Whine and dine

One of my favorite jazz singers is Dinah Washington, and my favorite song of hers is “What a Difference a Day Makes.” It’s a romantic ballad (maybe even a shlocky one) about how the day before Love Found is completely different from the day after.

But the difference ‘tween one day and the next doesn’t apply just to romance. For example, when I was in the Navy, the powers that be decided my unit was redundant, if not entirely useless. So they summarily shut it down, with no warning whatsoever — just like that, bippity-bop.

The Vietnam war was winding down big-time, so there was a huge push to cut the Navy’s budget, and apparently the best way was to do it was get rid of low-ranking personnel. In our case, they said any first-hitch peeps who had less than a year to go could get out, with full benefits. Sadly, there were guys who had 365 days left on their enlistment, and they were stuck with it. As further proof there’s no justice in this world, I had 11 months and change on my hitch, and you can bet bhat to basmati I was gone in a flash.

Sometimes, those vital differences in time come down to mere minutes. This was the case at The Dope Diner last week.

First, some background …

Jen-Ex doesn’t cook. I won’t say she can’t cook, because let’s face it, anyone can — even me. I’m not saying everyone can be a chef, or even an excellent cook, but everyone can make meals that are as good as most restaurants. And now it’s easier than ever, since you can find every imaginable recipe on the internet with a mere click of the keyboard.

It’s so easy, even I’ve learned to cook. While I can’t make any fancy-shmancy comestibles, I can acquit myself respectably in the Den of Decent Dining. Jen-Ex, on the other hand, can cook some stuff, but she just prefers not to, and instead is perfectly happy to subsist on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with an occasional frozen pizza to change things up.

She also works, something at this point in my life I wouldn’t do if you paid me. In fact, I don’t do much but read, surf the net, read trashmo mysteries, cruise My Home Town, and hang out with my dogs and cat. And thus The Dope Diner.

Several times a week I make dinner for J-E and me. It’s no big deal. What the hey, I have to eat anyway, cooking for two requires no more effort than for one, J-E is easy to please, and while I like PB&J, I couldn’t hack it as daily fare. So it’d seem that donning my apron and whipping up le plat du jour would be trouble-free ­– and it almost always is. But sometimes the skies darken over the sea of domestic tranquility and all hell breaks loose, which is exactly what happened last Tuesday.

The king of the kitchen

As I said, my skills as a cook are basic, and I don’t delude myself about it. So the stuff I make, whatever it is, is always simple and unadorned. F’rinstance, I don’t know anything about spices, other than my two go-to’s — Frank’s Hot Sauce and Lowry’s Seasoned Salt. Nor do I get into anything requiring extensive prep or cook time. One din that always fits that bill is pasta alfredo (the pasta being angel hair, The Bachelor’s Best Friend, since it takes the least time to prepare). And since time was of the essence, pasta alfredo with shrimp was Tuesday’s Blue Plate Special.

Pasta alfredo is a perfect choice if you’re in a hurry. First, it’s delicious. And how can it not be, since it contains only cream, butter, and cheese. OK, so my esteemed cardiologist, Tony Tramontano, would give it the evil eye, but let’s face it: Heart smart cooking may be great for the circulatory system, but it’s a real bummer for morale. Besides, shrimp contains omega-3 fatty acids and the antioxidant astaxanthin, which I understand are surefire recipes for immortality. I don’t know what omega-3 actually does, if it does anything at all, but I do know anything called astaxanthin has got to be good for me.

So I fried the shrimp in butter and I boiled up the pasta and put them aside. Then I tossed the butter and cream in the frying pan, and grated a bunch of parmigiana in it. Oh yeah, just FYI, I don’t really follow recipes most of the time because, really, the only reason to do that is if you want the dishes to turn out the same each time. I follow the Close Enough Is Good Enough school of cooking for two reasons. One, with alfredo, especially, it’s impossible to screw up. And second, I routinely forget where I left my keys and my eyeglasses, so remembering how something tasted three weeks ago (other than it tasted good) is far beyond my capabilities.

After the sauce was ready, but before I tossed in the pasta, I called J-E, and told her to come over. I had my timing figured out perfectly: It takes seven minutes to get from J-E’s place to mine. So if she left when I called, in seven minutes the alfredo would be the perfect temperature and consistency. And it was. The only problem was she wasn’t there.

No biggie, I thought. I had some wiggle room, and so I turned the heat down, stirred the pasta, and waited for the dear girl to arrive. And I stirred some more … and waited some more. Still no J-E.

But here’s the thing about shrimp alfredo: It needs to be served when it’s ready. Because the longer it stays on the heat, the more it becomes less a gourmet treat than gourmet library paste. Plus the shrimp will become dry and tough as shoe leather.

Finally, mere seconds before the library paste/shoe leather stage, she arrived in fine fettle, which was more than I can say about the alfredo … and my disposition.

The fool of the foodstuffs

While she was oooing and ahhing over my dogs and cat, I dished up the pasta, took mine, handed her hers, and sat down to eat. But before I started on the meal, I started on her.

“You know,” I said, “when I called and told you to come over, that’s what I meant.”

“Whatta ya mean?” she said.

“I mean,” I said, starting to lose what little cool I had left, “by the time you got here, the meal had gone bad.”

“Tastes fine to me,” she said.

“Yeah? Well, it’s not fine,” I said. “It’s overcooked. It’s not Mulligan stew or baked beans. Ya can’t keep it on the stove forever.”

“I didn’t know that,” she said.

“Well, now you do,” I said, not liking the sound of my own snippiness.

“OK,” she said. “How about next time you call me while you’re preparing it, not when it’s done.”

“That is,” I said, measuring my words, “exactly what I did. So if you’d left when I told you to, by the time you got here, the pasta would’ve been perfect.”

When I said “perfect,” I suddenly flashed on something. It was a scene from the movie The Odd Couple. In it, Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon), the world’s most finicky pain in the prat, has split up with his wife and is now living with his best friend, Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau), the world’s biggest slob. Of course, Felix has cleaned up Oscar’s digs, is cooking to perfection, and has bugged Oscar to the edge of homicide.

In the scene I was recalling, Felix had made pasta for dinner, they got in some argument, and Oscar said something about the spaghetti. Felix, ever finicky, laughed at him and said, “It’s not spaghetti, it’s linguine,” smugly and snottily, as if it was an important distinction. Oscar, fed up with Felix’s prissiness, and with Felix himself, takes his plate, flings it against the wall and says, “There! Now it’s garbage.”

I loved that movie, and being an incorrigible slob, always related to Oscar. I also always laughed at Felix for being such a silly, retentive ass. I mean, who could care about pasta? But there I was, at least an equally silly ass, making a big deal out of my pasta. I was even worse than Felix, because he was a make-believe character. I was being an idiotic fuss-budget for real, making a big deal out of what should’ve been nothing.

Once I realized that, I dropped any mention of alfredo, in any shape, form, or sense. Any anger I’d had was now replaced by that winning combination of embarrassment and guilt.

The rest of the meal, and the evening, went all right, and I’d like to think Jen-Ex and I each learned something.

She now knows if it’s alfredo for dinner, to get there sooner rather than later.

And I learned that messing up a meal — no matter whose fault it is — is no excuse for messing up a relationship.


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