We started thinking about it months ago. Late October, maybe.
By the time we’d sent out invitations, we were looking at a small New Year’s Eve brunch party.
For fifty people.
Our house isn’t very big, so I don’t know what we were thinking. But we just kept saying oh, but what about so-and-so, and so-and-so. Out of those fifty people, there were going to be a lot of little kids. And five dogs, including Molly O’Neill’s two Bearded Collies and Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein‘s large Lassie-type Collie who, when he was here last, couldn’t figure out if Charlotte-the-Cat was something to play with and then chew on, or just chew on.
Round about December 17th, as the year came barreling to a close amidst unspeakable tragedy in my town, thoughts of going over the fiscal cliff, editing a cookbook, writing another book and planning my tour for Poor Man’s Feast, I woke up with a scratchy throat. Two days later, I was running a high fever. Unfortunately, the nice-if-slightly-obtuse folks at my local walk-in weren’t quite convinced that 103 was high enough to give me the Tamiflu that probably would have shortened the duration of what was clearly the flu. I never finished my Christmas shopping and instead stayed in bed for a few days groaning — Susan poured cup after cup of tea down my throat and draped me with cold compresses that sizzled when they hit my skin; and then I made the executive and slightly delusional decision that I was somehow well enough to attend Christmas dinner at Susan’s cousin’s house in northern Connecticut. A few days after that, still coughing my head off, we drove down to New Jersey to attend the funeral of one of my mom’s cousins; moments after we picked her up and I started coughing, my mother began to rummage around in the velvet-lined pocket of her thirty-year-old sable jacket — the same one she wore the night she met Craig Claiborne at the Dean & Deluca opening party. It’s entirely possible that the vintage Halls cough drop she extracted from her pocket as we headed into the Lincoln Tunnel also attended the Dean & Deluca party that night in 1988, when Mr. Claiborne dragged her over to the meat case to look at the lamb chops and she had no idea who he was or what they were looking at or why.
“Just take this cough drop,” she implored, waving it around. “You’ll feel SO much better.”
“It’s covered in fuzz–” I hacked.
“So I’ll wipe it off–” she answered, rubbing at it with her gloved hand.
“I don’t want it—” I coughed.
“They’re very good you know—Halls is a very good brand,” she insisted.
“I don’t want it–” I shouted, hoarsely. Susan kicked the back of my seat a little.
“But you’ll like it–” she whined.
“But I DON’T. WANT. IT.” I coughed some more.
My mother stuck her fingers in her ears, pouted, and put the Halls back in her pocket until we were in the car again, headed home after the funeral. For three solid hours we sat in a traffic jam so bad that we traveled only fifty feet, while my mother continued to extol the virtues of this furry grail-like cough-suppressing talisman that for all its cultural ubiquity might as well have emerged from her pocket adhered to a Sweet ‘n’ Low packet stolen from the table during a pre-Studio 54 dinner at Artie’s Warehouse in 1986, making it two years old by the time it arrived at the Dean & Deluca party. After dropping my mother and her sucking candy off at her apartment on the Upper West Side, Susan and I drove back to Connecticut, stopped for mediocre take-out Chinese food, and got home after ten.
My head ached; my skin hurt to the touch. My body was clearly not very amused. I got into bed, certain that I would be in fine form for the New Year’s Day party for fifty that was in my near future.
But I was not. And a day later, Susan started to cough and run a fever.
These things happen, of course, especially when you’re a swirling mass of grief-stricken exhaustion who has been overcome by general year-end hysteria manifesting itself as a race to the finish line while your immune system guffaws in your face. I have a long and weird history of getting sick after experiencing tragedy, but it was generally never followed by a party for fifty.
“We have to cancel,” I said to Susan, who was also now flat on her back and sick as a dog.
“Don’t be such a Yankee. You think these people are going to want to spend New Years’ Day in a petri dish? We can barely stand up–”
“We can’t cancel,” she insisted. But a day later, lying in bed and groaning along with me, Susan agreed: we had to call the party off. Still coughing and fluish, I started calling and emailing. (And naturally, the one person who didn’t check her email showed up, bless her heart, marching down the driveway wondering why there were no other cars around.)
