Chapter Twenty-nine: The Feast
Although there was only one meal to prepare for on Sundays, Gloria learned, it was a large meal, lengthy, with many courses. The roast chickens were indeed easy: the three chickens fit easily on the wide rotissierie in the main oven, their wings and legs bound with cotton string. They were fine fat chickens, so no seasoning was necessary at all, no basting, no fussing. Another two chickens, cut up, roasted in a shallow rack in the bottom of the oven.
Not so the other dishes. The main meal started as a brunch, with mimosas and appetizers which ranged from bite-sized quiches in tiny phyllo dough wrappers to sliced grilled sausage sprinkled with chili powder; from olives, cucumber, celery, carrot, jalapenos, hard salami, and cauliflower as antipasto to crackers arranged neatly on a large platter with ham spread and brie cheese. Pineapple slices lay cheek and jowl with oranges, grapes, and mangoes. Pumpernickel, rye, dark and light, and whole wheat, and white breads in quarter slices stretched across one tray, with herbed butter and margarine and cream cheese at hand to grace them.
A soup course followed about an hour and a half later, with a clear chicken broth (not the one that had cooked the noodles the day before) flavored with but not including chunks of roasted red bell peppers, each tiny bowl garnished by a perfect thin tree-shaped slice of mushroom floating on the top, which in turn had a tiny sprig of curly parsley seated upon it.
"Not even noon, and these healthy people are drinking orange juice with champagne in it," Maria grumbled as they hurried over the fruits and vegetables, all of which had to be cut up that morning. Fresh was the operative word, she explained. The Bakers were all about fresh on Sunday mornings. "Must have been good news about the grapes this year."
In this preparation, Gloria was very comfortable, and comforted by the tasks. She had always loved cutting up vegetables, be it for stew, or stir-fry, or snacks to eat while they watched football games in luxurious times past. Though Maria admonished her not to cut herself, this was an activity that Gloria knew well, and did well. The carrot sticks she cut into three-inch, thin diameter strips, after asking Maria how she wanted each vegetable to appear. "I don't care, we just get them on the tray," the cook told her. So Gloria cut them thin as drinking straws, and arranged them in a starburst at one corner of the tray. At the nexus of the rays, she put three carefully dried black olives with the pitted centers holding slivers of the leftover green, red, and yellow bell peppers from the day before. The result was lushly autumnal in color, and resulted in a pointed finger and a nod from the cook. "That good, they like that."
As Maria carefully, spotlessly ladled the soup into its little serving cups, she lectured Gloria. "This kind of soup is for cleansing the tongue, not for nourishment. Pretty pretty, but just helps them get empty for the next course, their salads."
The salad bowls had the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce as their center, but curled within it was dark chard in thin strips Maria cut with a pair of kitchen scissors, kernels of fresh sweet corn uncooked, and an olive oil, pomegranate juice dressing. She had taken an early pomegranate, broken it inside a layer of cheese cloth, crushed the pips, and added the resulting juice to some extra virgin olive oil. The mixture looked intriguing to Gloria until the cook shook some prepared seasoning over it. Gloria dipped a spoon into the dressing and tasted it. The pomegranate and the oil she could taste, and liked, but the seasonings were unclear, more scented than tasted. She looked at Maria. "What is that? I've never seen it."
"Salt substitute," Maria said in a voice with no inflection, holding up the container.
She thinks it's sucky. So do I. But she can't be bitching with a new hire all the time. She's already said the Bakers are more status conscious and faddish than she should have. This could be a really good salad dressing though, with a little garlic and some real salt. "I'm going to try this one at home some day, but pomegranates are right off my food budget for a while."
"Pff," Maria said, waving a hand. "I get this one from home. I bring you some."
"You have a pomegranate tree?"
"Big tree. Most of it goes to waste. I don't have time to make jellies and can them, not working here."
