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.