90: Winging It

90: Winging It

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Winging It

Men are made stronger on realization that the helping hand they need is at the end of their own arm.

~Sidney J. Phillip

Who could resist falling for a fellow who figures a flawless tryst involves ambling through the aisles of Trader Joe’s in search of snail shells? Who sends compliments to the chef at the strip mall Chinese eatery for dishing up a savory platter of General Tso’s chicken? Who brags he served eggs Benedict to friends and family for New Year’s Eve brunch for 20 years running? Obviously not me.

I couldn’t help falling in love with Ken on our first date when we hit the winery trail between Napa and Calistoga, and he explained to me why he’d choose a Chenin Blanc to accompany lobster ravioli.

Heretofore, I’d figured wine came in three varieties: red, white and dessert. I’d never even heard of varietals. I’d never known anyone who made ravioli except Chef Boyardee, and I figured his repertoire was limited to cheese and beef. Both my father and my first husband were meat and potato men, so I’d never been exposed to or learned much fancy cooking.

“Where did you learn so much about food and wine?” I asked, my head abuzz. I was dizzy not so much from the few ounces we’d sampled at the vineyards, but from my new suitor’s worldly wit and wisdom.

“I grew up in Modesto,” he said. “I went to school with kids whose families owned wineries. For years my mom ran a restaurant, so I took an early interest in how food was prepared.”

“That’s impressive,” I said. “I worked as a counter girl at Owl Drug as a teenager, but all I learned to make were hamburgers and Denver omelettes. I put together good meatloaves and stews, but that’s it.”

“Don’t worry. I love meatloaf, so long as it isn’t covered with tomato sauce. But after we get married, I’ll cook dinner if you just promise to clean up afterwards.”

“That’s a deal,” I responded, dreamily envisioning future feasts prepared by the man who apparently had just agreed to be my spouse.

So there we were, a pair of sixty-somethings, thrown together through an Internet dating service, meeting in person after months of cross country courting via phone and e-mail, already agreeing to wed, and making the house rules.

Those rules worked, too. Ken relished retirement. He’d sleep until noon, putter around, play with our Akita puppy and then prepare elegant suppers that he’d serve on trays in the downstairs den. We’d munch while we watched Jeopardy!

“I can’t get over how you know so many of these answers,” he’d say.

“Been a bookworm all my life, and have a good memory,” I’d reply, pleased.

I’d reached the height of my career, so I’d rise before dawn, catch the Metro into the capital, work in front of a computer all day, and return at dusk, tired and ravenous. Ken’s suppers were so delicious that most nights I had to restrain myself from licking the plate.

Then one evening he asked if I liked hot wings. He’d cultivated this specialty when he worked swing shift as a poker room manager in Reno in the late ’70s. All the people who got off work at 2 a.m. wanted to party a bit before heading home. So Ken, who loved playing host, invited the gang to his place. He bought one of the original FryDaddys and concentrated on perfecting his hot wing recipe.

“I always ask how hot people want them,” he said. “I don’t want to take the skin off somebody’s grandmother’s tongue.”

“Count me mild,” I said, thinking how lucky I was to be married to such a thoughtful man.

I watched while he prepared the chicken wings, shaking them in a big Tupperware with Tabasco and melted butter, and getting them well coated before dipping them into the fryer.

Maybe I’d never master his lobster ravioli or his wild rice stuffed tenderloin, but this was a dish I thought I could handle. A few weeks later I volunteered to take over the cooking that night. I suggested he stay downstairs in the den and I’d surprise him.

Within minutes I’d manage to scald the butter, nick my index finger separating the flats from the drums, and splatter cooking oil on my new suede shoes. When the celery I pulled out of the veggie bin sagged limply in my hand, I burst into tears.

“Baby, what’s going on?”

I whirled around. I hadn’t heard him coming up the stairs.

“I’m never going to be able to cook anything decent,” I sobbed.

Ken took me in his arms. “Your meatloaf’s magnificent, not a drop of tomato sauce in it. You make a good grilled cheese sandwich, and there’s nothing wrong with your Denver omelettes.”

“But I can’t make hot wings.”

“Oh, baby. Don’t worry. I’ll walk you through it. Just start over, and I’ll sit here and tell you what to do.”

So he did, even down to helping me resurrect the dismal wilted celery. He also suggested that I sprinkle cornstarch on the oil stains on my shoes. That worked, too.

Over the nine years of our marriage Ken taught me a few of his other specialties, and my cooking improved. So did my disposition, since I learned that he appreciated the simple foods I could prepare well. And that most of all, he appreciated me.

He taught me so much more... how to swirl and sniff wine before sipping, how to play gin rummy, and how to stop worrying about not doing everything right. He also taught me that accepting love can be just as rewarding as giving it.

A few weeks ago I browsed the poultry bins at the supermarket and discovered that chicken wings were on sale.

“Oh, great,” I thought. “I’ll get a couple of packages for the freezer so that Ken can prepare them this summer.”

Then, as I reached for a second tray, I remembered. My husband had died last summer after a long valiant struggle with cancer. He isn’t here now, in the country home where we finally retired, to cook chicken wings... or any other delicacies. I started to return the tray of wings to the bin.

“Wait a minute,” I reminded myself. “My loving husband taught me to make these.” I put them back in my cart.

In September it’s my turn to host my book group. The hostess always provides refreshments, and we sip some wine as we discuss our current selection. I plan to serve hot wings as an appetizer.

I may look as if I’m winging it, but I won’t be. Ken will be off stage in the wings, coaching me. He’ll remind me to add extra crumbled blue cheese to the dressing, to steep the celery in ice water for an hour to ensure its crispness, to add a pinch of celery seed and a dash of garlic salt to the sauce.

Who could resist still loving the man who laughed aloud and shook his head when I asked which wine goes best with hot wings? Who claimed that there’s more to life than wine and roses? Certainly not me! When the book group convenes this September, the ladies will be drinking lager... like it or not.

~Terri Elders

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