The woman was holding a fortune in her home, according to the prices in the stores. A single pomegranate could cost almost four dollars in early and late season, and at least a dollar and a half at the peak of their ripeness. For Gloria and her family, pomegranates had always been a special treat, eaten pip by pip, savored a little at a time. To have enough of the fruit to even consider making jelly was unbelievable. And it went to waste?
"Your family doesn't like them?"
"My sons take a few each year. They work, their wives work, their kids would rather eat apples than peel a pomegranate. No neighbors where I live, no one to share with."
"I wish I was your neighbor, then. We love them."
"Good. I get you some good ones."
The brown rice and the packaged chicken gravy were already simmering on the back burner of one of the stoves, the rice again in a clear chicken broth and water mixture, unsalted. They were to be presented in three serving bowls and boats at intervals down the long formal dinner table; the side dishes to the roasted chicken and the rice were baked yam slices with a syrup topping of chopped raisins and maple syrup, with halved walnuts scattered on top of the dish, and eggplant, cut in slices and baked on shallow pans in the same oven. The eggplant was then diced and tossed with cumin and chili powder, and a little parmesan cheese. Gloria was ambivalent about the taste of the eggplant, but heartily envious of the number of racks the oven had for cooking.
When the chickens were served, the table had been cleared of its previous plates, new linen put down, and while the guests stepped out into the lovely garden, a new table setting was prepared. At a discreet tinkling bell, the family and guests returned, found their seats, and were presented with the three golden chickens reclining sumptuously on a bed of curly-leafed red lettuce, propped in place by wide slices of jicama root and spears of red hot peppers. The diners made sounds of delight, and Thomas took orders from the tables as to who liked which portions or of what color. The chickens were whisked away to the kitchen again, and while Gloria offered heated plates, Maria sliced the chicken into portions. "Most of them like white meat, some like a drumstick or thigh. They been eating so much, they don't want a lot of food now. You have to work at getting the slices nice and even, like in a magazine. A little skin on white meat is okay; unless they ask for a whole thigh, you don't use the skin on dark meat."
The staff's lunch was the treat of clearing the leftovers from each course as it was removed from the dining room. Maria had reserved some bread slices extra, and set out some deli meats and mayonnaise. The Bakers had their feast, and the staff had theirs, too. Except for starting the feast with mimosas, and finishing the feast with wines, it was not all that different. The leftover rice and chicken, the staff knew, would find its way into their soup on Monday, and they would be glad of it.
The dessert course was cherry vanilla ice cream, in scoops on each small plate, with a dark bitter chocolate cracker ("They see these at Trader Joe's and in the magazine and tell me to use them," Maria asided as they plated the ice cream) and once again, the cherry pie filling on top.
When the dessert was being served, Maria and Gloria were cutting up the remaining chicken into chunks. With camaraderie, they reserved two wings each for themselves, and ate them happily. The remaining wings Maria bagged for Gloria's brothers. "This make them appreciate you working, and they make life easier at home, okay?" The huge pot with the noodle chicken stock became a receptacle for all the leftover chicken, mostly dark meat, and Gloria was glad because it meant the soup would taste richer.
"Tomorrow they eat light because of all the food today. Mondays always like that. Thomas gave me a menu. They want salad with spinach and romaine, and cheese for lunch, lamb chops and flatbread for supper, with eggplant. Tuesday we do tomatoes, mozzarella and basil and a little risotto for lunch, then pork ribs and baked potatoes, cucumbers in balsamic vinagrette. Easy. Friday, fish chowder and pumpernickel, and fruit, and gorgonzola cheese pasta, with spinach salad and garlic French bread for supper. Saturday, light lunch, a little soup and salad, and then New York steaks -- oh, God have mercy on me, please let me get it right -- all done to order, with mashed potatoes and green beans. Sunday, chickens again. They love Sundays to be like today."
"Okay. We have three hours before we leave. Let's see what we have on hand in the pantry, make a shopping list. Doesn't look like we have much we have to prepare for the next couple days, thank the Lord Jesus for his mercy, maybe we can have just a normal week."
Gloria was all for that.