So, the party called off, we wheezed a sign of relief, slunk back to bed, and then realized that we had the following sitting in the fridge and pantry, just waiting for a plan:
a two-rib, five-pound, dry-aged standing rib roast for New Years’ Eve with our best friends (they were sick too);
three dozen eggs for deviled eggs for fifty;
five pounds of dried black beans for Deborah Madison‘s famous black bean soup;
seven pounds — two whole sides — of fresh salmon for the Gravlax I was planning on curing;
two pounds of English cheddar for vats of pimiento cheese we were planning on strategically placing in opposite corners of the house during the party, with boxes of their attendant Club Crackers.
Laying there wondering when everything (but the dried beans) was going to spoil and how many hundreds of dollars worth of food (that not even my neighbors would want; they can hear us cough through the window) we were going to lose, I got a good case of what my grandmother used to call shpilkes. So I got up and started to cook, in fits and starts. Mostly fits.
“Make the rib roast,” Susan yelled from the bedroom, “and you can make a miroton. We have tomatoes and onions.” So I did.
“You could make the Gravlax from one of the sides of salmon and parcel it out to our neighbors once it’s cured, and just poach the other side of salmon,” she said. “And we can just sort of pick at it for a few days.” So I did.
“You could make the pimiento cheese,” she said. “—maybe just a small batch, and then make rarebit from the rest of the cheddar?” Her voice went up, like a little girl’s. It doesn’t matter how sick Susan is; she is ever hopeful if there’s pimiento cheese in the house, even if dairy is the last thing that anyone with the flu really needs.
By New Year’s Day, we had by-passed what I called “primary dishes” all those years ago in my first book — the celebratory things you’re supposed to make from celebratory ingredients, like standing rib from a standing rib, or poached salmon from a side of salmon, decorated with little slices of cucumber for the gills — and went straight to the secondary dishes, like miroton, that you’re supposed to make from leftovers. And although Susan couldn’t taste a thing — as of this writing she still can’t — it was her suggestion for what to do with some of the poached salmon and the container of take-out white rice left over from a few nights earlier that eased us into New Years’ morning, and 2013: she asked me to make kedgeree, without the curry or the currants or the egg, which of course makes it not real kedgeree. But neither of us cared. I made it Asian-style, drizzled with a little sesame oil and kimchi furikake, and we sat at the dining room table with cups of strong black tea, staring out at the snowy New Year, hoping for peace and health in 2013. And then we went back to bed.
It’s been a mind-boggling seventeen days since I first got the flu, before Christmas. And I’m still not there yet, still working in fits and starts, still hobbling around my house in my pajamas, like Walter Matthau in The Sunshine Boys. My mother is also still haranguing me about her Halls, as though all anyone needs to set themselves on a straight course to good health is a precious vintage cough drop, coated with a rime of disco-era lint, time, and a few stray strands of fur. Her unflagging belief in the power of marketing over science marches on, as ever.
As for us, we’re planning on revisiting the party sometime in February; planning is all we can do.
Asian Salmon Kedgeree with Peas
A dish dating back to well before the days of the British Raj, this combination of rice, leftover flaked fish, curry, and hard-cooked eggs is, for most Americans, counterintuitive. In fact, it’s absolutely delicious, comforting and easy to put together, and should you somehow find yourself filthy with fish (especially strong-flavored flakey fish, smoked or not — but smoked bluefish, trout, salmon, and haddock work really well here), it’s a great way to use up at least some of it. This dish can easily be doubled and tripled, if you suddenly find yourself with visitors.
Note: Furikake is a Japanese rice seasoning; the Kimchi version, made from dried kimchi (Chinese cabbage, chiles, shallots, onions, ginger, garlic, chives, carrots, radish, apple, rice flour), sesame seeds, turnip greens, wasabi, and seaweed, provides a nice bit of texture and a hit of strong flavor to the Kedgeree. We love it on almost everything rice-related.
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
2 scallions, white part only, chopped
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 cups cooked white rice
8 ounces cooked salmon, flaked
3/4 cup peas, frozen or fresh
1 tablespoon tamari
roasted sesame oil, for drizzling
Kimchi Furikake rice seasoning, to taste
Heat the grapeseed oil in a large stickproof skillet over medium heat until it ripples, and then add the scallions and ginger, cooking until soft, about five minutes. Add the rice to the pan and stir constantly until heated through; add the fish, peas, tamari, and sesame oil, and reduce the heat to medium low. Continue to cook for three to five minutes, until the flavors have melded. Spoon into heated bowls and sprinkle with the furikake. Serve immediately.