and turkey sandwich to name a few of the ones happening now.
So, it was almost inevitable that John would create a special good-bye dinner for Jack before he headed off to college. He asked for recommendations of favorites and worked feverishly to create something memorable -- some way to show Jack just how very loved he was.
He started out with a rack of lamb and created an incredible sauce to glaze the lamb. Our house smells like heaven for the hour it is cooking and puts us all in a good mood. Suddenly, we realize that Mary Kate has a late driving lesson on this Sunday and so we decide to delay dinner and snack for a bit. The salad is imagined and realized with grapefruit, green beans, beets, fennel and the insane home-made croutons with some goat cheese spread that should be outlawed. I try not to notice the rice with tiny bits of fried pasta being prepared under my nose. Comfort food, Christmas Eve and Creativity are woven together to create a palate of magnificence.
But the hour is getting late, the natives are getting restless and things start unwinding quickly. The lamb is undercooked, by chunks of time, not moments of time. The rice is crunchy -- an unheard of humiliation for a rice farming family. The salad is obliterated and the grapefruit looks like it has been stirred by the Jolly Green Giant. Patrick and Caroline are disinterested and annoying since they have long ago passed the point of hunger and snacked their way to complete satisfaction.
The moment isn't right. We crunch our croutons and feel the love. We meander our way and find some portions of the lamb that will work. We scoop up some rice and ignore the crunch. But I watch John cringe and shrug and wipe his face. He wanted it perfect and it was so far from perfect that it was -- almost -- laughable. His disappointment is palpable.
In that moment, a slide show begins: I taste the countless hamburgers and hotdogs, barbecued chicken and flank steaks that John has cooked his whole life. I see him side by side with Jack chopping onions, celery and carrots in a french mirepoix. I can smell the tomatoes, garlic and onions bubbling to meld into the most delicious coulee on the planet. I feel the comfort foods he has shared, developed and I see his love made visible over and over again.
I want to tell him that none of this matters. That it's just a dinner gone bust and that we'll get another chance. I want to hug him and hold him and love him but I also know that that is the last thing he wants.
What he doesn't know is that by flopping big time for all to see...for swinging for the fences and striking out and holding it together and finding his balance and keeping a wistful smile on his face, he showed Jack something much more important. He showed him how to be a gentle, kind man just loving his family.
Jack knows about food. He knows about tantalizing gourmet moments. Up until this meal, he might not have noticed that you can blow it apart, falter and still be graceful as well. Sunday's dinner, I guess, was supposed to be more than a taste treat. It was a love letter with a PS.
PS Jack, we will mess it up and it will still be OK.
PS Jack, when you mess up, you can do it too: just take a deep breath and keep it together. Find your balance again.
PS Life isn't always about the sweet and satisfying moments. The bitter ones come too -- but with a smile and a crunchy crouton and your family, it can't be all bad.
PS Jack, we love you.