I Know Where All The Chocolate In The House Is and You'd Think That Would Relax Me
Recently Grace and I were both out of town, which meant Lily and the dogs had the run of the apartment. One night she texted about a mild desire to find some chocolate, and I felt a certain part of my brain light up before I delivered a response halfway between Liz Lemon’s cupcake speech in “Gavin Volure” and the cerulean monologue in The Devil Wears Prada:
Lily: I’m having difficulty locating the hidden chocolate
Me: windowsill has a third of a bar of Tony’s Chocolonely behind the seltzer, orange wrapper
Also there are chocolate chips on the silver table to the right of the teakettle
There’s a new thing of Ghirardelli’s chocolate sauce in the fridge door
Also a hidden box of vanilla meringues in the front hall closet, on the top shelf
if you’re low on dessert options, crumble a few of those up with some ritz crackers, spoon a little fudge sauce over that? a great, trashy dessert
[It should perhaps be mentioned that Lily is about eight months pregnant, and that the three of us will become parents sometime early this spring; this lends a touch more urgency to her interest in chocolate than under ordinary circumstances. I think three is a good baseline number in the parents-to-children ratio, but I wouldn’t say no to four or five, given half a chance.]
Lily: I think the Tony’s might be eaten
Me: in that case I’d suggest getting the microwavable strawberry pudding (UK pudding not US pudding) from the French pantry and topping it with the sweet cannoli dip
It’s not chocolate but it’s very good
Lily: these are good, thank you
Me: anytime you need to know where food is, my memory rarely fails
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This is not limited only to chocolate; I can also recite from memory every shape of pasta currently in the house, the contents of the freezer, three to four “plausible sides” for dinner that could be cobbled together in less than twenty minutes, and the precise location and remaining quantity of leftovers at a moment’s notice. This habit of mine falls somewhere between a minor domestic superpower and a compulsion, I think; I am often distressed, or at the least irritated, by an inability to recall my plans for the week or the name of a longstanding acquaintance, but I hardly ever forget how many onions are left on the sideboard, how many mustards we have going, or whether we have ingredients for a last-minute puttanesca without having to go to the store.
I think a lot about food. Now that my first novel is moving from copyedits to production, my agent Kate has sent out the proposal for my second, a Heartburn pastiche about a woman in her early 60s named Barbara who can’t keep a best friend but desperately wants one. This is more than a little nerve-wracking, as you might imagine, and I’ve been passing the time by vacillating wildly between extreme indolence and extreme panic. Barbara is not very much like me in most respects, but we do share a comprehensive mental catalog of what food is in the house, along with an overwhelming urge to list that food to others at the slightest provocation.
Ann-Preston and I didn’t turn on each other for two years, which isn’t too bad, considering. We were best friends all the way past graduation. In addition to picking me up on the way to school, most afternoons I’d go back to her house and we’d hang out or do our homework together until I had to go home for dinner. Her father had remarried and her mother lived on the other side of the country for work, so Ann-Preston and her little brothers were mostly raised by their stepmother Amelia.
For whatever reason Ann-Preston and I found Amelia absolutely hilarious. She wasn’t warm, exactly, but she was certainly domestic, and in my memory at least, she was always on the verge of leaving the house to run some errand or other, and explaining to Ann-Preston or her husband or one of the boys exactly what was in the fridge, as if she were under a witch’s spell that prevented her from going outside for so much as twenty minutes without first describing the entire contents of their refrigerator to someone. Sometimes after she’d gone out, Ann-Preston and I would pretend to be Amelia lying on her deathbed, having just been shot or trampled by a horse, grabbing weeping bystanders by the lapels and croaking out, “Please – there’s not much time – tell my family there’s half a pound of salmon on the bottom shelf – it’s wrapped in foil – it’s behind the Parmesan cheese –”
Then we’d die, dramatically, before popping back up with a desperate gasp, “Tell them to reheat it for fifteen minutes – at 375° – keep it wrapped in foil so it doesn’t – dry – out –!” I can’t remember laughing as hard with anyone else as we did then.
The funniest thing was that after I moved in with my first husband, I caught myself doing the same thing practically all the time. “There’s biscuit dough on the second shelf if you want any; you don’t need to grease the pan first, just give them 12-15 minutes at 400°”; “If you don’t want the pork loin there’s a quart or so of chicken tortilla soup in the door next to the mustard”; “There’s two kinds of tortellini in the freezer, just let me know if you want pork-and-pea or cheese-and-mushroom and I’ll thaw one out.” I think at least part of it had to due with the fact that I’d never lived with anyone before, hadn’t so much as invited any of my boyfriends to spend longer than a weekend at my place, and I was totally horrified by the prospect of accommodating someone else’s taste in my home for the rest of my life. We bought the house together but I always thought of it as my home – I lived there, and he lived with me, is how I always thought about it. I’m not saying that was the right or the wrong way to think about it; it wasn’t something I thought on purpose or because I wanted to.
Caleb was perfectly capable of looking in the fridge for himself; I’m not trying to suggest he was one of those men who treat their wives as an extra set of eyes and never bother to check for themselves, because he wasn’t. He was a pretty good cook himself, as it happens. It was almost compulsive, like I really was under a spell, or like I had to cover up my irritation with the fact that he lived with me and needed to eat a few times a day (because I was at least aware that it was not a reasonable irritation to bear against one’s husband, even by the standards of the early 1990s, when it was fashionable for women to talk about their husbands like they were unreliable appliances) I could tell that sometimes it irritated him, too, which doesn’t surprise me because he never asked me “What’s in the fridge?” and no one likes to be handed a list of all their home goods out of the blue. At least nobody that I’ve ever been married to likes it. I didn’t like doing it, either, but I couldn’t stop myself; I’d just go on listing all the cold cuts I’d stacked in the middle shelf while I watched his expression go from polite to puzzled and a little bored. I wished I could call Amelia to tell her I finally knew what it felt like, but of course she never knew that we even joked about that habit of hers in the first place, since we never did it while she was in the house. It’s possible that to this day she still doesn’t even know it’s a habit, which seems hard to believe but who knows. Probably I have half a dozen even worse habits I don’t even know about, myself.
At its best, this habit says, “I pay attention to your tastes as well as to the creaturely comforts available in our home; I want you to know you have many options; I’m interested in the creative, pleasurable, and restorative qualities of food; I’m here to help,” while at its worst, this habit says, “I cannot bear the psychic possibility of someday running out of something, I never stop thinking about food, I will anticipate your every possible need and desire in a way that feels totally smothering, I am running CIA-level surveillance on the pantry.” It’s interesting to notice which qualities one thinks is likely to annoy a person one hasn’t met yet; it’s entirely possible that the baby won’t mind my food-listing at all, and I’ll only find out which of my habits the baby does mind in twenty years, when I’m least expecting it.
That said, you’d be surprised by how good a few crumbled-up Ritz crackers with chocolate sauce is. If you’ve got meringues, a little lemon curd, and some condensed milk (they sell it in a squeezable bottle now, by the way, which I cannot recommend highly enough), you’re never more than forty seconds away from a sort of low-rent key lime pie, and that’s saying something.