Jill and I invited three other couples out to the ranch to test Jill’s Valentine’s Day Dinner. It wasn’t intended to be the kind of Valentine’s Day party with paper mache hearts and cupids hanging from the ceiling. There were no bowls of sugary candy bearing innocent, semi-secret messages: Be Mine, Kiss Me, Miss You, Crazy 4 U. These were six people that we had known for decades - parents of grown children - grandparents. These were old friends that we seldom got a chance to spend time with because, like almost everyone, we are all too busy.
As we talked over minimal hors d’oeuvres, we compared the pace of our lives to the pace of our parent’s lives in the 1950s and 60s. They were busy people too. I actually knew the parents of several of these gathered friends and they were much like my parents who were owner/operators of a small construction company and a dress shop. When I think of my mom and dad, what comes clearest to mind is my mother cooking breakfast in the predawn darkness before she was out the door for work. I remember my father coming home day after day in the summer with his work shirt soaked through with sweat. But somehow, there was time for silliness, to play bridge, watch football games together, and eat together almost every night. That was the main objective of our Valentine’s Day Dinner - reconnect, breath deep, slow down, and rediscover the magic that makes life so worthwhile.
On the Northern Great Plains the winter days get very short and very cold. Though the skies are nearly always clear, a solstice haze can lay so thick that joy seems to go into hibernation along with the prairie dogs. It sometimes takes priests and priestesses concerned with the natural magic of food and love to dig deep enough to resurrect it. We had a full cast of priests and priestesses that night: Wizards of design, conjurers of visual art, food alchemist, disciples of Herodotus, and dabblers in the written word. As we sat two by two around the table the moon rose full and huge on the horizon beyond the window. It occurred to me that none of us worked solo as our blue collar parents did. For all the lack of connection in our modern lives, each couple had found themselves working together. One couple owned a powerful advertising firm, another had dedicated their lives to the same weekly newspaper, another teamed up to write corporate histories. It was not completely clear what Jill and I were doing, but we were doing it together and so we knew how difficult that kind of work can be.
It is understood that the richest vein of human happiness is the one that connects family and friends, and that vein is often revealed deep in a chaffing dish or at the bottom of a glass. Valentine’s Day was an excuse, but it was a good excuse because these were couples with a flair for the romantic, if slightly beyond the flush of young love. We were all too old to fake innocence. We knew the first wives, husbands, and kids that were still struggling. We recalled the rehabs, the failures, and the successes. But we pushed ahead, toasting the awards and achievements with Prosecco. These were four couples who, if slightly world weary, were warriors of life and filled with enough wisdom to sit close and freely tell stories that might embarrass more delicate egos.
Jill started us off with a hot cauliflower soup that put a temporary halt to the talk of our roll in the transition between the industrial age and the information age. There had been a small flourish of smart-phoning which yielded only the definition of potash, which we forgot as soon as we tasted the cauliflower soup. The spoons hung in thin air as the brains connected to the taste buds. Someone raised a finger and said, “Lemon?” There was a beat before heads began to nod. Everyone moved closer to their spouse.
Then came the mussels steamed in tomato fennel sauce with buffalo chorizo. There was a bottle of Russian River Pinot Noir and the conversation swung to politics. But not the generic national fair that can put a party to sleep. This was state and local stuff discussed by people who had run the campaigns and written the news stories. I saw candles reflect from eyes and some gentle, familiar touches. Glasses were raised but some were filled with non-alcoholic beer.
The couples continued to move closer to each other in a tightly choreographed Valentine’s Day dance that Jill had explained to me earlier in the day. All the dishes were shared between the couples and the main dish was a single one pound, bone-in, buffalo ribeye on fettuccine with green garlic butter and shaved asparagus. It was served to each couple on a wooden cutting board placed between them with a single knife and fork. Soon the couple’s arms and faces were intertwined and the dark, red meat was going into the two mouths as if they were suddenly one very happy, carnivorous beast.
Something about that scene was enough to elicit a story from one of the couples. An ancient birthday party and a buxom guest is dancing in front of the birthday-boy. The wife is telling the story and she does not bother to explain how that came to be. She only explains that the woman knelt in front of her husband and instructed him to ‘seek his gift between the twin peaks’.
“So,” the husband said with a shrug. “I just reached down in there.”
The wife exploded in laughter, clapped him on the back, and said, “he pulled out a baby chicken! A little, black, live chicken!”
The rest of us although dumbfounded, exploded in laughter, until someone asked how a baby chicken had gotten into the woman’s cleavage.
There was silence and I looked around the table at the wreckage of the Valentine’s Day ribeye. It had worked its magic. In serious amazement, another husband said, “Well, it must have started as an egg.” More laughter.
The last course was a tip of the hat to cupid. People closed their eyes and giggled as they squabbled over the single chocolate drop, melted into the top of the moist, dark cupcake.
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