It all started with the bloody salad.
I asked Joni what she wanted to do for her 16th birthday and she informed me that she’d like a big party. Not just with her friends, but also with mine. My friends are pretty cool, I learned. I had suspected exactly that fact myself, to be honest.
When we totted up the numbers and guestimated how many people would actually attend, we figured between 45 and 50.
I’ve learned since living in Germany, that it’s always best to plan for the higher number of guests. Besides, I freak out about there not being enough to eat at every single event we host. My approach nowadays is to go with the motto ‘more is good’.
Now, cooking for 50 is not the simplest task, so we opted for a barbecue and salad. That also fitted well with Joni’s interpretation of a ‘chilled’ party.
So the perfect plan evolved:
- Guests to arrive at a time suited to them, but after 3pm
- Pavilions in the garden to protect from sun/rain
- Coffee/hot chocolate/cake in the afternoon
- Salad/BBQ in the early evening
- Karaoke in the later evening, with dried snacks and leftover cake
What could go wrong?
It started with the bloody salad.
A few days before the party, as I listed down recipes of cous cous salad and mozzarella salad, as I entertained images of luscious salad leaves and dipping cucumber in hummus, the news transmitted: E.coli had broken out in Northern Germany and we shouldn’t trust leaves or tomatoes or cucumbers.
Leaves, tomatoes and cucumbers were in every single recipe I’d listed. All those lovely recipes which could be made on the morning of the party and then just sit in the fridge, awaiting consumption.
I tore up my list and stared at a blank page. I sent out alarm calls on Facebook.
Then the news said, “Stop! Wait!”
“Perhaps it isn’t the fault of the rosy red tomato, the crunchy, crisp cucumber or the satisfying, luscious salad leaves. No. Perhaps the fault is actually that of another raw vegetable. But sorry, we’re at a loss as to which one. Perhaps you should still avoid the lettuce and the cucumber and the tomato. Because we don’t really know and people are dying.”
The panic rose in me slightly.
Should I give my guests a bunch of frozen vegetables?
Should I just pop a multi-vitamin tablet in a little schnapps glass and be done with the whole sorry situation?
For a while, I focused on potato salad. After all, the potatoes would be cooked, wouldn’t they? But to be honest, I felt very nervous. Potato salad is a traditional dish here. And I’ve only ever made it a few times. And never perfectly. Everyone, in these here parts, has an opinion on how the perfect potato salad should taste and what consistency it should have. And my husbands opinion is one of the loudest. I felt very anxious about doing it wrong. Friends encouraged me. But my husband looked a little scared at the prospect and told me, in the nicest possible way, how it’s “a lot of work” and “so difficult to get right” and that I “don’t have the correct potatoes” (I did fight back – we didn’t have any potatoes, I would have to buy the correct potatoes, naturally). But I ‘got’ his
mistrust of my cooking gentle concern. So, I opted out of the potato salad choice.
My anxiety rose as the days went by and then, two days before the party, we attended someone else’s birthday celebration.
My friend had also found herself faced with exactly the same problem and had solved it by offering watermelon and freshly picked strawberries from a local strawberry field.
Aha! I thought. Aha!
A new list started. I decided we could also barbecue vegetables like peppers, courgettes, aubergines and corn.
Now, you may have thought that, considering that I had spent my previous days philosophising about the safety of vegetables, attending parties (we also attended another party earlier that week), doing challenges from my 101 list, as well as the normal stuff like yelling around about homework and taking children to the doctors, that I would have, at this point, felt some blind panic about the state of the house (apparently I have forgotten how to do housework) and the work that I had to do to get my house in order.
But no. Instead of obsessing about the disarray my house was in, what I actually did was focus on the weather. Yes. The weather. Because at the beginning of the week we had heat and glorious sunshine, but the forecast for the end of the week looked decidedly uncertain. The idea of rain was entertained, then a few days later the proposition of a storm was offered.
Pavilions do protect against slight rain, as in, drizzle. But I can tell you, they will be blown away in a storm, offering no protection whatsoever to the windswept guest, sitting at the collapsible table underneath.
And although my living room is a nice size, with furniture and 50 guests the saying ‘sardines in a tin’ came fretfully to mind. Certainly, there would be no space for dancing to accompany the wailing harmonies on the karaoke mike. No. And I have to tell you, my feet can’t stay still when I hear a musical beat (except that lift music – then I just hold my hands over my ears and scream “Please, oh please switch it off!”). Which would therefore mean that Joni’s guests would not only have been squashed, but they would have been bruised and battered, too.
As I previously said, you may have thought I would have been cleaning the house for days on end before the ascendation of so many guests. But actually, I wasn’t. And when I wasn’t staring at blank recipe lists, swearing at Facebook or studying meteorology, I could be found planting things in the garden. I have to tell you that through the 101 challenges, I am starting to really ‘dig’ my garden. Pardon the pun.
