Monday, August 9, 2010

The Meatball Story

In 1979, my father, recently widowed, began to get his toe in The Dating Waters. Married to my down-to-earth, movie-star-beautiful mother for over 30 years, he was, shall we say, ill prepared. He worked in Manhattan, and had sublet a somewhat swanky apartment from a woman who was living elsewhere for a year. She had introduced him to her friend, Donna.

Donna could not have been any more different from my mother. She was petite, and wore Manolo Blahniks from the time she arose and put on her bed jacket. She floated into a room on a cloud of Joy de Patou perfume. She carried her tiny dog everywhere in a chic tote. Her hobby was getting her jewelry appraised. She had that kind of baby fine white-blonde hair that required twice-weekly appointments to make sure no roots showed. I’ll let you guess as to the upkeep needed on her fingernails and toenails. Donna owned a real Picasso. She Knew People. She had dated Michael Rennie (you know, from The Day the Earth Stood Still—klaatu, verada, nicto?).

It was such a disconnect for my brothers and me to contemplate this . . . exotic creature . . . in my father’s life. Really, it was as if we were watching from outside ourselves, as if a parallel universe had opened and something had gone horribly wrong. Nevertheless, we wanted Daddy to be happy, of course, and maybe this would be a relationship that would take his mind off his loss.

We decided that it would be a great idea to have a dinner party for Donna. So we picked the day for my brothers, maternal grandmother, and my best friend, Cheryl, to gather in our apartment for a buffet dinner. Our apartment was just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan.

Donna expressed some concern about this trip. “You mean, out of the city?” she asked my father, as if she were on a safari, or a forced death march. But she valiantly agreed, and the date was set.

Now, at this time of my life, my grandmother had gifted me with a Seal-a-Meal Kit. This little kitchen helper was just great. You cooked a big batch of something, put it in a kind of thick plastic sleeve, and inserted the end of the sleeve into a heat-sealing device. Basically, you got a boil-in-bag for things like soup, chili, sauces, etc. I had made and frozen lots of these bags.

As the day approached, we spent a lot of time making sure everything was perfect. I decided on my signature dish of spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, and salad. I wanted everything done ahead of time, and I wanted everything to be plentiful, so I thawed four quart bags of meatballs in sauce. The apartment was clean, the cats were sequestered. We were all dressed up. Everything was prepped. All that remained was to cook the spaghetti and heat the meatballs and sauce. My friend Cheryl arrived, and we put the sauce into a big pot to heat. Sixty minutes, and counting.

“Alyson, this doesn’t look right,” Cheryl said, stirring the meatballs and sauce. And oh my God, sure enough, I had mixed together two bags of chili with two bags of marinara sauce. It was an unappetizing mix of meatballs, kidney beans, chili, tomato sauce, and oregano. We looked at each other in horror.

Quickly going into crisis mode, we decided that we would call the local Italian restaurant and throw ourselves on their mercy. The restaurant, named The Park View, was, as you might tell, from the name, not truly an Italian restaurant. But they had sauce and meatballs, the lady said. “Don’t you worry, hon,” she said. “I’ll fix you right up. How many meatballs do you think you’ll need?”

Well, quickly I figured it up. Eight people, let’s say three meatballs per person.

“I’ll need twenty-four meatballs,” I answered.

“Really! Well, okay, you just send your brother down to pick this up.”

By the time Kevin arrived, Cheryl and I were pouring the sludge of the ruined dinner into the toilet. I wish you could have seen the look on his face as he stood in the hall, wearing his fresh, white Saturday Night Fever suit, watching the two of us trying to dispose of the evidence of my crime. He stayed well away from the action.

“Kev, go down to The Park View! The lady is going to give you the new sauce and meatballs. And hurry, for God’s sake, they’ll be here in 45 minutes, and I’ve got to make sure everything’s hot and good to go. She’s going to have everything packed up for you, just bring the sauce back here and nobody will ever know.”

Kev, always ready for any crisis, hit the road.

Meanwhile, my other brother, Tim arrived, and my mother’s mother, Mimi. With only 20 minutes to spare, and having just used up the last of the toilet cleanser, we heard Kev coming in the door. He was holding two huge shopping bags, walking with them held way away from his suit. The smell of garlic wafted in with him.

“Here you go,” he said.

I looked at him in astonishment. “Are you kidding, how much sauce did she give you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “This is just the first trip.” And back he went to the car. Uh oh.

Cheryl and I went to the kitchen and began to open the containers. Now you won’t believe me when I tell you this, but each meatball was the size of a baby’s head. And sauce? My God, the amount of sauce was mind-boggling. By the time Kev came back with the last two bags, Cheryl and I were doubled over in helpless laughter, and completely non-functional. Kev stripped down to his underwear and took over the heating process. The kitchen looked like a scene out of a Fellini movie—huge balls of meat, steam rising from the pasta pot, nearly naked gorgeous young man. And of course, the doorbell rang. They were here.

Using an admirable aplomb, Tim managed to keep Donna and my dad on a “tour” of the rest of the apartment, and give them a cocktail, while we “finished up a few things in the kitchen,” like getting my brother back into his suit, and composing ourselves, and moving into the living room and back to make conversation as if nothing was wrong. We loaded the table with a big bowl of pasta with sauce, and the meatballs had their own place of honor on a turkey platter, the only thing I had that didn’t make them look more freakishly large than they already were.

“Okay, everybody, please take a plate and help yourselves,” I called, once again relatively calm and composed. Cheryl and I avoided looking at each other, lest we start each other off.

“Oh, come on Francine,” Donna chirped at her little yappy dog, “It’s time for some din-din.”

“Donna, you start,” I said, hearing my mother’s voice urging me to be a good hostess. “Here, I’ll fill a plate for you so you don’t have to put Francine down.”

“Oh, my goodness, we’re not having meatballs, are we?”

“Yes, can I give you one with your pasta?”

“Oh, no, I don’t like meatballs, I’ll just have a bit of salad. But Francine would like an eensy beensy bit of meatball, wouldn’t you, Francine?”

Even avoiding each others’ eyes didn’t work. Kev, Cheryl, and I just dissolved into a state I can only describe as incoherence. We just couldn’t help it.

The rest of the dinner was not the success I had hoped. Donna did not think the story was interesting or funny. Donna liked stories that involved her, her jewelry, Francine, her youth, and how much things cost. It was, shall we say, an early evening. Donna batted her perfectly lashed eyes, and my father took her back from the wilds of New Jersey to the safety of the City.

After they left and the sound of yapping receded into the distance, there we stood, my husband, my brothers, and Cheryl, looking at the mountain of meat on the tray, and contemplating the many containers still unopened.

“Well,” Cheryl said. “Let’s get this packed up and into the freezer.”

And that’s what we did. By 8:30, we were watching Monty Python, and taking aspirin. The best part of the evening was in front of us. And Donna? She lasted through about three more dates; my father came to his senses. There was much rejoicing.

And that is the night that we spent $213 on the meatball that Donna wouldn’t eat.