Since I started taking an interest in cooking, I have been the recipient of many a recipe. Along with these conversations are sometimes included valuable tips on other aspects of cooking: which pots to use, what sort of stove is best, how to preserve cooked foods, ingredients and how to serve one’s guests.
Last night I entered a new territory in the world of the cook – the meals that are less than stellar. It was a gathering of women, and there was no shortage of culinary disaster stories to share and laugh about, though at the time they occurred I am certain they were not so amusing.
Hilarious stories, all of them, but one stands out, and it happened right here in Watson Lake many, many years ago.
Cee told me the tale; most of the cast of characters are no longer in the community, having moved away or died. Cee herself was not in attendance at this most memorable of dinner parties, but she knew someone who was there, hence her being in possession of the story.
In the earlier times of Watson Lake, in this case about 30 years ago, alcohol featured largely in most gatherings, sometimes happily, sometimes tragically, and mostly funnily. This is one of the latter times.
A young woman had moved to town from ‘the bush’ where she’d been living in a cabin and learning to survive on the land. Hunting, trapping, fishing, building with logs, cutting firewood and hauling water – all these activities had been part of her learning curve.
Cooking, however, was not. Cooking for her had consisted of heating things in tins on top of the woodstove, or frying fresh-caught fish in a skillet on an open fire. She could fry eggs and moose steaks; she knew how to make a bannock in the skillet – there was no real need to know more, and there was no interest in doing so.
Then she met a man, and among his many and sterling qualities was the ability to cook. The ability to cook, not the talent or the passion for cooking: he was willing to do it, but he didn’t really enjoy it.
She moved to Watson Lake, to town, in order to live with her man, who had a business there.
Living in a town meant socializing, especially if you were a couple who enjoyed getting together with friends. She and her fellow were often invited out for dinner and such invitations demanded a return, thus putting the young woman in the novel position of being a hostess.
The returns, however, didn’t involve dinner, only cocktails, with maybe at some point some chips and dip being brought out. Any food-related entertaining was done in a restaurant.
One evening she found herself with a house full of visitors who had been availing themselves of cocktails for several hours and were clamouring for sustenance of a more durable nature than the traditional snack foods.
It was too late to go to a restaurant, so our intrepid (and inebriated) hostess searched through the fridge to see what could be assembled in the way of a meal.
As it happened, there was a large amount of ground beef in a bowl which her partner, the sometimes cook, had defrosted that morning with the intention of meat loaf. Applying to him for assistance, he chose instead to give her instructions; he was busy getting ready to go ice fishing with some friends the next day and was assembling all the needed paraphernalia for the trip. He was unrealistically optimistic about her chances of success with his recipe, succeeding in making her believe she could indeed feed their guests.
Bravely, she began to create a meat loaf, having set someone else the task of peeling and boiling potatoes and assigning another willing, and hungry, body to assemble a salad.
There was a spice rack on the wall over the stove. Each of the little glass jars contained a dark something; nothing was labelled. The rack had come from her cabin in the bush and her partner had hung it up on the wall as one of the gestures one makes in welcoming someone, and their stuff, into the new living arrangement referred to as “shacking up.”
Feeling competent and creative, she put a few teaspoons from each jar into the meatloaf mixture, combining the meat with dried onions, eggs, salt, and oatmeal, just as instructed.
The whole thing was lightly packed into a loaf pan and set to roast in the oven while the rest of the impromptu meal was made and the table set.
When the timer rang, the crowd eagerly took their places; wine was poured, and dinner was served. The hostess, in some anxiety as to whether or not there would be enough for everyone, did not partake of the main dish, contenting herself with salad and wine while basking in, and believing, the fulsome praise of starving drunk people eating for the first time in eight hours.
Less than an hour later, some people began to complain of cramping in their stomachs. Their whining was dismissed as being the result of too much alcohol or possibly, some suggested, not enough.
The house had one bathroom, and soon it was being steadily occupied.
Before long, some folks were actually braving inclement winter weather and icy, snow-humped stairs, to go outdoors to relieve themselves.
The evening sounds of revelry dimmed, to be supplanted by the steady sound of the toilet flushing and the intermittent thud, thud, thud of people falling down the stairs outside the back door.
The pristine aspect of the yard was taking on a vulgar appearance, with dark splashes decorating the snow in a manner reminiscent of a Jackson Pollack painting, only with more substance.
Clearly, something had gone horribly wrong, and the likelihood was strongest that it was the meat loaf.
The hostess’ partner, concerned, was finally led to examine the contents of the spice rack. It was found to be gunpowder; she remembered, then, getting it from some old fellow who was going to throw it out. What she couldn’t remember was why she wanted it, but she did recall storing it in those handy little glass jars in the spice rack.
By now seriously alarmed, and sadly sober, she could think of nothing to do but phone the local doctor, a crusty old fellow who would not welcome this 3 a.m. phone call.
She described the meat loaf as it began; she described the meat loaf as it was now.
“What is going to happen?” she moaned. “Have I killed everyone?”
Although clearly wanting to distress her further, the doctor was forced to give her his diagnosis:
“No, but you have wormed them.”
I have been feeling immeasurably better about my own dinner parties since hearing this tale.
Heather Bennett is a writer
who lives in Watson Lake.