My husband, lovely as he is, excused my behaviour. He told me, “There’s no point in cleaning anyway, they’ll,” a finger pointed towards those
pesky precious kids, “just mess it up again!”
Anyway, I thought to myself, “We’ll have all of Friday to clean and some of Saturday, too…
… Although we’ll have to put up the pavilions as well, decorate, bake cakes and go to the florist. Joni, herself, has drama rehearsals so can’t really help, and Lori’s off on a school project… But there will still be time to go strawberry picking, shopping for all of the party food and drink, make up the guest room and prepare the veg. My husband has the Friday off . All will be well…”
Looking back I wonder if I was in some dazed, exhausted state, too tired to actually be fazed by the whole thing.
Friday morning arrived and Aden, my adorable son, thoughtfully reminded me that today is the day the classes are presenting their projects. Song, dance and artwork were to be celebrated and he expected us both to be there. Proud parents. He’d given himself the role of security guard in his classroom, so that none of his playmobil figures “would be nicked!”
Of course, I had forgotten, just like I’d forgotten to collect and take the arty objects for the project to school the week before.
Damn my memory!
“Yes, we’ll come. Of course, we’ll be there.”
And we were. And the whole morning was gone. Sunk. Lost. As far as party preparations were concerned.
We ate lunch together. The four of us. The two little ones, my husband and I. And I must admit that I felt somewhat twitchy. The two older girls wouldn’t be home for hours yet and on arrival, the party girl herself would have to go into study mode as she had an exam on the Monday, plus homework to do, no doubt. My two most valuable workers were currently unavailable, but my two
demolishers little ones were 100% present and correct.
I perused my list and decided that the first job should be picking strawberries. The small ones could help and after that we could then head on to the florist with the little vases I’d bought in the One-Euro shop. I wanted the florist to prepare a simple centrepiece for each of the three collapsible tables.
I borrowed money from the children, having realised I had none left of my own and we set off with a large white bowl, but without the three small white vases.
The strawberry field looked empty, but ever the optimist, I insisted that we all leave the car and then my son spotted the notice ‘Closed until Saturday’. Apparently the strawberries needed to ripen somewhat.
My heart pounded. Another job for Saturday. OK.
Florist. Not OK. No vases.
So we drove home to my husbands unnecessarily cheery, “You were quick!” and picked up the vases.
It seems to me, that there happens to be a direct correlation between having to be somewhere with a matter of some urgency and something happening, like, for example, getting stuck behind a tractor or in this case me being unable to park my car.
I drove in and out of the space, probably thirty times, stopping for passing traffic and hanging around until ‘waiters’ finally realised I wasn’t relinquishing my space, just practising driving backwards and forwards into it.
Probably, I’m now on one of those ‘women parking’ videos on youtube.
The flowers looked lovely, but I’ll be honest and tell you they’d all withered somewhat by the next day, as, true to form, I’d forgotten to put water in the base of the vases.
My husband had started making a banoffee pie, but I still had to start my baking as I needed a small amount of one specific flour type from the supermarket. Had I been more organised, I could have actually baked the dough a few days in advance, as advised in the recipe.
My husband took a cooking break and we headed off to the supermarket, with a comprehensive list and two tearaways. Then the battle really commenced as we propelled our way around the aisles with not one but two trolleys.
Every two minutes the battle cry could be heard, “No, you’re not having that, we’re buying for the party!!!”
We strove towards enemy lines (in the form of the checkout) and at around that point my mobile rang.
My sweet sixteen year old, was not her usual calm, chilled self, rather she would be better described as near hysterical.
Her younger sister Lori, had called home and decided that she did not want to take two buses to go home, and thought it a great idea to walk. Alone. Through the forest. At 6.30pm.
I told Joni to call her straight back. It turned out she’d forgotten her mobile and used a teacher’s. The teacher, on hearing the news, of course, panicked too, and asked Joni to contact her as soon as Lori had been located.
Meanwhile, I abandoned my husband and the shopping and raced out of the supermarket, which is in fact about 200m from the school.
The little one, who is apparently suffering from some sort of abandonment disorder presently, decreed that her presence would also be required in looking for her elder sister. I
raced hobbled to the school, with a four-year-old draped around my leg and of course, missed the unafraid one.
The following few minutes went something like this:
I said “bugger” and “shit” quite a few times and dragged a four-year-old through the various streets around the school. I approached more inhibited children and asked them if they knew/had seen/had any knowledge of the whereabouts of my child. I lost a kilo with the attempted running, weightlifting and the cardio workout the panic initiated. People looked at me like I was rather odd.
