A few years ago, I donned an apron as I shared my tragically funny story with a wonderful crowd at Phoenix’s very cool RPela Gallery.
It’s the true tale of what happened when I decided to become the next Martha Stewart and channel my creativity into domesticity.
Click below to hear the audio or read the transcript below!
I am sharing a story of Christmas – though it’s only July – because this story will give all artists a chill. For when we muzzle our creativity, we start to focus on perfectionism and that trick never works.
Once upon a time, I was a newlywed. I had studied art, started to show my work, get published, but when I married a working artist, I decided to hang up my beret. Don’t judge me, women do this all the time.
I thought I should support him and his creativity. And that my work would be as a domestic artist – like Martha Stewart.
I wanted to pour every inch of my creative self into this new life. And nowhere would I have a chance to exhibit my newfound domestic flair more that Christmas. Ah Christmas! It had my name written all over it.
Our very first Christmas. I began by making individual handmade Christmas cards and posting them to all our friends and family.
I strung popcorn and cranberries for the tree until my fingers were bloody and raw.
We invited a group of 25 guests. I had the furniture removed and rented tables, chairs, linens, china, silver and crystal. I spent days creating individual commemorative placemats for each guest and had them laminated. I bought gifts for everybody and then decorated each recipient’s wrapping paper with images depicting why that person was important to me.
Before dinner, I‘d serve two different kinds of pate, both made from scratch, and shrimp cocktail, and you know I made that the cocktail sauce myself. I would start with a Christmas salad and finish with bread pudding covered in a whiskey sauce.
I thumbed through my newlywed collection of cookbooks looking for the perfect main course when I stumbled upon a recipe that went on for four whole pages! With no pictures! She was called cassoulet… I didn’t even know what cassoulet was but if the recipe was four pages long then it must be good. I’d make that. For 25 people.
First of all, cassoulet costs a fucking fortune. And not just because I did the math wrong and quadrupled the recipe where I really should have doubled it. I spent $700 in meat alone. Ducklings, lambs, pigs and cows all sacrificed their lives for my cassoulet. Don’t judge me, I still can’t buy meat.
The trouble began with preparation. The recipe called for me to sauté a pound of lamb bones with fresh herbs and spices. As I was quadrupling the recipe, this was a lot of lamb bones. Then the directions advised: set aside. And they never mention the lamb bones again! I flipped through the pages frantically but there’s nothing. What the hell an I supposed to do with four pounds of delicately seasoned lamb bones?
From there, the recipe just kept getting away from me. I had to borrow a large cafeteria pot from a neighbor and I stood on a chair to stir my stew. I sauteed pork cubes with duck giblets and wingtips, I rendered bacon fat and cooked my shallots and carrots. And then I added dried beans. The directions called for the whole thing to be flambéed with 2 cups vermouth, so I poured in 8. Big mistake. Boom! I cleaned beans off the ceiling for a whole year.
On Christmas Day, the mood was festive. People were loving their gifts, the hors d‘oerves were a hit, everything twinkled just the way I had imagined it. And it felt like I had created something.
When it was time to sit down to dinner, my 25 guests asked if they could serve themselves? Oh no! I‘ll serve you, I said.
When I finally sat down at the head of that long table and picked up my fork, all eyes turned to me. I had poured every ounce of creative juice into this meal. This was my night! I took a bite of cassoulet and immediately scraped it off my tongue! It’s awful! A cheer of relief spread throughout the room. Yes, my guests agreed, it is awful. Really awful. It tasted of something that smells bad. And it smelled bad. I’d kept the cassoulet outside overnight because the pan couldn’t fit in my fridge, so apparently, the vermouth had fermented the beans.
The next day, I took piece de resistance to a soup kitchen but they turned it away in disdain. That hurt.
