Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Dinner in half an hour

The freezer was stocked full. So was the pantry. The fridge was a little bare. Xanthipi had run out of time that afternoon, so she hadn't gone to the supermarket. There was hardly any sliced ham; even if there were, she found only four slices of bread in the bread bin, which would have to be left for breakfast the next day, so making sandwiches for dinner was out of the question. There was a small block of feta cheese, some carrots, olives, and a few other bits and pieces which would not constitute a meal if they were left in their cold raw state. So the real problem was not a lack of food in the house, but a lack of immediately edible food. Kosmas was due back home from soccer practice, Nafsika had just returned from volleyball, and Omiros was chopping the wood from a fallen tree trunk that he had picked up in the local park (he happened to see it before anyone else got their hands on it).

Xanthipi had only just walked into the house herself, after a late afternoon lesson with one of her students, the son of one of a colleague. He had not done his homework, he had failed the English examinations twice already, and the worst part was that the child seemed completely lost. He was not one for self-study, and his parents were not in the position to teach him study habits. Nor were they in the position to pay for private lessons. Xanthipi felt cornered when she accepted to help him. How can anyone charge a reasonable price for this kind of work in this day and age? It was also not possible to do this work for free - no one has that luxury in this day and age, either. So she offered to help the boy for the next few days, until his examinations, and did not ask for a specific price. "Whatever you wish to pay, it's fine by me," she had told her colleague.

Xanthipi was now getting stressed over what to cook for the evening. She had found an empty pot of what had earlier contained fasolada, so there were no leftovers. The family would all be starving as they slowly began pouring into the house at the end of day, all at the same time, walking into the kitchen every five minutes, wondering what there was to eat.  Xanthipi picked up the menu card of the local souvlatzidiko tucked neatly away behind the spice jars. She didn't open it to see the menu; she just looked at its cover where the phone number of the business was written: 81818, she memorised. Then she rummaged in her handbag to find her mobile phone and came up with her wallet instead. That's when she remembered that it held a ten-euro note that had been there for a long time: it was supposed to be there "in case of emergencies".

Plastic money covered all her needs these days, so she rarely needed to go to the ATMs. Cash was only really useful for a styrofoam coffee or to buy a loaf of bread from the bakery. The former is not an emergency, while the latter may sometimes be. But now that she was nowhere near a bakery, she could not even use it on that. She debated in her mind whether souvlaki constituted an emergency on that night and decided against it. There was no choice but to cook.

From the freezer, she took out a packet of boneless chicken pieces (8 pieces - she had bought half a dozen of those packets when they were on special at the supermarket) and placed it in the microwave to defrost. Then she cleaned and chopped some onion and garlic; while doing this, she thought about what she would make. How about some chicken in red sauce? But where are the carbs? And where are the veges for that matter? She opened the food cupboard where she found half a packet of orzo pasta. Another look in the freezer and she found half a packet of peas that had become such a tight ball of ice that she had to smash the packet against the floor to ascertain the volume of its contents. She set to work, turning all that dry and frozen food into a dinner in half an hour.
~ . ~ . ~ 

"Are you eating too, Mum?" Nafsika had asked when Xanthipi told her to set the table.

"Of course!" Xanthipi replied, although she knew she would not be eating much at the table. It was a common joke in the family that mother never ate at the table, even though she always set a plate for herself. While Xanthipi was pan-frying the chicken, she had nipped a bit off here and there to make sure it was cooked right through and the taste was right. While she was cooking the pasta, just before she thought the pea and orzo dish was ready, she had scooped up a spoonful with the mixing spoon and checked its taste too, burning her tongue in the process. While cooking, she had nibbled on a bit of crumbled feta from the remaining block and dipped a piece of bread that had not been cleared from the table after lunch into the oil on the plate containing the feta. She topped each bite off with an olive. And while everything was simmering, she also wondered what meal she could prepare for next day's lunch, but decided it was impossible to cook another meal that night. She was too tired, more mentally than psychologically.

Now everyone was sitting at the table. Although it was still quite early in the evening, it felt late since it got dark so early. She let everyone dish out their own portions, stealing glances at their plates to ensure that they were helping themselves to ample portions.

"Come on folks, eat up!" She urged them to take second helpings when she noticed only three pieces of chicken gone from the pan. Was there something wrong with the taste, perhaps? "There's plenty for everyone!"

"Aren't you going to eat any, mum?" Kosmas asked her.

