Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Perfect Meal: Melting Wok

When I passed the train tracks declaring the border of Kalamazoo College to enter  the yellow second house to the left, it was the cleanest I had ever seen it.  The shoes were neatly in a pyramid by the door, the table cleared except for a few coasters and the series of science test tubes that haven’t been broken in with vodka yet (21st birthday present for Rachel Horness, a Chemistry major and Spanish Minor).  All the DVD’s were stacked, the chairs were clear of video game controllers and homework, and the ambiance was set with draped soft christmas lights.  This is when I knew: my friends cared.  I had asked for the kitchen space for a small gaggle, and they had gone out of their way to make this a welcoming space. It didn’t, doesn’t help that within the past week the house went from being my unofficial home to my ex’s-house-where-all-my-friend’s-also-live.  A kitchen a kitchen.  Friends are friends.  A house is a house.  My home can still be my home.  These were the breaths I took entering on November eleventh at 5:20, a tight fit after my choir concert ending at 5.
These were a lot of the same friends that back on May twenty seventh had all piled into cars to go out to south haven.  I had arranged a gathering for my unbirthday.  My parents share an anniversary with my actual birthday in October, so celebrating my existance is always an odd thing.  In May, I just had finished a show, and decided it was time to unwind and relax with friends and finally acknowledge how wonderful life is.  I organized a few carpools, gave each car a food related responsibility, and then prayed it would work out.  It turned out to be a lovely day of cold water and 90 degree weather and laughter and sunscreen and cooking out, and also the first day I started dating Keeney.  
It’s hard to plan an perfect meal when the person you ideally want there doesn’t want to be because the wounds are too fresh, so I settled for ideal.  
The process was similar:  I threw out an event on Facebook with a poll for available times, and found a happy medium between those who did want to come.  Fifteen was the original count, but at 5:40 I had the aching suspicion that no one was going to show after a few cancellations due to theater auditions and last minute stress-related cancellations.  With exams and final projects dwindling numbers in the cafeteria and increasing revenue for Maruchan’s Ramen, I expected my 15 to quickly become the three of us preparing food for a Stirfry. Call it paranoia, call it vulnerability but I was afraid of more people creating intentional space.  At 5:45 the only people present were my best friend Rachel and the members of the house, sans my ex.  
Yet, he was everywhere.  He was in the chicken I thawed from the freezer and originally used to make him Chicken Marsala to celebrate five months.   He was in the empty space of his room where my extra toothbrush used to sit as I went to the upstairs kitchen to grab more silverware.  He was in the awkward smiles and "are you okay?"'s I received whenever I was caught looking at the steps to upstairs, even though I knew he had already cleared out before having a chance to bump into me.  Originally, my perfect meal was with everyone I loved at the cheapest and easiest convenience cooking together.  Everyone was a bit too high of an expectation.
What I love about cooking is the people it brings together from different walks of my life.  I focused on the excitement of introducing circus folk, choir folk, theater folk, and other odds and ends to eachother; mixing together like the stir fry I had planned: easily and with some saucy conversation.  My original invite list consisted of thirty people, not because I expected them to all come, but because I have at least thirty people on this campus who I consider to be worth celebrating as friends, and in many ways my family.
As my foot tapped, afraid that the food I had bought for fifteen wasn’t going to be eaten at all, I comforted myself with the process of setting up the event.  The previous night I had been grocery shopping with some of the house members, spending twenty or so dollars for the projected amount of guests.  I made a point to thank Rachel Horness, a senior I met in choir last year.  I said, “Thank you for letting me hitch a ride”, to which she said “Thank you for coming along.”  It had been a week of evaluating the space friendships can have, and such a simple statement let me know I was still wanted, even with all the uncertainty.  Last time I had the gathering of friends in South Haven, it was the beginning to establishing my permanent friendships, and my relationship.  This time, it’s about me reminding myself of their permanence, and of moving on from my ended relationship.  It’s been almost half a year since the unbirthday, and somehow feels like a completed circle and cycle.
Thirty minutes to an hour later the rest of the crew slowly ambled in, and topics ranging from bras and beards to classes and chicano studies comfortably were passed at the same pace as cooking duties.  Knives and cutting boards were exchanged between scrambling hands, and jokes were interchanged like counter space.  Peppers, pineapple, broccoli, asparagus, and sweet onion were tossed into a wok (curtesy of Brie’s Living Learning House) simmering olive oil supplemented with garlic and sesame seeds.  Chicken was cooked by Rachel Horness in a separate pot for the non-vegetarians.  All the Rachels (there were three of them) started to find themselves referred to by their last names to avoid them saying “huh?” in response to their name, receiving the reply “I meant the other Rachel.”