Our second Christmas, I decorated the house by tying antique ornaments to pieces of string which I then taped all over the ceiling. The house looked magical as candles twinkled sending the warm light throughout the room. I had sent out my handmade Christmas cards, created the individual commemorative placemats and had them laminated. Made wrapping paper for everybody’s gift that reflected my true feelings about them.
I made my pates, my cocktail sauce, the Christmas salad, the bread pudding with the whiskey sauce. But this year the main course would be French onion soup!
I happen to make killer French onion soup. I flambé the onions and serve it with gobs of melted cheese.
After clearing everybody’s salad plates, I began preparing the soup bowls. It smelled delicious. But it was as I was ladling the soup that I first realized my mistake. How the hell was I going to melt 25 bowls of cheese in that tiny oven?
I could hear giggles next door, “Everything alright in there?” Everything’s fine! But it wasn’t fine.
I ran in the bathroom and grabbed my blow-dryer. I set it on high and shot its full force upon the bowls of soup. Two pounds of delicately shredded gruyere and smoked mozzarella flew up into the air and then landed – all over me. I was covered in cheese.
Everything’s fine! I shook the cheese out of my hair and back into my guest’s bowls.
Then I dashed out to the garage and came tearing back in dragging a large propane torch. Stand back! BOOM! A three foot flame shot across the kitchen.
I wiped the sweat away, and smiled as we ate in silence trying to pretend that my beautiful soup didn’t taste of propane. Because it did.
At that moment, the ceiling had been heated to such a degree that the tape softened and my antique ornaments began falling from the ceiling and smashing to the ground. Shards of glass everywhere. Grandma and Uncle Jon both got hit on the head and were bleeding! “Run!” My guests shouted as they dashed for cover. As a hostess, I was mortified.
But at least they didn’t have to finish the soup. Let me tell you – There’s not enough whiskey in whiskey sauce.
Our third Christmas. Placemats check! Gifts wrapped! Check! Handmade cards! Sent!
This year it’s going to be smoked salmon in a cream sauce on a bed of spinach pasta. I’d make the pasta myself, naturally.
Pasta for 25 people is a whole lot of pasta. So Christmas Day comes and I’m making the pasta, I’m making the pasta. I set it outside on the clotheslines to dry. I’m making the pasta, I’m making the pasta. I’m just putting the pasta machine away when I hear a crash in the living room and find that my dog Dotty the dalmation has eaten the popcorn strings and toppled the Christmas tree. I send her outside.
As I struggle to put the tree back up, I see something black and white going up and down outside. And before I can shout “Bad dog!” Dotty has jumped up and eaten all of my pasta from the clothesline.
I take out my machine again. I’m making the pasta, I’m making the pasta. They’ll be here soon! Desperate for somewhere to dry my pasta now I bring the clotheslines in and string them across the kitchen, from the table to a cabinet from the table to another cabinet. And I’m making the pasta I’m making the pasta.
Then I realize that I have 25 people coming over –um -imminently and I’ve completely blocked in the kitchen with pasta! The only way to finish this dinner is to crawl on the floor on my belly. So I do. And my guests arrived to find me cutting, chopping, and baking, on the floor. Like an animal.
The following year I got divorced. I won’t say whose fault it was, it was mine.
I got a little bit lost after that. I bought a new house. It was time for a new me. But I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know what to keep and what to let go of.
A few days before Christmas and I’m laminating the placemats when two men from the city of Mesa knock on my door offering to test the homes on my street for gas leaks. OK, come on in.
“Do you ever smell anything funny in the house?” they asked.
As I think, they suddenly start screaming “Get out of the house! Get out of the house!” as they pick me up and carry me outside.
Apparently I had a rather large gas leak.
As they wound large rolls of yellow tape around my house, I pleaded with them. “Please! Can’t you wait until after Christmas? I’ve got 25 guests coming for dinner. I think they’re really going to frown on this.”
“Lady,” said the man from the city. “You and your 25 guests would have gone boom. Christmas just ain’t worth it.”
And BOOM, just like that, I knew what to let go of. Bye bye Martha.
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