Friends often snicker at my choice of vocabulary. Seven years of college and seminary have peppered my language with words like, "zeitgeist," "lingua franca," "ontological," and "anamnesis."
But last night, chicken and dumplings broke my brain.
It's been a hectic season. A whirlwind of meetings with florists, out of town visitors, remodeling projects at home, visiting churches, and taste testing three million flavors of wedding cake. All good things. A lot of decisions rapid-fired. Not much down time. I neglected my tender introvert. And that's when dumplings broke my brain.
After Jazzercise, I headed home to boil the chicken I purchased yesterday, wash some dishes, put in laundry, and prepare to make a birthday cake for a co-worker. After some quiet bustling about, the house exploded with noise and activity and and concentration on my juggled tasks began to wane.
Let me explain: I love to cook when it's a deliberately chosen outlet, and I take pride in my cognac-glazed ham, homemade chocolate brownies, bleu cheese deviled eggs, and yeast rolls. Making them, eating them, serving them, it's all a delight and joy. I relish extending hospitality. And rarely do things go wrong. I cook and bake often enough that I almost always avoid beginner's mistakes, and sometimes if something does go wrong it's one item out of a large meal and makes, therefore, little difference. After asparagus-gruyere tart, chicken and dumplings are a no-brainer. Until they broke my brain.
I'd already began to struggle with the dumplings, after realizing that when I paused to get a new bag of flour from the cabinet, I forgot to finish measuring out the flour. No big deal, I added some to the batter and it began to transform into the familiar looking dough.
I'd already developed frustration that my idea to crumble bacon on top hadn't worked, since the only bacon we had was turkey bacon, and, distracted with thoughts of cake and the need to take a shower and the laundry that needed to be switched over, I had put some cooked turkey bacon in the chicken and dumplings instead of waiting to crumble it on top, and anyway, apparently turkey bacon doesn't crumble. Turkey bacon. Bah! I loathe thee.
I'd already decided to double the dumpling dough. We always run short of dumplings, it seems, everyone picks them out like their favorite color of M&M. Plopping the dough into the chicken and broth, I noticed with satisfaction and relief their quick transition as they began to steam. It would be alright.
Distracted with dishes (we don't have a dishwasher) and cleanup and preparation for cake baking, I shook off Angie's inquisitive, "what's that smell?" when she entered the kitchen. A moment later something horrid met me and I went quickly over to the stove top. The smell, whatever it was, was emanating from the nearly done chicken and dumplings. Horrified, I attempted to spoon down below the layer of floating dumplings to make certain nothing on the bottom was sticking.
Sticking like newly laid asphalt.
Sticking like tarpaper to a roof in July.
Sticking like a nice supper to the bottom of a stockpot.
A large layer of black came up from the bottom of Supper. Never had this happened before. I peered closer. The electric burner under the stockpot had an eerie glow reminiscent of Tolkein's Balrog or Dante's Inferno.
As a footnote, I should mention that one of the burners on the stove died this past summer in a loud, bright blaze of glory. It would not turn on low, but only frighteningly hot. Then, one day, it supernovaed into eternity.
Maybe it was just the blacksmith-caliber burner.
Maybe it was the combination of the burner and the extra dumplings soaking up precious broth.
Later, Angie said it's the most mad she's ever seen me. It's also the only time, in sharing the house with her and Emily and the six year old, that I've ever burned anything.
'Maybe we can salvage it,' she said hopefully. Alas, seasoned cooks know better: the entire concoction was polluted with a smell and taste that could only be described by the word "ashtray."
I was starving, and supper had gone the way of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were still dishes in the sink, the cake to be made, laundry to be done, and Everything Crashed In.
I cried. I yelled at John for not realizing how upset I was as I banged pots and pans in the kitchen. I slammed the cake in the oven. I stomped upstairs to take a shower, now smelling like both Jazzercise and scorched failure. I cried more when I got out of the shower and thought about how I miss my family and how hard it is to have some of my best friends living miles away in Connecticut and Chicago and how I've never had to try to budget so large an event as a wedding and how my chicken and dumplings had burned and Emily had come bouncing through the back door to announce she had come home solely to get dinner, not comprehending the pained look on my flour-streaked face. I came down and yelled at John a little bit more and ended up sniffling about how much I miss home and what it was and will never be again.
Dumplings broke my brain.
I fixed tea, and toast, kicked a violinist and guitar player out of the living room, and settled in to watch an episode of 'Rosemary and Thyme.' Somewhere between the toast and the British mystery sanity quietly began to creep back in. I apologized to John and drank more tea and let two British actresses soothe my spirit. He rubbed my shoulders and I finished my toast and got cereal and apologized again.
The cake turned out beautifully. I knew putting it in the oven that God knows how much we can bear and knew that for the cake not to turn out beautifully would send me to Happydale Asylum.
After 'Rosemary and Thyme,' I promptly fell asleep on the couch, hushed conversation wrapping the room in familiar comfort as friends conversed and I slumbered, finally peaceful.
But the dumplings that broke the camel's back made me second guess myself as I whipped up frosting for the birthday cake this morning. I could tell they were going to test my confidence the way a driver flinches after being in a wreck. And the dumplings that broke my brain also cornered me with a reality I'd been pushing to the side: I needed down time. Bad. I hadn't had a quiet evening in weeks.
So today, I reserved a room at a favorite local bed and breakfast that I had to stay in last December when we weren't able to move into the house yet but I'd already given my landlord notice. I am going to pack my toothbrush and turn off my cellphone and watch the Food Network or crime dramas or just turn the tv off and read or sleep or paint my toenails and I am going to let my brain, and my soul, be healed, and rest. I'm checking myself into emotional rehab for a night, small-town style. And I'm taking any leftover cake with me.
Next week friends are coming over for dinner. Maybe I'll make chicken and dumplings.