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Family Plan

Don't try this at home.

The problem wasn't so much that we were drinking, but that neither of us had really stopped in a couple of days.

When my little brother and I get together back home -- as annually as we can manage -- drinking is just what we do. It's not to excess (at least not by Irish standards), but rather like a constant watering of some deep and thirsty internal garden, common to both of us and tangled with childhood regrets and reminiscences. We're not drinking to forget (because what fun would there be in that?), but to make things bloom.

"Remember that time when...?"

"Or how 'bout when Dad...?"

Our drinking is a marathon, not a sprint. At least not usually. Sure, there was that one Christmas when Brendan -- in a fit of something -- pounded down a wee bit too much of rare old mountain dew, parked his truck halfway up the neighbor's lawn, tried to blame his confusion on a lamppost that has stood in front of our parents' house for thirty years, then fell over drunk in the driveway while trying to coolly light a cigarette with the cap off an old Bic pen. But Mom sobered him up as best she could with hot, black coffee -- my family's homespun medicinal cure for everything from mild depression to spontaneous decapitation -- and he still had to come with us, stinking like a distillery fire, to visit Grandma in the old folks' home.

It's maintaining a long, slow, cheerful buzz over several days that we prize -- not the quick flame-out of one king-hell bender. Any dipshit with a bottle and a thirst can get himself knackered fast and puke into the azalea bushes. But keeping a good buzz going for days? That's a survival skill.

Still, even with practice, things can get a little hairy around day three, and that's where my brother and I were -- at day three -- when it came time to start prepping for the glorious post-Christmas feast we'd promised our parents and assorted guests. We'd spent the previous two days lounging on the couch in the living room of the tiny suburban hobbit house where we'd grown up -- a place seemingly designed for turning out bonsai Irishmen, with half-sized rooms and low ceilings and a kitchen the size of a small walk-in closet -- drinking, giggling and chattering happily away.

"What ever happened to that girl who...?"

"And what about that time you got arrested for...?"

By this point, I'd already been back East for several days, had gone to Philadelphia to see the in-laws and to eat, hitting the Spring Mill Cafe in Conshohocken (still one of my favorite restaurants of all time), Penang in Chinatown for roti canai, the Asian markets along 10th Street for Chinese cigarettes and Hello Kitty figurines. The night before the feast was due to go off, Bren and I had gone to see a chef friend of his, trolling for inspiration among the failing downtown eateries of my dying home town and hoping for that bolt of lightning to strike. Instead, we got drunk and decided to wing it. Bren had some venison in his fridge -- fresh-killed by a buddy, dropped with a clean shot through the neck so that it hadn't run -- and we'd lifted two dozen Pacific oysters from his chef friend's cooler, so we'd figured we were off to a good start.

I went shopping the next morning, beating back my hangover with hot coffee and hair of the dog but underestimating the baffling power of below-freezing temperatures and a pushy New York crowd of pre-New Year's Eve shoppers. Still, I managed to buy all the necessities: French bread, prosciutto, pearl mozzarella, Irish brandy butter, tomatoes, seckle pears, peppercorns, olives and a wedge of Fontina. I'd wanted capons or game hens but could only find frozen chicken breasts. Then I picked up a dozen huge muffins from the bakery, thinking that everybody loves muffins and that if Bren and I fucked up dinner irreparably, everybody could just eat the damn muffins.

We started "prepping" around four that afternoon, when my brother arrived after sleeping on the job during a short day at the used-car lot. We opened bottles of wine, mixed strong drinks, tried to find something on television and confidently talked of the dinner we'd start whipping up any minute now. Because of our varied inspirations, we were envisioning a sort of Irish-Asian-Italian farmhouse spread with bruschetta and venison and muffins and oysters, my mom's killer cream of broccoli soup made with sixteen quarts of heavy cream and four pounds of butter that she had wisely prepared ahead of time, maybe some spring rolls, too. And stuffed chicken breasts. And salad.

By the time we dragged ourselves into the kitchen, all of the guests were already at the house -- and most of them were hungry. Bren pulled out the venison loins, and it was immediately apparent that his friend had not shot a prize-winning buck but found a baby deer somewhere, probably staked out in front of a pet store, and beaten it to death with a stick. I'd seen cats with meatier loins and serial killers who carved better.

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