Realising I had no chance of catching her up, what with a now crabbit small person glued to me, and my minor detour around the school grounds, I stumbled towards the car, where the family united in throwing all newly purchased goods into the boot at high speed.
We also united in forgetting that we had intended to visit the other neighbouring supermarket, as not all of the items on my comprehensive list had been available.
We finally found the brave one obliviously wandering along the path leading home, having walked through the forest completely alone.
She was unfazed. I ranted somewhat. She suddenly decided she would not do it again.
We pulled up at the house and I remembered: the rest of the shopping…
I decided, what with all the drama, I’d leave it to Saturday.
The man of the house finished his pie, then promptly nodded off, so I sent him off to bed and finally started on my intricate little cakes. It was 8pm.
I read the recipe. And reread it again, but I could not find the instructions on how to make the dough. I found this a little strange because the measurements were so exact: 227g of flour, for instance. Why would there be no instructions on how to make the dough on such a precise recipe? After the sixth read-through, I abandoned all hope and just threw all of the ingredients into a bowl and attempted to mix. When this approach didn’t work out so well, I got dirty and used my hands.
The consistency however, was still not right so I thought, “What the hell!” and piled in the odd tablespoon of flour. Or two.
Still too difficult to work with, I decided to chill it in the fridge. Finally cold and a bit more stable, I popped little balls of dough into a form, then pressed them out to make the correct shape.
The recipe dictated, I should leave them in the freezer for around ten minutes, to help them keep their shape and stop them rising so much. Joni needed to make space, so she took several food items out of the freezer and we replaced them with the baking trays. “Not to worry!” I informed her, “We’ll pop them right back in shortly.”
I shouldn’t say, “Don’t worry!” It’s like I’m setting myself up for a fall. Because, hours later, I noticed that the
silly helpful girl had not replaced a tub of ice cream (I couldn’t even polish off the slushy remains because I’d found myself in the impossible situation of having to test mountains of dough).
The more I tasted, the more I thought, that the pastries just didn’t taste right, so I picked up the recipe and glanced through it again.
And there, plain as the nose on my face, were full and clear instructions on how to make the dough.
So I rammed the little crumbly things into a Tupperware, cleaned the baking trays and started the whole process. All. Over. A-gain.
- Weighed out each ingredient precisely
- Drank an espresso
- Mixed the dough as per the recipe
- Opened a bottle of coke
- Glugged down some of the coke
- Made little balls and pushed them into shape in the form
- Thought about vodka
- Took several expensive products out of the freezer
- Popped the trays into the freezer
- Staggered around in the vicinity of the espresso machine
- Popped the trays into the oven
- Listened for the beep with intermittent slurps and burps
- Pricked the little doughs and cooked them for a final time
- Answered the telephone to an uncontacted, frantic teacher
- Calmed the teacher and apologised
- Thought of vodka again
- Took the trays out of the oven and left them to cool, so the pastries would stay intact
- Sat on the sofa for a little rest
- Slept for two hours on the sofa
- Carefully took the little pastries out of the forms
- Tested the little pastries
- ‘Accidentally’ broke some of the little pastries, so was forced to eat them to hide the evidence
- Started cleaning the kitchen where I discovered defrosted, inedible, expensive products
- A lot
- Disposed of defrosted, inedible, expensive products
I headed to bed and instructed the alarm clock, then showing 3.10am to wake me at 8am.
I lay there thinking of strawberry fields and shopping and pavilions and how to get away with minimal cleaning.
A voice penetrated my dreams, “Mum, mum, it’s Joni! She feels sick.”
I couldn’t find my legs, let alone move them so I slapped at my husband and said, “Joni feels sick.”
He staggered, a person drunk on sleep, to her room and checked her over and handed her a bowl. Then thudded back into bed. It was 4.15am.
At 4.30 the voice intruded again. “She’s being sick.”
Still, my legs evaded me and I sent the man again.
Slowly, a guilty feeling flowed over me, forcing me awake and I rose and lumbered into the bedroom.
The poor child wretched and filled the bowl. My husband sent me back to bed.
But I couldn’t sleep. I thought of party guests and cake and strawberry fields. Putting up pavilions, and shopping or not?
And I thought of E.coli and sickness and bloody diarrhoea.
And I tossed and I turned and then the clock beeped 8am.
By midday, most of the guests had been contacted and informed about the cancellation. We had problems getting in touch with one as she’d moved house, but we got her eventually. An hour before the party should have started.
Joni did not have E.coli. In fact, the very next morning, after a plate of scrambled egg and a piece of toast, she made a complete and full recovery.
I, eventually, celebrated the fact that I hadn’t picked enough strawberries for 50 people, had made space in the freezer for the barbecue meat, could freeze the little cakes in preparation for the next party and had avoided the housework, once again.