"On impulse," Cousin Henry bursts in, "I've invited the quartet to supper. You don't mind?" "Of course not."
No food in the house, all day I've tried to write, and now the phone --.
"Send me your lentil soup recipe," pleads my friend Lynn. "They're publishing my cookbook of Russian recipes handed down by grandmothers. Your Babushka surely taught you chechevitsa?m But make measurements American and exact , cooking time precise."
"Each time it's different."
"Just jazz up the package directions," comes Cousin Henry's muffled voice from the nearly empty cupboard. He emerges with onions, garlic, an unmarked jar of lentils. "We'll use your grandmother's recipe for the quartet tonight."
Trouble is, my Russian grandmother, my Babushka, was as a countess's daughter , then as wife of a czarist general, not allowed in kitchens. My American mother also barred me. Only years later did I concoct a pot of lentils when Lynn chanced in. Even now -- at this moment -- Babushka sits in my kitchen like a queen, not a cook.
Cousin Henry, for years also banished from kitchens, is now tyrannical in mine. "Where's the recipe? How much water for how many lentils?"
To feed a multitude of people, we'll need a multitude of lentils. But how many? Will the musicians bring spouses? Boris always invites some other artist, one Indian leads to another, Alexander expects his Salvadoran pal Mauro, and today I met this lonely Maldivian, and by dinnertime . . . .
Babushka is humming an old Caucasian song with the line: "Each guest is sent to us by God." Today God seems particularly generous. Fortunately the caldron is enormous.
"All the lentils, and twice as much water," I murmur.
Only Muhammud can cut onions without weeping. He orders me to go finish my story. "But first where's the cleaver?"
"Where's the new A-string for my violin?" demands Cousin Henry.
I near my typewriter, but the quartet arrives. The Hungarian bass fiddler's sister presents us with her harvest of bursting tomatoes and zucchinis as big as baseball bats. The cellist's wife brings celery, the pianist, carrots. We'll chop them all for the pot.
"I hate carrots!" Boris complains.
"But carrots we need for color and taste."
He sulks off to his canvas, paints out an orange sun, says he's not hungry.
Alexander grates the carrots into the pot. "Now the soup is flecked with marigold and Boris will never know."
Mauro brings a red chili pepper he says his grandmother brought from Salvador , and bay leaves from Greece. He and Alexander disappear outside.
Ashoke the Tamil arrives with curry powder and other fragrant bits of bark and seeds and leaves, and six brothers and sisters and their grandmother. She brings a pot of yogurt as a fire extinguisher.
The pot simmers, the musicians play, Muhammud composes a pantunm on bay leaves and Mozart, and I may reach my typewriter . . . .
Boris reenters, freckled with paint. He removes the chili, but doesn't notice the carrot flecks. He goes out for sour cream. "We'll need a Slavic fire extinguisher."
Between the scherzo and the andantino, Cousin Henry tastes the soup, grates in black pepper, throws in pinches of salt with his spatulate fingers, retunes his violin.
The Hungarian fiddler grates in a potato. He also returns the chili to the pot. The remaining trio is giving the Archduke the business, and he returns to synchronize them.
The house swirls with curry and herbs. The musicians begin to miss notes. Where are the boys to set the table? The Archduke has had it. My typewriter . . . .
Boris opens the door to Maurice, a Haitian painter.
The lonely Maldivian appears with a basket of mangoes for dessert.
"It's done." I slice thinly a lemon and sprinkle fresh parsley over the soup.
Wielding his violin bow like a baton, Cousin Henry marshals us toward the table, mixing Indians, painters, musicians, poets, and other exiles. I worry my Babushka will find the chechevitsam too spicy and Oriental. But will the Indian grandmother find it too bland and Slavic? Will there be enough for everyone? Or will no one like it and we be eating soup till June?
From the head of the table Babushka, dowager empress, blesses us all, and the caldron. "Ahh! An imperial chechevitsa!"m She passes the sour cream.
"This is Russian?" asks Mauro. "It's as good as my Salvadoran grandmother's cooking." He piles on both yogurt and sour cream.
"I'm glad you left out the carrots," says Boris, passing his bowl again.
"I'd love more, too," says the cellist. "What's in it?"
"I'm not sure," I answer, "we had nothing in the house."
"Nothing?" Babushka looks surprised. She tells us the old Russian tale of the soldier billeted in the hut of an old peasant woman. He is hungry. She insists she has nothing to eat, other soldiers before him have taken everything. The soldier finds a white stone in his pack.
"With my magic stone," he claims, "and a pot of water from your well, we'll make soup."
The old babam is skeptical, but fetches water while the soldier builds a fire. Hasn't she one potato somewhere? he asks. She finds one in the cellar. An onion? Grumbling, she goes to the barren garden. A carrot? Perhaps a cabbage? She even discovers fresh dill. The soldier scrapes a lump of salt from his pack , and talks nostalgically of chicken soup. Finally the old woman disappears into the forest and returns with a scrawny hen which ends up in the pot. The soup cooks, and the two eat for a week off one magic stone.
While Babushka is talking, our lentil soup disappears, and after the Maldivian's mangoes, the guests also filter away.
"Write down the recipe quickly, and remember: Lynn wants precision," says Cousin Henry as he scrubs the caldron while I tend dishes. "And next week we'll be a quintet tackling Schubert's 'Trout.'"
Wonderful! I'll visit the fish stalls by the river, and invent a recipe for fiorel' a la russe,m and this time I'l l write it all down.