It started innocently enough. My parents were finally getting their kitchen remodeled, and the work had just begun. On the first day, my mother surveyed the proceedings for a while, then approached me with concern.
"I think I might serve the workers some coffee and snacks," she said. "What do you think?"
I eyed her warily. Knowing my mother, I knew that today's innocent plate of cookies would evolve into an increasingly complex parade of dishes in the coming weeks.
To make matters worse, these Lucy-and-Ethel schemes would invariably involve me somehow. I thought it over.
"Go ahead," I said. "Just don't stay awake nights worrying about what the foreman takes in his coffee."
As she headed to the kitchen, I had no idea that I had just set something in motion that, within six months, would grow to take over our lives.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly where things went awry. The workmen graciously took all foodstuffs in stride. Even so, my mother's combination of culinary prowess and fierce pride soon became her downfall. After all, how could she serve a packaged cookie - or nothing at all - when she had presented everyone with a beautifully arranged fruit plate the day before?
Her duty was clear. In the days that followed, she would serve cinnamon toast, small egg salad sandwiches, cheese and crackers, even quesadillas. Drawn into her web, I found myself contributing homemade cookies and blueberry muffins to the cause.
Apple juice was provided for those who didn't like coffee, and soda was available in the afternoon (Coke and Pepsi, to avert any potential Cola War distress).
How was this done, you ask? We created a makeshift kitchen setup using a 20-year-old convection oven and two hot plates. The convection oven worked surprisingly well, though its small size precluded preparation of turkey dinners or a side of beef. The hot plates, on the other hand, were more temperamental. Sometimes they would turn chicken breasts to charcoal within five minutes.
Usually, though, it took them an interminable amount of time just to boil water.
My mother, galvanized by her successes and the prospect of more mouths to feed, grew more ambitious. She would take remarks such as "Kitchen remodel? Bet you're eating a lot of takeout!" as an insult. Eager to prove that she could cook well without a kitchen, she frequently invited people over for dinner. My father and I stopped grumbling after a while, realizing that we were powerless foot soldiers in the shadow of General Patton.
I can only imagine what went through our guests' minds. My father would usher in hapless visitors quickly and ply them with drinks. Yet, I'm fairly sure that no matter how loudly he regaled them with stories about vintage cars and elderly Yugoslav immigrants, they could still hear the frenzied culinary efforts going on in various rooms, punctuated by exchanges such as these:
"Where are the steaks?"
"They're on a cookie sheet by the bathtub."
"Where's the salad bowl?"
"I just told you: It's on top of your bed!"
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, my mother's reputation for hospitality continued to grow. Lighting technicians, electricians, and city inspectors would come for the project, but stay for the food.
One morning, Mother walked into the addition to find a stranger drinking coffee and reading the paper.
"The other garbage men have been talking about this woman who serves food to all of her workers," he said. "I didn't believe it, so they told me to stop by."
Mom just shrugged and topped off his coffee mug.
Eventually the project ended, and those frenetic six months seemed increasingly distant. The struggle to fry an egg was easily forgotten when one was newly blessed with multiple gas burners. Even so, I would like to think that the experience gave me a new perspective not just on food preparation, but on my family's wacky sense of solidarity.
Tonight, I just might fire up the hot plate and invite the whole clan.