Night on the Town

I did my civic duty last night in an effort to avenge for a prior showing.  I  attended the 10th annual pot luck and silent action for the Nature Society, an event I had dragged my husband to a few years ago and we have strategically relived ever since.

I discovered the event after being invited a few years ago due to my involvement as a volunteer  on  another community committee.  For a short time,  I had attempted to contribute my limited talents to my city through a fund-raising committee.  I did not do too much, quickly learning that a pool of individuals tied together by years of commonality – neighbors, kids hockey teams, teachers, church groups, or friends – pretty much handled organizations and political matters.   What I had also learned is that a great deal of energy goes into local politics and a huge amount of money is needed to keep things running.  The task can be daunting particularly for this city with a population boom drawn to its nightlife, a growing downtown,  and additions of high-rise condos.  Coming from a small town, I have a soft spot for organizations that plant the flowers, hold the parades, set up the 5K’s , and try to keep a spirit of pride in the town they call home.  I support the city organizations where I can but my charitable intent  goes out the window  when a silent action is involved.  Then it just becomes  savage.

Skipping our typical Friday night out with dinner and drinks, we hit the old Elks Lodge near the expressway  a few minutes after the advertised start.  The large room included 10 to 12 round tables of what seemed to be a sea of white haired individuals engaged with dinner.  Scattered around the edges of the room were longer rectangular tables covered with bright green, yellow, orange and blue plastic runners where items to be auctioned were presented.   To the back, another table was lined with  a spread of pizza and pot luck dishes straight from every family’s well guarded recipe books – casseroles, lasagna, sauerkraut, pirogues, fried chicken,  rice dishes, and assorted desserts.   The trusty Lodge bar was in the far corner and a line had already formed.

We had entered a different era, unlike what I had noticed in the previous auctions.  The average age was 65 to 70.  No one was playing with their phone, music wasn’t playing in the background, televisions were nowhere to be found.  The room was warm.  With stealth, middle-aged speed I was certain this was our night.

I headed to the tables, my husband to the bar.  We were determined to vindicate ourselves from our last auction where the newly elected State Representative swooped into most of our bids at the last possible moment to write in a slightly higher bid.  I guess that was his unfortunate way to always have us remember his name on election day.  The first walk through indicated no one had bid.  Evidently, eating was priority.  I upped the ante on some items just to help the cause hoping what I really did not want would be outbid.  Historically, the bids were always too low and based on the age of the night’s crowed I envisioned the worse, potentially impacting the Society’s ability to raise funds.  I could sense that somewhere in the crowd, there were women peering over their glasses watching and cursing me while my wing man was filling his plate.

It was impossible, however, not to walk away with a something wonderful.  Members had donated species from their gardens, old prints, even pottery.   Although the local merchants’  generosity was everywhere, other items such as a monthly delivery of  homemade pie made the event particularly enduring.

The award ceremony abruptly began as I was told to “move away from the table” for future picture taking.  The night’s Host of Ceremonies spoke through the sound system as if addressing a crowd of ill behaved junior high school kids, knowing their names, directing where he needed to direct.   I stood against the back wall where the temperature was cooler as members were acknowledged and thanked.  One senior woman, dressed nicely,  with a serenity that you would have to be blind not to sense,  was thanked for her years of organizing the event.  Earlier, she had presented to the only 7-year-old in the crowd the 1st annual award for  children’s poetry.   Another man was thanked for his endless dedication for cutting down the brush in the many parks, maintaining the fences deer had destroyed, and fall clean up.  I took another look around the room.  Maybe they looked older, but they were a well oiled machine.  These were people who gave back and devoted a bit of their lives to a changing community.  They were the ones who made the city look nice, feel safe, and cared for.  Thinking back to my past experience, I realized their generation was truly the only ones represented in most of the city’s organizations.  I never felt I was contributing anything but on this night I understood why.  They had it under control and worked together to build what they wanted to see.  I felt a tinge of worry for the first time as I  watched their slow movements and expressions.  I wondered if younger citizens would see the value in the dedication to societies, clubs, and organizations that seamlessly brought life to a sprawling suburb.  I am not certain I could.  My mission for a successful  silent auction suddenly became just a footnote to the evening.

The tables closed one by one, color by color.  My compassion for local theatre landed me with four tickets to two different shows to be used in the next few weeks.  My early enthusiasm also bought me a Paint Party for two, drinks at a local bar,  dinner at local hot spot, and golf lessons.  Apparently the bidding up did not quite work completely as planned since bidding stopped with my higher entries.  The top auction items for the night were in the categories of grocery stores as well as a locally crafted sofa table.   We laughed as we left, recounting the odd night and the funny comments by  others yet I couldn’t help but feel that this may be one of the few wonderful moments of a fading yet immensely important generation.  No bid could ever match their worth.

