When we moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico from upstate New York, my parents sought culture and missed their ethnically diverse group of friends. So they went looking for “their people.” They found them and made friends. Some of those people—praise be to God for the sake of my culinary-talented parents—could cook. I’m not sure if these people met as the Gourmet Group before my parents arrived in the desert or if it only came into full swing when my parents found them and scored their lucky invites. Either way, my parents joined the Gourmet Group—a group of couples who hosted each other every month at one of their homes and served a gourmet meal.
This was right up my Hindu father’s alley. He could cook some mean North Indian fare and had been learning Szechuan techniques and had almost mastered them. My Brooklyn-born, Jewish mom had studied food science in college and grad school; she could cook anything well. (And I really do mean anything; I’m not being a kiss-ass here, even if she was my Mommy.) Her best dishes were French. I remember Coq Au Vin as my favorite from growing up. But she’d learned to cook Indian food from Dad and from his relatives. Dad even admitted that his Jewish-white-girl-wife could make a better curry than he—now that’s a big deal.
The other couples that rounded out the Gourmet Group included the Muscarellas (Italian food); the Gustafsons (Swedish-origin people, I can’t remember if it was the husband only or the wife too, but they served up some nice cuisine); and the Khourys (he was Lebanese and she was Hispanic, they both could do some damage in the kitchen). There may have been some other couples, but I don’t think so. Plus, it doesn’t matter these are the ones that stand out in my memory.
When my parents hosted the Gourmet Group—always on a Saturday night—my sister and I had to clean our rooms. I’d finish and want to help my parents. This meant more cleaning. I wanted to help cook, but cleaning came first. We’d help clean my parents’ fancy silverware (wedding gifts) with silver polish and cotton balls—or stuff that looked like cotton balls, we couldn’t use anything harsh. Dad made us spray Lysol everywhere. We’d walk the whole house spraying it in every room. It’s only been recently that I realized you could spray Lysol on a surface and wipe it clean and it’d be totally disinfected. I always thought Lysol was for the air and only the air. That’s what Dad taught me.
And when it came to cleaning the mirror-paneled wall in the dining room Dad instructed us to use Windex and newspaper. Who uses newspaper to clean? Smart people (yes, he did actually tell us that—bad joke I know). Or at least that’s what Dad told us.
“Newspaper leaves no streaks,” he told us.
“But it leaves our hands all black,” we’d cry.
“So what? You wanted to help didn’t you? Then stop it. Stop complaining about some smudges on your hands and clean the mirror. And while you’re at it the windows need to be cleaned too.”
I’d like to point out that years, many years later, Dad finally admitted that cleaning with newspaper doesn’t work. “Did you know it leaves behind a grey film on the windows when you use newspaper with Windex?” he asked me when I was in my late twenties.
“Yes,” I replied. “I’m pretty sure I knew that since the first time you armed with a spray bottle and a Sunday paper in an asinine attempt to clean a glass surface.”
After I got done with all my cleaning or let’s call a spade a spade and call it further dirtying my family’s mirrors and windows, I was allowed to approach the kitchen. My job—shrimp. Specifically, de-veining the shrimp before Dad marinated it in tandoori yogurt sauce and placed it on the grill.
“What is this black stuff,” I’d ask.
“It’s their shit,” Dad would respond. That answer would create a “tsk tsk” sound from Mommy, accompanied by a correction: “it’s the shrimp’s bowel movement, you know its B.M.,” Mommy would explain.
De-veining every last shrimp didn’t make me a chef by any means. I had to stay away from the wok. I couldn’t mess up the raita or even taste the kulfi freezing in the freezer (one too many fingers in the not-yet-frozen Indian ice cream had relegated me to BM cleaner, plain and simple).
My parents allowed me to set out the black and burgundy dinner plates or even the fine China plates if Mommy decided to go super fancy. I could also sit and watch Dad draw his menus. He’d use my or my sister’s box of pastels or brand new set of markers (only to ruin them) to draw out that night’s gourmet menu. I loved his ritual. (I noted he was a good artist that would come in handy for book report covers later on in elementary and middle school.) Dad’s menus looked beautiful, each a work of art. If I’d been smarter I would have saved them all and framed some of them.
When the Gourmet Group arrived at our house for dinner, my sister and I had usually already been led by a babysitter to one of the other couples’ homes to be watched with their kids.
(If the Khoury’s hosted Gourmet Group, my sister and I would urge our parents to take us with them. We loved the Khoury’s sons Alex and Peter. They were younger than us and could easily be suckered into playing the games we wanted and let us be the “teachers” and them the “students” so we could use their cool easel blackboard in the playroom. Nights with Alex and Peter would have us laughing and dancing, some nights more than others. Alex, the daredevil, used to sneak into the Gourmet Group’s dinner and see how long he could stay without getting caught. He’d eventually be found and get sent back to us in the playroom. But one time, before the adults saw him, he decided to take a sip of whatever his dad was drinking. Imported beer. Even just a sip made that 4 or 5 year-old kid even funnier. A tipsy child old is hilarious. And whether he was in fact buzzed or only playing it up because we saw him take a swig and then alerted and egged him on, he sure looked haggard slumped in his dad’s lap at the end of the night.)
Those rare nights existed when we got to stay at our house while the Gourmet Group dined there. I’d sneak out of my room to lend more help. Dad would let me help him assemble the desserts. If Mommy didn’t have time to make kulfi, they’d serve Haagen Daz raspberry sorbet in small Asian bowls with Asian soupspoons. Dad would give me a packet of Pirouette cookies and I’d jam a rolled wafer into each scoop of the cold, maroon ice. Dad applauded my skill, would say “bravo” and then carry the bowls of dessert out to the Gourmet Group.
I’d like to think all these years later that I had a pivotal role in my parents’ Gourmet Group. I mean no one ever truly feels fed unless they get a proper dessert, right?