"You know I've already eaten," she reminded him. "I always eat while I'm cooking."And this was true. Her hunger had been satiated for the evening with the feta and bread and oil and olives, and she did not hanker for the taste of chicken. Besides, she was the only one in the family keeping warm and cosy by the stove, while everyone else had been outside expending energy in the cold outdoors. Her only concern was about the smell coming from this cheap chicken. While she was cooking it, she detected an eggy scent, so she sprinkled various spice powders over it, in an attempt to mask the off-putting smell. This seemed to do the trick, given that no one was complaining about the taste of the chicken, and she knew that they all liked pan-fried chicken - but why weren't they serving themselves second helpings?

By the end of the meal, there were two pieces of chicken left, and a good serving of pea and orzo leftovers, just enough for the next day. She was glad to see this, as she now felt more confident about the next day's lunch, which was usually cooked on the previous night and warmed up the next day. If they needed to add a bit to the meal before she came home after work, they could always open a can of tuna to go with the orzo. And for an evening meal the next day, it would definitely be souvlaki, just as long as she rememebred to get to an ATM before coming home. At any rate, she needn't feel rushed the next day, as she had no extra lesson that night after work. The evening ended warmly with a bit of TV-watching near the hearth. She always fell asleep within five minutes of the programme starting, and often woke up after everyone had gone to bed, after which she staggered off the couch and got herself tucked in too. Her conspiracy theory was that Omiros got to bed before her so he could fall asleep before she started snoring; now, she had to put up with his.

~ . ~ . ~ 

On coming home from work the next day with the supermarket shopping, Xanthipi noticed that most of the orzo pasta had been eaten, save one serving; just enough for her in other words, since she had not tasted her creation when it was freshly cooked, apart from a teaspoonful. She left the shopping on the floor and placed the orzo in a bowl. She had used a small jar of her own home-made pepper sauce to make it, prepared from the previous summer's harvests, and now that she was heating it for herself, after allowing the flavours of the dish to blend better overnight, the scent of summer was exuding from the microwave, and wafting into the dining room.

She opened the fridge, where she found the two leftover pieces of chicken sitting on a small plate, looking quite unwanted. Why on earth had they not been eaten, she wondered. Was no one hungry?

"Nafiska," she called to her daughter, "why didn't you eat the chicken?"

"I ate nothing, mum, I was feeling very bloated after all those crisps. We were at the theatre today, remember?" Xanthipi had forgotten about that. When the children were on a school outing, she let them take a packet of crisps and store-bought biscuits instead of a proper lunch, in order to avoid oily leaks and bruised fruit while moving about.

"How about you, Kosmas?"

"Oh, two of the other kids in my class were celebrating their nameday, and they'd bought a whole lot of cakes to share with us." It's St Nicholas' feastday, Xanthippi suddenly remembered. She had phone calls to make in the afternoon to her Nikos and Nikis.

"Besides, mum, I didn't really feel hungry," Kosmas added. "I thought Dad might've wanted to eat the chicken."

"Well, what on earth did your dad eat, then?" She called out to Omiros who was in the yard, piling the chopped logs from the previous day on top of the tidy heap that he had created against the wired fence. As a long-term unemployed male, with few prospects of getting work now that constrcution, and hence carpentry, his trae, was on the decline, he had learnt to pace himself, working slowly enough to never be left with nothing to do to take up his time during the day. In this way, he avoided boredom.

"I opened a can of tuna and had that with the remaining orzo," he informed her. "Which reminds me," he started, and Nafsika knew what was coming. "Don't buy that cheap tuna brand again, because it tastes off." Not that he knew how much the tuna had cost, but he knew that Nafsika always bought the chepaest brand.

"Yeah," chimed Nafsika, "the tuna stank up the whole house! Can't you smell the tin in the bin?" Nafsika had a sensitive nose, just like her dad.

"Well," Xanthippi was flabbergasted, "why didn't you just eat the chicken instead of opening a can of tuna?"

"I thought you might be hungry after work," Omiros replied. "Did they leave you anything?"

Xanthippi then sat down to eat the leftovers, thankful that everyone was safe and sound at home, and no one was hungry. Tonight was Friday, and there was no need to cook a meal for the next day. The family could have a souvlaki in the evening. And just like she did on most souvlaki nights, she'd just nip off a bite from Omiros' souvlaki to satisfy her hunger. And if anyone asked her to have some more, she'd remind them that she didn't really like souvlaki.

"Well, what you would like instead?" Kosmas had once asked her.

"Chinese," she answered. For now, this was not possible, and they all knew it, so she could not complain if they called her fussy.

*** *** ***
"The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the new-born King of the Jews in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi."
Gift of the Magi, by O'Henry, 1905
Merry Christmas, everyone. I'm taking a break over the holidays, to recharge my batteries.

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