Those of you who read my blog on Friday, Becoming a Domestic Goddess (Part One), know that my number one goal as a new wife was to meet and exceed the expectations of not only my husband, but society in general. After the baked potato/knife debacle, things did get better. I bought a gazillion cookbooks in those first few months and, since I had yet to find a job in this new state where my husband had relocated me, I set about learning how to cook. Each day after Troy left for work, I’d pour over the countless cookbooks, trying to find recipes that looked easy enough for a novice to accomplish with success. And, like my mother before me, I strived to have dinner on the table when my husband walked through the door at 5:30…or 6:00…or 6:30.
Unfortunately, quite unlike my own father who left for work at 7:00 every morning and returned promptly at 5:00 o’clock every evening, my husband had flexible hours which left me unsure of exactly when to have dinner ready. This meant that there were more than a few nights that my “perfect” meatloaf was dry and hard as a brick from warming in the oven. Well, that’s what I’m going with anyway.
On those nights when I felt I’d reached culinary success, I’d sit on the edge of my chair waiting for the feedback that seldom came. You see, my husband has always been a man of few words (or maybe he was applying the rule of “If you can’t say anything nice…”) and so he rarely volunteered information about my kitchen talents. Eventually I’d lose patience and ask, “Well…how is it?” To which he’d respond something like, “Give me a chance; I’ve only taken one bite.” But, more often than not, his standard response was “Fine.”
Fine. Not good. Not bad. Just “fine.” Fine. I really hate that answer. Fine indicates that something is neither good, nor bad. It just “is.” Fine says, “I’m not going to die eating it,” or “It’s better than chicken waste.” Truly, I’d rather have him say “This is awful!” or “I really don’t care for meatloaf.” Anything but fine. And if I were to ask, “Fine? What does that mean?” he’d respond just like a man and say, “It means fine. Fine.”
After the first few months of marriage and striving (and failing) to create that perfect meal that would illicit a response from my husband, I finally decided that I’d take any kind of response from him, good or bad. Much like my 7-year old who figures “attention is attention” and goes for the action most likely to get a response, I had decided that I would get a response no matter what it took. Okay, fine. So I was acting like a 7-year old. But I wanted a reaction!
For several days I pondered over the question, “What can I make to get a reaction from Troy?” He didn’t have any favorite foods that I was aware of (unless you count pasta and I didn’t think pouring a jar of Ragu over a pot of spaghetti noodles was going to help), so what could I make? What was most likely to prompt a response? And then it hit me: I’d make him something edible – but so disturbing to the taste buds – that he’d simply have to say something!
I scanned and scoured the cookbooks until I finally came upon the one thing that even I wasn’t sure I could handle eating…cabbage rolls. My mom used to make a Polish version called gwumpki when I was a kid, and just the smell of them cooking in the house was enough to make me gag. And this recipe was even better…it called for white raisins! Ewww…raw raisins are pretty bad, but I wondered how much worse they’d be cooked!
With much excitement, and not a small amount of trepidation, I began preparing the evening’s meal shortly after Troy left for work one day. It involved boiling leaves of cabbage until the leaves were limp, then wrapping raw ground beef, raisins and a variety of fresh vegetables and seasonings into the limp cabbage leaves much like one would wrap a burrito. For effect, I sprinkled the remainder of those white raisins (those not called for in the recipe) over top of the cabbage rolls before placing the dish into the oven to bake. I was set. Now all I had to do was to wait for the cabbage rolls to finish cooking and be ready for Troy to come in the door.
Anyone who has ever cooked cabbage knows the smell. It cannot be contained and it soaks into everything around it…your clothes, hair, furniture…even the dog’s fur begins to smell like it if left in the same room too long. And we lived in a small apartment, so we were especially “lucky.” By the time Troy came home from work, I have a feeling the neighbors were smelling it in their own apartments. It really was that strong!
Watching for Troy to come up the sidewalk, I was ready for him when he opened the front door. Flinging the door open just as he was about to open it himself, I exclained “Welcome home, Darling!” and beamed my most radiant smile at him.
“Hello?” he said in a state of confusion, probably caused from the high he was already experiencing from the cabbage rolls.
“I’m so glad you’re home! I have a surprise for you!” Did I mention that Troy doesn’t like surprises?
