Gentofte, Denmark. November 2017.
I was in the kitchen of my boyfriend’s mother Jeanette’s home, stirring a splash of vodka into caramelized tomato paste with a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass of rosé in the other. Her jolly Swedish “companion”-slash-”boyfriend” Hans turned up the volume of their radio and started humming along to the jazz trumpet flowing from it. He held his glass under the spigot of the boxed wine on the counter and refilled it.
“I think you should add more,” he frowned, looking over my shoulder.
“I’ve already added two more tablespoons than I should’ve,” I told him, stirring vigorously, “Are you sure?”
“It’s a vodka sauce! More!” he urged, handing over the bottle of vodka.
There was no sense in arguing. I poured in a couple of good glugs with abandon and adjusted the heat. The tomato paste began to loosen. Hans lifted his glass and continued humming along with the music.
Sure, it was gray and positively miserable outside but, by George, life–yes, life!– was happening on the inside. We were determined to make sure of it!
I was woken up that morning by the steady and ruthless rumbling of rain pelting the window of our guest room. The barren trees were succumbing to every whim of the winds. I’d never felt more grateful to have shelter over my head. It was while observing this dreary scene that the vision of creating a red-sauced Italian supper came to me–the kind of meal fit for a mafia boss! With pasta! And meatballs! And a crisp green salad with shaved carrots and a vinegary dressing! And a rustic loaf of country bread! After weeks of subsisting on a practically monastic diet of dark rye bread, pickled herring, and boiled potatoes, I was craving extravagance–and, well, color.
When I came downstairs, Hans had just returned from his morning walk with their two Swedish lapphund dogs at the church cemetery and brought back a bag of various Danish pastries. Jeanette was perched on her usual corner of the sofa, under a knitted wool blanket and thoroughly engrossed in a morning talk show. I told Hans of my menu ideas over a cup of Nescafé. It would be a dinner party, I said, for the four of us! He began to get excited and suggested we check out a recently opened grocery store the next town over for ingredients. Suddenly, a little afternoon adventure was on the books.
Although the house belonged to my boyfriend’s mother, his sister Pia and her own two grown children, Veronica and Marcus, also lived there, along with the daughter’s then-boyfriend and their dog. So, it was a full house. But everyone led their own lives, as though they lived on separate properties, like a small village under one roof. They rarely sat down for dinner together, so when I shopped I was shopping for four–my boyfriend, me, his mother and Hans.
I figured a package of pasta and enough ground meat for a dozen meatballs would suffice. It would adequately accommodate a round of second helpings, which was certain to happen. I picked up a small head of lettuce, tomato, red onion and carrot and placed them in our cart. Salad, after all, was really just a gesture towards having vegetables on the table, as it was not a common occurrence on their dinner table. Meanwhile, Hans went to the bakery section and chose a nice boule with a crackly golden-brown crust.
Once we got back home, the cooking commenced. Hans did all the chopping as I prepared the pasta sauce and meatballs. He told me that he once owned a small French restaurant in Sweden when he was young and showed off his knife skills on an onion. It fell open, magnificently diced. When the clock struck four, he mischievously poured wine for us. “For some reason, the food always turns out better when chef drinks while cooking,” he chuckled. “Are you sure it’s not only when the guests are plastered?” I laughed.
As the meal was starting to come together, we opened the glass china cabinet and pulled out the special serveware that Jeannette normally reserved for the holidays. As I set the table, I thought about how life can easily become an endless stream of monotony if you’re not vigilantly present. Sometimes we get so accustomed to how things are that we end up going through the motions instead of really living. My thoughts were interrupted when my boyfriend popped his head in to say: “Since you guys are preparing such a feast, I hope you don’t mind if I invited the others to join us.”
Hans and I looked at each other, sending all sorts of signals to each other with our eyes. There was too much to process in that moment. Who was rightfully entitled to extend invitations? We looked at the food we’d spent all afternoon preparing and, instead of a feast, it appeared to be a piddly arrangement of provisions.
“I don’t like this,” he sighed, “It’s quite rude.”
“Yes,” I concurred, “On so many levels.”
After a moment, I said, “It’s not that I don’t want them to join us. I just like to be prepared.”
“Exactly,” he said, shaking his head, “I always like to make sure there is enough food for everyone.”
It was time to re-assess and reset our attitudes. I knew that my boyfriend’s sister Pia was on a vegetarian diet at the moment, so she wasn’t going to have any meatballs. But would a bit of pasta and salad be enough?
Hans held up the remainder of the carrot and asked, “Shall I put this on her plate?”
We both laughed and harmony was restored. Hans reset the table and I began plating the food. Pia and her daughter ended up joining us for dinner. Not only was there plenty of food but there were even leftovers. Somehow the meal seemed to multiply as we were eating it. Marcus came home from work later and made himself a plate, wolfing down two meatballs that were miraculously still on the table.
The saying “little is much when God is in it” never rang truer.