Saturday, May 30, 2009

The potluck group.

Last month J. invited me to a potluck dinner at her house, one of the rare ones I have attended instead of my parents. I was late - my car was trying to convince me it had a flat tire, which it did not - and all evening the guests (all in their sixties or older) talked about grandchildren and teeth, and how in their day, once you emigrated to the West, ten, twenty, thirty years would pass before you went home again. Not like my generation, who fly back and forth across the Pacific ocean for every vacation. But when they asked me to join the next party, I agreed. The food is always good, and the conversation is always entertaining, even when they start talking about teeth. I volunteered to make dessert, and then forgot about it until the morning of the dinner when I woke in a panic. (More on that later).

I make a ridiculously easy chocolate-hazelnut cake, then pace around my apartment trying to decide if I could just bring the cake, or if it needed something else. A drift of whipped cream, barely sweetened. Should I buy some fruit, bring some chocolate-covered honey pecans? Then I remember, there is a pint of salted caramel ice cream in the freezer. This is an older crowd, uninterested in sweets, conscious of their dessert intake. It would be enough. I slide my cake on a gold-foil-covered cardboard round, dust it with cocoa powder, carefully place it in a pink paperboard box. It looks impressively professional, so much so no one believes I made it myself. I find a ball of twine in a drawer, tie up my box for easy carrying, and head downtown to A.'s home. People stare. I worry that someone will mug me for the cake.

A. is, as usual, bustling around when I arrive. There are peonies on the table, along with plates and cutlery. Pots are in the oven, on the stove, wine is waiting to be opened. This is, in theory, a potluck, but A. has contributed four dishes, instead of the usual one or two. (I am a "kid," so I can get away with just one. Husbands without their wives are also allowed to bring just one). I show off my beautiful cake ("I don't believe you made that yourself!") and revel in the fact that a dusting of cocoa powder or powdered sugar makes anything instantly more professional-looking. As does a gold cardboard round and a pink paperboard box. (I should have placed a doily under the cake, but you can't remember everything).

Other guests trickle in, and we get ready to eat, transferring dishes from boxes and pots and bowls into narrow, rectangular platters that fit better on the buffet table. There is so much food I can't even sample everything on my first try, so I take several tastes of things and sit down to try them all before heading back for more. There is beef curry made with Malaysian curry powder, more intense than what I am used to, not sweet like Japanese curry. A dish of fine-cut tofu noodles, slivered ham, vegetables, cool and refreshing, like a Chinese macaroni salad. There is another cool salad of translucent wide noodles tossed with more vegetables, strands of omelet, bound together with a slightly spicy dressing fragrant with sesame paste. There is smoked salmon, and homemade pita bread, rolls of tofu skin filled with ground pork, braised with Napa cabbage. I come back for the hard-boiled eggs cooked with caramelized shallots and soy sauce and finely minced pork belly, a touch of five-spice powder, and am so seduced by the savory gravy of pork belly and shallots, I go back for thirds (as if I haven't eaten enough fatty pork this week).

We eat and eat, getting up for seconds, thirds, fourths. The conversation flows back and forth, three or four conversations at a table of twelve, my mind confused by multiple threads, two languages. Y. tells a story about J., when she worried over whether or not to marry her (second) younger husband. He doesn't even have any gray hair yet! she lamented. Don't worry, riposted Y., if he marries you, he WILL. (Twenty-odd years on, he does). Then it is time for dessert. There is a Chinese dessert of cubed almond-flavored jelly with canned fruit, the fruit juices forming a slightly sweet soup, instantly cooling and maddeningly addictive. And there is my dense hazelnut-and-chocolate cake, with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream melting on top. It is dark and intensely chocolatey, a perfect foil for the darkly caramelized ice cream I made a few weeks ago.

After dessert, several of the guests get up and start dancing, at one point pushing the table back to make more room. It was a sight I never thought I'd see, my mother's sixty-plus friends twirling around, hips swiveling, arms swinging, doing their interpretation of the Electric Slide.

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