*Note: Some names have been changed to protect the innocent…and the inebriated.*
About five years ago, my husband’s aunt gifted us a four-course cooking class for the holidays. We fancy ourselves amateur chefs (we even host fantasy drafts when new seasons of Top Chef air on Bravo), so we were especially excited that his aunt had found a cooking school that wasn’t already on our radars. Duncan and I registered for a Thai-themed class and eagerly anticipated our spicy night out.
When we plugged the address of the cooking school into our GPS on the evening of class, we realized we were heading in the opposite direction of the city. We drove through sleepy, suburban neighborhoods and eventually found ourselves parked in front of a single-family home. There were no signs for a cooking school anywhere and the lights in the house appeared to be off, so we reluctantly got out of the car and rang the doorbell. A husband and wife in their late 40s/early 50s answered the door and confirmed that they were expecting us. As they gave us a tour of their home, we realized we were their only guests. “Is this a private class?” I asked squeakily, trying too hard to sound casual. The hosts assured us that a family of six had registered for the class, adding that one of them was celebrating their 60th birthday. Duncan and I teased that we hoped they wouldn’t mind a couple of kids crashing their party as we headed to the kitchen. The house lent itself to entertaining large groups with a high-end, commercial grade gas range and a beautiful wooden farm table that could seat an entire baseball team. The hosts regaled us with stories about dinner parties they had thrown as we admired their impressive record collection and swanky display case of Swarovski crystal decanters. We grabbed aprons and got settled, waiting for the other family to arrive.
Duncan and I had eaten a light lunch and we were prepared to take down a multi-course meal from the moment we stepped through the front door. Twenty minutes after the scheduled start time of class, there was still no sign of the family of six. Duncan and I made polite conversation with our hosts to drown out the dull murmur of our gurgling bellies. The doorbell eventually rang, and a young woman appeared. She leaned across the kitchen island to help herself to a bowl of prawn crackers, and the sickly sweet waft of yeast on her breath reminded me of sticky shoeprints in a frat house the morning after a kegger. She whispered in my ear that her family had been bar hopping since 11am to celebrate her mother-in-law’s 60th birthday. Now it was almost 8pm. The rest of the family began trickling into the kitchen with glassy-eyes and rosy cheeks. Grace, the birthday girl, tottered behind them like a fawn on roller skates. Duncan and I were amused, but we were uneasy at the prospect of these folks handling sharp knives or cooking over an open flame. Mostly though, we were just hungry.
After Grace’s family poured another round of drinks for themselves, it was time to begin cooking. The hosts were admirably patient as Grace drunkenly interrupted their instructions, failed to execute the simplest tasks, and splattered bright green curry sauce on their fancy equipment with each theatrical gesticulation of her wooden spatula. Though Duncan and I initially got a kick out of Grace repeatedly mispronouncing ingredients like “galangal” as “gooleyglob”, we were bummed that the hosts had to gloss over some cooking demos in the interest of time, and it felt like we were at a special taping of Nickelodeon’s Geriatric Teen Choice Awards with Grace covering everyone in slime.
Dinner was finally served, and Duncan and I salivated in front of our plates while we waited for Grace’s gang to refresh their drinks and find seats. Grace clumsily shuffled into the dining room, concentrating so intensely on balancing a bowl of curry and a glass of wine that she failed to notice a small lip in the doorframe. We witnessed—almost in slow motion—as Grace launched head-first into a crystal champagne bucket, which toppled into the shelf of decanters and glassware. We leapt to our feet in a panic as a burgundy liquid and shards of glass pooled around her body like chalk at a crime scene. We assessed the damage and realized that much of the liquid was (fortunately) just red wine, but Grace had sliced her wrist pretty badly on a shard of glass. Grace’s daughter reassured us that she was a nurse and went to her car to grab a first aid kit. The rest of the family dragged Grace to the bathroom to dress the wound. Duncan and I awkwardly cleaned up the mess in the dining room, using the bottoms of our shoes to smear decorative hand towels through the bodily fluids of a woman we had met only an hour earlier. After the floor was free of biohazards, Duncan and I returned to the table with the rest of the family. The tension was palpable. The curry was congealing. The vibes were in shambles. Finally, Duncan mumbled, “So…can we eat…?” We collectively agreed that it was appropriate to eat; partly because we were starving, partly because Grace’s family needed to sober up, and partly because everyone was ready to wrap up the evening as soon as possible.
Note: This next paragraph is not a critical plot point to the story, but Duncan and I still reference this conversation and he seemed disappointed that I was not planning to mention it.
In an effort to make small talk during dinner, Grace’s daughter-in-law announced to the table, “Did you know that restaurants serve salad as the first course because the leaves coat your stomach and expand to make you hungrier?” I’ll admit, my tolerance to indulge her drunken pontifications had diminished by this hour of the evening. I flatly replied, “Salad is eaten first because vegetables are high in water and fiber content, which satiates hunger and reduces the likelihood of overeating a calorically dense main course.” The daughter-in-law shook her head. “No, because the leaves are so thin that they don’t fill you up; they just coat the lining of your stomach and expand so you can eat more.” Regrettably, I engaged further by replying, “But your food has already been chewed and digested by the time it reaches your stomach.” The daughter-in-law narrowed her eyes and waved her knife at me to retort, “See, you would be right…but the leaves.” I simply couldn’t argue with that impenetrable logic. The corners of her lips, chapped and swollen from the Thai bird chilies, curled into to a smug little grin; she was positively delighted with herself for having made such a compelling closing argument. To this day, when my husband and I want to de-escalate a disagreement in real time, we drop a “You would be right, but the leaves” as a lighthearted way to signal that we’re feeling flooded and need space from the conversation to collect our thoughts.
But back to Grace. Her nurse-daughter cleaned her up, cut her off, and made it back to the table in time for dessert. As we cleared our plates from the table, the hosts asked to take a group photo for their social media page. We huddled around the kitchen counter and Duncan grabbed my butt as we said “Cheese!” I gave him a playful shove, and he gave me a strange look. Thinking he was doing a bit, I rolled my eyes and said, “That must have been someone else’s hand on my butt, then.” He asked what I was talking about. Realizing he wasn’t in on the joke, I asked the host to see the photo he had taken. Sure enough, Grace was standing awkwardly behind me with one hand on my ass, most likely steadying herself from toppling over.
Grace’s family headed out first as Duncan and I gathered our coats. I waited for Dax Shepherd to round the corner with a camera crew to tell us we’d been punk’d, but life doesn’t always pan out the way it does on television. (Though sometimes it’s as entertaining.) As we stood in the kitchen processing the damage that had been done, one of the hosts told us, “Believe it or not, this isn’t the craziest thing that’s happened at one of our cooking classes.” We looked at him incredulously. “Yup,” he continued casually, rattling off a string of bizarre non-sequiturs without context. “A fight broke out…there was a law suit…ten thousand dollars later…unfortunately, a man lost his life.” He then gestured to a dark staircase and said, “Anyway, you like beer? Let me give you a tour of the cellar.” I’ve seen enough horror films to know better than to accept that invitation, and I was ready to make like Jordan Peele and Get Out. Duncan read my facial expression, replying that it was getting late and that we had better get going. We scuttled to our car and peeled out of the driveway, giddy with the electric buzz of relief that we’d made it through the evening unscathed.
When Duncan’s aunt asked if we enjoyed the cooking class, we didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth at first. But in time, we’ve come to realize that gaining a story with the power to make us laugh five years later is a gift that’s sweeter than any dish we’ve prepared.