Sunday, April 02, 2006

Kids, cooking and candles

My brother-in-law was in Europe for the last half of last week, so my sister loaded up her kids on a whim and took them to visit Uncle Jake in Chicago in his absence. And for a rather spur-of-the-moment vacation, we all packed in a lot of adventure.

While I was at work, the kids got to explore the Field Museum and the Chicago Children’s Museum (crammed in next to every child of every Midwestern family on spring break). Then we spent our afternoons being trotted through Uncle Jake’s office like trained show dogs (show dogs who will probably need expensive orthodontia, from the looks of it) and our evenings splashing in the pool and making Kleenex superhero capes for the stuffed animals and cuddling up on the fold-out couch to watch the Sleeping Beauty DVD Uncle Jake didn’t even realize he owned. And I got to audition a recipe (chicken breasts dipped in chicken broth and breaded with crumbled corn flakes and mashed garlic and ground pepper and baked for 50 minutes at 350º) that I was planning on using at My First Dinner Party on Saturday night. (The recipe turned out quite tasty, but it seemed rather downscale for a dinner party. Even though it was very low-fat and the guests were all big homos.)

One of my sister’s shopping goals for the trip was to find a desk for my nephew, who is fast approaching his homework years. So Friday afternoon we traipsed up to the North Avenue shopping district to hit CB2 and the Crate & Barrel Outlet, where we didn’t find any desks but I found the perfect salad tongs (red bamboo!) for my fabulous new dishes … which meant I could serve salad at My First Dinner Party! And then, on the way back to the train from the C&BO, we ducked into a furniture shop to get out of the rain … and there was the desk my sister had been looking for. Everybody won!

Travel tip from my family to yours: If you are visiting your brother and you forget to bring the bag with all your toothbrushes and makeup, be sure your brother is a big stock-up-and-save queen. Not only will he have tons of extra toothbrushes on hand (bought on sale!) for you and your kids, but he’ll also probably have makeup for you to borrow—in shades that flatter your family skin tones.

After the family left on Saturday morning, I joined Matt and Preston downtown for a historical tour of the Palace and Oriental theatres. The tour was full of great information and worth the $15 charge, though I couldn’t get the big queen giving the tour to admit to singing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” off either lobby balcony when nobody was around. And I was kinda hoping to get a backstage peek out of the deal, but we just stayed in the public areas and admired all the fabulous architectural porn that passed for decorating in the 1920s. (Though the Palace Theatre is kind of tacky when it’s not packed with people to distract you from its discount carpet and its relatively mousy-blah décor, the Oriental takes fabulous to new levels of culturally insensitive heights.)

When I got home, I commenced scrubbing the house from top to bottom (one breakfast of Mickey Mouse waffles x two kids = a million sticky fingerprints) and firing up my rudimentary cooking skills to feed hungry guests by 7 pm. And I have to say that My First Dinner Party was so much fun I want to have one every weekend. I have seating (and linens) for six, so my ongoing series of these parties will have to be in little five-guest increments. And this inaugural run taught me not to plan debilitatingly complicated menus; I spent the vast majority of my evening assembling attractive little mountains of chicken and pasta and dolloping homemade whipped cream on my individual pudding-filled Bundt cakes while my guests chatted amiably around my table.

The only casualty of the evening (aside from the carefully chopped peppers I forgot to add to the chicken) was my artful display of candles (varying heights! varying thicknesses! clearance prices!) that—thanks to the fact that our postprandial conversation never moved from the table to the candle-festooned living room where they could be monitored—melted faster and messier than Dubya’s approval rating. Except Dubya never ruined one of my tablecloths. At least not directly. Check it out:
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Living-room lava floes notwithstanding, the house looked fabulous, the guests seemed to have fun, nobody died (at least not at the table, which would have been rude) and I got to add another entry to my slowly growing résumé of Alcoholic Things I Have Had In My Mouth: two expensive Bordeaux (is Bordeaux its own plural?) imported directly from France by my world-traveling guests. And now I, the alcohol novice with a palate so unrefined it can’t distinguish Coke from Pepsi, can confidently identify a dry red wine with a couple sips. Even though I ended up serving Bordeaux with chicken. And I forgot the chopped peppers. And my candles made a mess.

Sigh. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a dinner party invitation at Chez Jake, you should probably just resign yourself to a meal of Mickey Mouse waffles served with red bamboo salad tongs. It's just safer that way.

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