I played hostess, dashing between both the living room and the kitchen like my mamma taught me how to.  At one point, I get a text from Abby letting me know she’s on the way.  Zach Wood (there’s two Zach’s) heard the comforting tone of the TARDIS from the television show of Doctor Who, and proceeds to show me how his phone case is the TARDIS as well.  I promise to send him the text tone later that night, returning the phone to my cleavage without even worrying about cultural decorum because these are my friends (my choir dress has no pockets).  The TARDIS makes a explosive whirring that is uncomfortable to anyone unless they know and love the show.  Like my ideal meal, it’s all about context and interpretation on whether the house could grow to be a comfortable space again.
As I continued to hover and flutter, I caught tidbits of the conversation.  The subject of Chicano studies dominated.  As I went back and forth between the kitchen and setting down paper plates, burger king collectable plastic cups, and a hodgepodge of different silver wear pilfered from the cupboards of the house lent by my friends, I overheard opinions, such as how some of the arguments focused on skin color rather than cultural differences, and how people who identified with latino/latina culture but don’t have dark skin felt really upset by how people are communicating the issue.  As the mixture of foods tailored to allergies and food preferences, I was thankful to have friends who could come together under simple circumstances and mesh without leaving themselves at the threshold.
We grabbed servings, and split the drinks Abby had gotten at Bottom’s Up between plastic burger king glasses and mugs.  As requested, no high fructose corn syrup or alcohol was wanted, so varying flavors of nine bottles of Snapple was shared amongst the 11 people.  There was the apple that tasted like cider and tea, and then there was the sweet tea that, in the words of Abby “tastes like raisons covered in sugar”, instead of tea made from black and green tea leaves as the label would suggest.  The arnold palmer was grabbed the least as seconds and thirds graced paper plates.  Bottled were added to the returnable pile and paper plates were discarded, and silver wear was hand washed.
When I asked Rachael LaBarbara (another Rachael), “Did you have fun tonight?” she replied, “I did!  It was like the best social interaction I’ve had in a while.  I wish I got out more, but I don’t feel like I know anyone well enough to ask people to hang with me.”  These are the moments that remind me the point of ideal.  Maybe the space I was being given rubbed me the wrong way, but here I had given my wonderful friends a chance to unwind, and to network between eachother. To have taken this person and bring her into a created safe-space is more rewarding then a full belly.  
I love people.  I love them for their faults and their experiences and their intellect and for their ignorance and stubbornness.  What I love about my friends, is their openness to explore all these things, and in this case, eachother.  I never have to worry about two people not meshing, because I can rely on the rest of them to help sooth tempers, if necessary.  When the topic turns to something politically, or Kalamazoo Collegially, charged (chicano studies), I don’t feel the need to tense like I would in other circles.  At this dinner, I celebrated people.  My people.  The people who move and inspire and care for me, and the people who define home for me. As Rachael and Tammer (who hid studying sciency things for most of the evening but came out at the end for a quick study break) helped me cleared up, I felt safe and welcome, just for a little bit.  We put the “smokey rice” (which a seperate Rachel had burned, but we actually liked the taste of) in tupperwear, and bagged the water chestnuts and remaining yellow pepper together for the house to keep.  The asparagus and carrots went up to the second floor fridge, silverware and cups were washed, dried, and returned, and I continued on to leave the house.
In time, home-base will be home-base again.  In the meantime, my safe-space will be wherever I carry my friends with me, and wherever we can find a wok and a shmorgishborg of everything else we could ever want to throw in our melting pot of experiences and overlapping interests and disinterests.  Ideal is probably always going to be missing something, but in the temporary moments, I feel like I got close.


  1. I really liked how you described all the different things that you were thinking about while cooking. It was an interesting take.

    I would just read over it t fix up confusing areas. I got lost at some point because of the lack of setting or background knowledge.

    Good job!

  2. I liked your colloquiality about your piece, it added dimensions of your personality. I agree with Kelsey that the prose is a little rough and dense at some points.

  3. I think that maybe organizing your thoughts instead of a direct stream of consciousness would help! But, I liked your honesty of the situation and how the context affected your meal.

  4. McKenna, the tension is great here. You provide lots of great details and you're so true to your feelings! I want to know more about the food! Can't wait to talk in class!

  5. I admire your honesty. Yet I also want to hear how the food tasted.

  6. I agree with Colin, how did it taste? You say stir fry, but in my mind that conjures up about six dishes that my mom makes, and all of them are different.

  7. Hey McKenna, interesting piece. I thought the part about your ex was really captivating and should be kept. I think it was really present throughout your dinner that night and is relevant. Some of the details I think you could omit, and sometimes I felt like the transitions from ideals were a little confusing.