photo by Carla de Souza Campos
Last night I had a nightmare that I was at the Cornelia Street Café to do a reading from my novel. In the nightmare, I stood at the microphone on the small stage in front of a packed house. I had just been introduced to the audience, and in the wane of the applause I was horrified to discover I had forgotten to bring my book. In a panic, I rummaged through my handbag in front of everyone. No book. In fact, my bag was virtually empty. How could I leave my house with an empty handbag? Terror mounted as the patrons settled into an attentive quiet. All eyes were on me. Sweat began to spew from my every pore. The reading was to last twenty minutes; what was I to do? I took one last futile look into my handbag and found a single sheet of paper. A printout of a recipe from my computer. Balsamic Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Butternut Squash and Chicken Thighs. Rachael Ray's. I brought it with me to shop for the ingredients. Little good that would do without a wallet.
I gawked at the audience. Someone cleared their throat and a few others coughed. Apart from my heart banging against my rib cage and my perspiration surging like a jet stream, the room was still. It was time for me to say something. After a gulp of water (to replace the lost fluids), I began.
"Set your oven to 450 degrees. The following will yield four servings." My voice cracked as I read the list of ingredients and the measurements, starting with the Brussel sprouts and the squash, then the chicken thighs and the shallots -- while my own thighs quivered.
I told them that when I prepared this meal for the first time a few weeks ago, an aroma -- so intoxicating -- seeped from the oven, filling the kitchen. It teased people out from every nook and cranny of my house. People I didn't even know were in my house. At the high temperature, the shallots became sticky and sweet and this transformation tricked my taste buds into thinking they were a forbidden confection. Someone muttered from the left side of the room, and I briefly looked up from the recipe before continuing. Had she noticed I wasn't reading from my book?
I pressed on, keeping my head buried in the flimsy piece of paper. I had 15 minutes to go. The rind of thinly sliced lemon coins, after roasting in rendered chicken fat, will crunch in your mouth, while their flesh will all but disappear into a tantalizing goo that clings to the thighs, I told them. An audible "Yum..." came from the right side.
I listed the seasonings with which to coat the chicken and suggested they tweak the amount of red pepper flakes and perhaps consider omitting the nutmeg. My favorite part of this recipe, I asserted, was that it all cooked in one rimmed baking sheet, all the flavors co-mingling. No pots. No pans. "Wow!" Someone called out. So I repeated, with emphasis, "No pots." Others cheered.
I detected a crackle of energy in the café. I tried to ride it. I recommended using parchment paper to line the baking sheet, and if they had enough to fold up the sides they might not have to clean the pan at all. A crescendo of whispers surged toward me.
It was time for my closing, so I confided in them. "My family doesn't really like butternut squash, so I replaced it with a combination of cubed Yukon gold and sweet potatoes." That did it - -they were finally with me; I felt it. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admitted to the crowd the real star of the night: "The fennel seed." I looked at these people, my audience, square in the eye for the first time. Who could deny the effect of the fennel seeds' dark, yet bright, notes, somehow also fragrant and warm and an amazing companion to the sweet potatoes and balsamic tinged Brussel sprouts? Some guy in the way back yelled, "More!" But sadly, there was no more. The preparation for the Balsamic Roasted Brussel Sprouts with Butternut Squash and Chicken Thighs was over. So was my reading. I thanked the crowd. A buzz engulfed the room as the waitress zigzagged through the people and tucked a wad of bills into my palm, a cut of her tips. "I never had so many food orders, thanks," she said.
When I woke from the nightmare, I laughed at myself. In the dream, I was petrified. Shaken. But awake, reflecting on it, it seemed so silly. In retrospect, I was grateful to have had this nightmare after my actual reading at the Cornelia Street Café last week, and that I had remembered to bring my book to the real reading. Lucky for me, the nightmare reading was a dream, and the dream reading was a reality.