My big night, and food for thought | Chuck's World

Feb 15, 2017

Lasagna isn’t a difficult dish to make, although neither is a hamburger. Your results may still vary.

I made lasagna a couple of weeks ago because it can serve a lot, and again, it’s not a complicated dish. I tend to use too much sauce, but it generally turns out OK.

I was making lasagna because I was hosting a little party, although not at my house. My house would require some straightening up before I would invite actual people inside. Even then, the bathrooms would probably be off limits, which nobody appreciates.

So I hijacked a small church and its fairly large kitchen, and there I was, my mediocre lasagna bubbling away in the oven, when a woman I know stopped by to chat. She’s an administrator for a homeless advocacy organization in the area, a group I know pretty well, and she was working out of the church office that day. She just dropped by to say hello, and to eat a peanut butter cookie. You can’t trust people around cookies.

But as she made small talk, she was also getting thoughtful. I could see it on her face, and it made me a little nervous.

“I forgot that you cook,” she said, a warning shot across my bow. My bow was pretty busy at the time trying not to burn my hands, though, so I got volunteered. They needed someone to cook for 50-75 hungry people at a local meal program. They apparently aren’t picky.

I’ve read a few lists in my time, lists of necessary skills that any modern human should have in their repertoire. These lists are, by their nature, pretty obnoxious, considering the type of personality who has enough confidence in their own wisdom to write it down and tell other people to be that way.

So I can’t make a list, although knowing how to cook surely is still important, at least if you don’t have oodles of money and definitely if you have kids. I became adequate at certain things, and as time went on I got better. I can do your basic cooking.

But I’ve never cooked for 75 people before, especially using only what ingredients are available on any given day, and that’s what I apparently volunteered to do. I’m not sure it’s a skill that everyone needs to have, but I might be persuaded.

Again, I wasn’t a neophyte shoved into a situation that involved making food. I figured I could probably whip up some hearty casseroles with a little help from the internet, although I left a kitchen behind that could give the distinct impression of having been a set on an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

It could be a funny story, I think. I spent the better part of an hour trying to open up two large cans, since this kitchen didn’t have a working can opener. That was a lot of fun. And then there was the casserole that decided to jump ship and land on the floor. Seriously, this was Lucille Ball territory.

But the subject was cooking, and while I rarely watch TV shows devoted to the culinary arts, I do have favorite films that deal with the subject.

“Big Night” is set in a restaurant and has a wonderful story, although watching Stanley Tucci carry on a conversation and simultaneously cook the most beautiful omelet I’ve ever seen leads it into the magical realism category for me.

And there are plenty of others. “Chocolat” and “Babette’s Feast” come to mind. I love to watch people cook, and mostly I love to watch them feed others. It’s a tangible joy that slides off the screen the way that omelet slid onto a plate.

And now I have another. My mom suggested I check out “Mr. Church,” which she spotted on Amazon Prime. I’d never heard of it, and there’s a reason for that. It was pretty much panned when it was released last fall, and disappeared quickly.

And I guess that makes sense. It’s a soap opera disguised as Oscar bait for Eddie Murphy, and even I, pretty notoriously sentimental, rolled my eyes a little. Murphy plays a cook who comes to feed and otherwise take care of a tiny family in 1971. It’s a mother and daughter, and mom is dying. Murphy’s employer – or whatever, it’s never quite explained – had a romantic relationship with the mother until she discovered that he was married, and then he died anyway.

Before going, he promises Murphy (whose name is Henry Church, only referred to as Mr. Church) a lifetime income if he will look after this poor woman for her final months. About six months, we learn, is all that’s expected.

The fact that this story covers 15 years tells you something. It might also tell you something that I could only watch 20 minutes at a time for a while without my eyes starting to leak a little. Notoriously sentimental.

But it might be worth your time; I don’t regret a second. Just watching Mr. Church prepare breakfast is worth the price of admission, so to speak. It’s not as good as the films I mentioned above, but then it really doesn’t pretend to be. It’s about feeding, and family, not cooking. And that’s a skill worth learning, because hungry people need food, and we all could use more family.

Magical omelets are not necessary.

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