By Judy Gruen
Certain critical relationships in life demand intense scrutiny before entering into them. Most people would agree, for example, that marriage partners fall into this category, as well as prospective nominees for U.S. Attorney General. But what of carpool partners? Frankly, I can think of few relationships that demand a higher level of trust and compatibility.
Over the years, I've carpooled with parents who tended to arrive for pick-ups too early or too late; partners whose mufflers tended to fall out, leading to panicked calls at 7 a.m. begging me to drive that morning and indefinitely or until the car came back from the shop, whichever came first. I've shuttled the children of carpool partners who enjoyed picking fights with my kids or stuffing Bamba, Bisli and other crumbly snacks under the seats, even though I had been clear about the "no eating" rule in the car.
But my most traumatic carpool arrangement was with a woman I'll call Shira. She seemed the ideal partner, in possession of a new and reliable car, an easy-going personality, a flexible schedule, and a polite kid. Yet I hadn’t considered the dark side to this arrangement. Shira was also a gourmet chef and cooking instructor, who once dazzled me with her demonstration on how to make a roux, whatever that is. I once tried to mimic her lesson on spinning a batch of cinnamon Danish dough in the Cuisinart until it releases effortlessly from the bowl. The results were too humiliating to discuss here. I could not foresee that I’d become obsessed with Shira's cooking acumen, and would take it out on her kid.
“Say, Baruch,” I’d pry, “Do you happen to know what your mom's making for dinner tonight?” Baruch answered like the maitre d at a five-star restaurant, “Tonight is spicy seared tuna and fusilli with sun-dried tomato pesto, asparagus and mushrooms,” as visions of leftover meatloaf danced in my head.
I figured that poor Shira must be on deadline for her next cookbook, and forced to test new, elegant recipes. I tried -- and failed -- to take pride in my humble menus, mostly culled from the Idiot Balabusta’s Guide to Making Dinner: lasagna using no-boil noodles; baked trout slathered with bottled teriyaki, and my all-time favorite: Crock-Pot chicken and rice, thrown together in ten minutes flat with a can of tomato sauce and a seasoning packet featuring a warning label that reads: “Contains enough MSG to cause brain lesions in lab mice.”
Yet I was still tormented by visions of Shira patiently curing her own olives, drying her own mushrooms, and editing the chapter titled, “Arborio Rissoto: A Primer.” I'm sure that poor, patient Baruch couldn't wait for winter break that year just to get away from me and my uncontrollable carpool interrogations. Does your mom like Kosher salt, table salt, or sea salt over grilled vegetables? I'd ask. Does your mom think skinny or fat asparagus is better? Baruch was an observant kid, and I learned a lot from him that year.
Unfortunately, I had trained Baruch too well. After I vowed to stop haranguing him, he piped up with the kitchen confidential. "Tonight we're having Caesar salad with fresh croutons, crusted lamb with mint pesto, broccoli rice puffs, and nutmeg meltaway cookies for dessert,” he told me, not that I'd asked. My hands gripped the steering wheel with white-knuckle intensity. Don't compare yourself to a woman who owns a German-made nut roaster and a granite mortar and pestle, I told myself. Just take a deep breath. Your family is well nourished, even if they've never had nutmeg meltaway cookies. Unfortunately, my brain synapses had already started to burst.
The next evening my family met an unfamiliar dish on the table.
“What’s this?” one of the kids asked. “Why aren’t we having lasagna? It is Tuesday, isn’t it?”
“Tonight we are having stuffed shells with homemade marinara, roasted peppers, green salad with freshly toasted croutons, and juice l’orange,” I said proudly. This dinner had taken me three hours to prepare, four times my average prep time. I waited for the compliments to pour in like a sommelier decanting a fine Chardonnay, but instead I spied my youngest son hurling ketchup over his shells.
My husband, a low-maintenance eater and wise man, praised the meal, but the kids were mutinous. They liked the bottled marinara better, the type that Baruch had taught me to disdain as something only fit for a dabbler. I was secretly glad that my experiment with gourmet cooking proved too shocking for my family’s stomachs. I could now cease and desist from competing with Shira, she of the spicy bison kabobs and the Amaretto mousse.
Although I made up an excuse not to carpool with Shira the following year (I told her we were moving to Baltimore), she had a good influence on me after all. No longer is MSG one of the four main food groups in our family. And I’m slowly getting the hang of whipping up that cinnamon Danish dough in the Cuisinart for the exact number of seconds (17.4) until it releases effortlessly from the bowl. One day, if I am brave enough, I will look up the meaning of the word “roux.”
Judy Gruen is the author of three award-winning books, including The Women's Daily Irony Supplement. She has no plans to ever write a cookbook, even one with the word "Crock-Pot" in the title.