“What?” he said. “Just tell me.”
“Oh no-no-no! Not this time! I’ve been working on it all day! You’ll just have to be patient,” I said.
As he walked through the threshold his eyes began to water. “What is that smell?” he asked.
“Doesn’t it smell wonderful?” I asked. “That’s your surprise! I have a special dinner planned for you tonight…something my mom used to make all the time when I was a kid. Only I didn’t have her recipe so I had to improvise with another that I found.” Is it dishonest that I failed to mention that I hated my mom’s recipe and would find any reason not to eat it when she’d serve it?
“Oh. Umm…what is it?” he asked.
“No-no-no,” I said in what I hoped was an irritating sing-song voice. “Dinner’s almost ready so you’ll have to wait.” At this point I had to stop myself from offering to pour him a drink like a good little 1950s wife might. It was 1993, after all. That might’ve clued him in that I was up to no good.
I returned to the kitchen where I pulled out two plates and plopped four or five of those foul-smelling cabbage rolls on Troy’s plate and, just for good measure, I made sure to include several of those white raisins for visual effect. Did I mention that the moisture in the recipe causes raisins to expand to their former grape-like beauty? Only now they strongly resembled those large, white, bloated ticks one might pick off of a farm dog. Yes…I still can’t eat yellow grapes today without this mental image in my head.
As Troy sat down at our small table for dinner, I placed his overflowing plate in front of him and took my seat across the table.
“What is it?” he asked trying to keep the skepticism from his voice.
“Gwumpki. Well, it’s not really gwumpki because I don’t have my mother’s recipe. But that’s what my mother called it when we were kids. It’s cabbage rolls. I just know you’re going to love it! Eat up!” I said as I forked a great big bite into my own mouth.
Oh good God! I almost gagged on my own first bite! How in the world was I going to pull this off if I couldn’t handle eating the stuff myself?
Very delicately Troy pushed the cabbage rolls around his plate as he took tiny bites here and there of those nasty-looking critters.
“How is it?” I asked.
“Oh…I’ve only taken a couple of bites. Give me a chance to taste it,” he responded diplomatically.
Several moments went by and Troy failed to notice that I was only pretending to eat, as he very carefully pushed his own dinner around his plate to make it appear as though he were making some progress. The silence in the room was deafening. Finally I’d had enough. I couldn’t eat this stuff and if one of us didn’t break soon, I was going to have to either eat it or ‘fess up. Well, I wasn’t going to eat it, and I’m also not a quitter.
With every bit of dramatic flair I could muster from my days of theatre, I squeezed a few tears through my eyes and cried out in despair, “You don’t like it!” I sobbed. “I’ve spent all day in the kitchen preparing and cooking this wonderful meal for you, and you don’t like it!”
Lucky for me that I can cry on command, and so I allowed the waterfall of fake tears to stream down my face.
Poor Troy. The look on his face was one of sheer panic. “Oh no! I love it! It’s great! See!” he said as he started scooping large mouthfuls of those vile cabbage rolls in his mouth. “It’s great! Thank you, Honey! I know you worked hard on it!”
I let him “chew on that” for a moment or two before I finally came clean. Wiping my eyes dry with my napkin, I said in my most cheerful voice, “That’s okay. I didn’t like it either when my mom made it.”
As understanding dawned on him, I began to fear for my life. My husband is not a physically aggressive person, but I was beginning to wonder if he might just make an exception this one time. His face turned purple and I swear there was steam piping out of his ears as he very quietly with barely-suppressed rage asked, “You did this on purpose?”
In for a penny…”Well, of course I did,” I replied. “Everything I’ve made up to this point has been ‘fine.’ I couldn’t imagine that you could just pass this off as ‘fine.’ I figured you’d either really love it or you’d hate it so much that you wouldn’t be able to suppress yourself and I’d finally get an honest reaction. So, tell me what you really think,” I said with a grin.
One of my favorite things about Troy is his ability to accept when he’s been had, and to laugh at himself when necessary. We’ve been married 19 years since then, and he only occasionally uses “fine” to describe dinner; and then always with a twinkle in his eye to let me know that he hasn’t forgotten and isn’t likely to repeat that mistake again. I think we can categorize this as a “lesson learned.”