Butternut Squashed

Butternut squash looks so innocent sitting in a bin with a bunch of other squash of varying sizes, odd shapes and dull colors.  I had made the recipe before so picking the ingredient to the au gratin was not a big deal.  I just grabbed a medium sized victim and brought it hope for the festivities.

I don’t know why I volunteered to bring a dish to a get-together with my in-laws.   In contrast to my husband’s side, my family uses assigns the dish you are to bring and that’s that, or, in cases of lack of communication, we each bring the same thing.  In any case, the expectation is you bring food with you if you are going to eat.  My family’s predominantly female membership means complaints and honest expressions are commonplace.  You  understand each other well enough to know who is sick of cooking, who hates clean-up, and the psychological roots that each have over a particular dish that flopped.  We all attempt to cook and laugh when we have a disaster.  My mother was just glad we never burned done her kitchen while she as work when we were kids.  We are not gourmets just experimenters – or we buy it.  Simple.

With my in-laws, however, the activity around food is a bit more complex.   With a mother that cooked all of their meals for years, enjoyed the accolades, and reigns as judge of others attempts at perfection,  cooking was not a sport for the weak.   As my mother-in-law aged and became very ill, the trading off of family functions moved to those with the largest homes.  Translated, this means my husband and I host nothing.   My sister-in-law, bless her heart, has hosted for years and is not a big foodie.  Her meals are simple and elegant.  My other sister-in-law typically creates the family favorites and caters to the nieces, nephews, or family from out-of-town.  Both are wonderful  venues.  Both execute at a high level.

For me, however, I find the lack of dissension strange.  I do not hear complaints, yet knowing woman the way I do, I know they must – maybe not to me but I would bet to each other if not to a good friend.  I am never asked to bring anything.  It is as if no one wants to impose for fear of putting something unsaid out of balance.  What I end up with is  guilt for not bringing anything or guilt that I brought something no one cares for and should have been left at home.  Never understanding how to get it right without offending,  wine has become the default.  The problem, however, lies with my sense of free-loading since, again, in my family you bring a dish to pass as a matter of good manners like doing the dishes together.  Even with dirty dishes,  my in-laws either tell you not to worry about clean up or one sister does it all saying she is fine handling everything.  So this time, I set my mind on bringing food and helping with dishes.  Lord help me if I under cook or break something.

With the squash before me, I began my days wrestling match.  Something I seemingly forgot  from the last time I made the recipe in the fall was the tricky part of the removal of the skin.  Either that, or autumn  squash is more tender than the aged sprig squash I was about to tackle.  In any event, I carried forth with my self-imposed mission.  As the potato peeler moved across the pear-shaped surface, only little bits and pieces were removed.  I applied more pressure but the cuts were deeper and the creation of deep ridges where the peel broke off made it more difficult for the peeler to sweep across the surface.

Slowly, I managed to clear the skin and was ready to cut the squash into pieces.  The chef’s knife only managed to cut half way even with  leaning on the knife with my entire body weight which, believe me, should have been quite enough.  After multiple attempts and rocking the knife as much I could, the vegetable finally broke  in two.  One band-aid later the pieces were in the pan and I was ready to add the heavy cream, shallots, and cups of grated Gruyère.  Victorious, I threw it in the oven a day before the event knowing a quick warm up tomorrow will be quick and easy.

Dinner was an hour or two after arrival as the barbecued salmon,  ham, potatoes, and rolls were all assembled.  My bright orange, semi-warmed, enormous casserole dish sat hopelessly in middle for all to try and comment.  The entire meal was wonderful, the centerpiece being  the salmon’s simple perfection with its sweet glaze and crispy ends.   My dish was received with smiles and the dutiful,  “oh, you’ll have to give me the recipe” .  Although one non-relative foodie invitee pointed out my flaws in an off the cuff comment later,  family members I did not expect to even try the dish were good sports.   In my own family, I would have gotten mixed reviews,  a few teasing jabs from the men, and a few holdouts.   Somehow that would have been easier to take but I understand different dynamics make each family successful in their own wonderful way.

I inserted myself in the kitchen and cleaned what I could before being chased off.  Contributing just a little to the meal was my main goal.  It was wonderful to try to give something back but the gesture that I thought I could just sneak in had become an uncomfortable special event that maybe I should have kept at home.  Next time, I concluded, definitely wine.

In my own family,  I have been assigned my sister’s favorite sweet potato recipe for today’s fest. The recipe is quick, easy, and full of sugar.   No overwhelming ingredients, no band-aids.   If it doesn’t turn out, my sisters will tell me or fight for leftovers when we do the dishes.  Doesn’t matter to me.  Whatever works.  We all love in variety of ways.