Sorry but I have this deadline looming.”
“If only you’d called half an hour earlier. I just accepted another invitation.”
“I think I feel a cold coming on.”
“Thanks but it’s been one of those through-the-wringer weeks and all I want to do is veg out at home.”
“I’d love to but I have this lamb steak in the fridge and if I don’t make it tonight, I’ll have to throw it out.”
“You know, I’m really in the mood to cook. Why don’t you come over here instead?”
I’d been avoiding it for months. Tonight C put her foot down: I was going to have dinner at her place, no ifs, ands or buts.
Ah, C. One of the first people I met on arriving in Montreal in ’73. An honours English classmate at McGill – her first paper, “Vaginal Versus Clitoral Orgasm in Women in Love,” was written before she had personal knowledge of the subject and earned her a private interview with the lecherous prof. Later, an ESL teacher who travelled the world – Greece, Japan, Egypt, China, France, Spain, Italy, Mexico, India. A chain smoker who’s tried quitting a total of two weeks in the last 30 years. These days something of a boulevardière, hanging out in the cafés and bistros on rue Bernard. A lover of beer and guzzler of cheap wine. Dismissive of wine appreciation (“Well, it tastes like wine to me,” she stated after sitting through my encomium to Juge’s 1990 Cornas “Cuvée C”). Appreciative of fine food, though. Appreciative of bad food, too.
Always begins eating as soon as the food is set before her. Always grunts softly as she wolfs it down. Doesn’t talk while there’s anything on her plate. Has to have a smoke the instant she finishes eating, even if getting one means cutting you off in mid-sentence.
Probably the worst cook I know. Her cookbook collection consists of a single unconsulted volume, Diet for a Small Planet, which was already gathering dust on top of her fridge when I first met her.
“Well, can I help with dinner?” I ask.
“Let me bring a bottle at least.”
“You’re always opening wine for me. Just bring yourself. It’s my treat.”
I arrive at the appointed hour. As usual, C greets me like a long-lost friend. She dashes into the kitchen and returns with two Molson Dry Ices.
“Here,” she says, handing me a bottle. “I know you like that microbrewery stuff but this was on special.”
She lights a cigarette and we chat for a while.
“Let’s move into the kitchen,” she says. “I’m making a pasta dish of my own invention.”
“Anything I can do?”
“Don’t you lift a finger. Everything’s under control. I just have to boil some water for the spaghetti.”
She grabs a two-quart saucepan and fills it half full.
“You might want to use a bigger pan and more water,” I suggest.
“I don’t have one,” she says. “And if I put more water in, it’ll boil over.”
I go back to nursing my beer.
“Now for the sauce,” she says.
A practical person, C never refrigerates her margarine (“It’s so much easier to spread”). This evening, she takes a mighty spoonful from the orange oleaginous blob and plops it into a skillet. When it’s sizzling, she reaches in the fridge and pulls out a white plastic container.
“I got some of those lovely little Matane shrimps,” she says, adding them to the skillet. (Matane, a village on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is known for its tiny crustaceans, sometimes called salad shrimp and always sold shelled and pre-cooked.) While the shrimp are frying, C checks the pasta water. “Well, you know what they say about watched pots. Really, I must get this stove fixed. Only two burners work and not very well at that.”
The shrimp continue to fry. After five minutes, C takes a container of whipping cream out of the fridge, pours it in the skillet and brings it to a simmer.
At last the water boils. C adds the spaghetti and salt and pours in some Crisco oil. The shrimp bubble away.
C sits down for a cig. And another. She goes to the stove, stirs the spaghetti, stirs the sauce, comes back for another smoke. The pasta has been cooking for 15 minutes, the pre-cooked shrimp for 25.
She stubs out her cigarette. “Well, back to work!” She opens the fridge, rummages around and emerges with three green canisters of Kraft Parmesan. “Don’t know how long these have been in here. Probably a couple of years. We’ll finish them off tonight though!”
She shakes the cheese into the sauce, stirs it and turns off the heat. She dumps the pasta in a mesh strainer, looks at it and says, “It always seems to stick together. Should I run some tap water over it?” She does so before I can reply.
The spaghetti goes in a bowl and is tossed with the sauce. She hands me a baguette and a knife.
“Here. Cut this, would you?”
The bread collapses under the blade.
“A bit mushy, isn’t it?” C says. “But if you go just before they close, you get two for the price of one. Care for some margarine?”
We sit at the table.
“I had a late lunch,” I say. “Don’t give me too big a serving. ‘Small firsts, happy seconds,’ har har.”
C stops talking and starts chowing. Suddenly she looks up. “Oh, the wine!”
She dashes into the kitchen and returns with a bottle of Chilean Cabernet from the corner store.
We eat and drink, the silence broken only by the occasional soft grunt.