Tonight I’m eating prison food—chewy chunks of meat floating in clear, watered-down broth. The only thing missing is a guard to slide me a tray beneath the door.
It isn’t supposed to be like this. Given that the recipe includes four of my favorite things: roast, bacon, wine and pearl onions (sweet little marbles of magical deliciousness)—I expected good things.
I expected too much.
Sweet Merlot Beef Stew sounds like a romantic winter’s eve spent sipping wine with your husband, while the children are outside. But my husband has skipped the country on a work trip, my daughter’s Catwoman action figure is clawing Cinderella’s eyes out and my parents are here … for dinner.
As usual, things start to go AWOL early in the cooking process. And by early I mean at the grocery. I don’t know what “button mushrooms” are, but I assume they’re small. I buy the canned variety because the word “button” actually appeared on the label and because I’m lazy. (I will regret this later when the little buttons slide around in my mouth like JELL-O that has lost its flavor.
Next, I scour the shelves for Paula’s Merlot Steak Sauce, but come up empty-handed. As I begin to wonder if I’m even in Savannah anymore, this sweet voice speaks to me in a thick, warm drawl: “You need some help baby girl?” (pronounced “guuuuuuuuuuurrrrl”). I spin around thinking Paula herself has descended upon me in my hour of need bearing gifts of sauce. Instead I’m face-to-face with a clerk whose nametag reads “Cherie.”
I tell Cherie my dilemma. I need Paula’s sauce but I don’t have time to run down to The Lady & Son’s gift shop. In one hour my father will begin the ritual of asking every 10 seconds when dinner’s going to be ready, making my 3-year-old seem oddly mature.
Cherie considers this for a moment and then gets real serious. “Well, you gotta ask yourself: What would Paula do?”
Yes! That’s it! WWPD? What would Paula do?!
Well, Paula would skillfully make her own damn sauce, package it up and sell it to people who think that cake mix is a raw material pulled from the earth. Cake mix is something no one can make from scratch (right?). Now I’m adding Paula’s Merlot Steak Sauce to that list.
I buy a bottle of steak sauce, toss in some wine at home and call it good.
Three hours and 400 “When’s it gonna be ready?” whines later, I’m staring distastefully into my bowl of stew.
Maybe it was the two bags of frozen pearl onions (did I mention I like pearl onions?). Perhaps it was my improvised steak sauce, to which I added an additional half-cup of Merlot (did I mention I like Merlot?). Though I’m more apt to blame the stew’s “earthy” flavor on the two cans of slimey mushrooms and the two cups of fresh parsley because it looked so pretty.
I watch my parents from across the table quietly chew (and chew and chew and chew) like cattle in field, eventually giving up and swallowing it whole. As they do, they strain their necks upward and grasp at their throats. Once again I ask myself: “WWPD?”
She’d order pizza.
Food Editor’s Note: Oh…dear sweet canned mushroom using Andrea. It’s really quite simple. What Paula would do is use the correct sauce in the recipe. You see, A-1(although easily obtainable) tastes nothing like her sweet silky Merlot Steak Sauce. We applaud you for making the dish your own and adding what seems like the entire store full of pearl onions, but canned mushrooms? So, in the interest of all things fair in the kitchen, we are going to send you a bottle of Paula’s Merlot Steak Sauce and have you give it another crack. I’m sure the family has stopped chewing by now. Perhaps you will even earn a wristband.
Andrea Goto lives and writes in Savannah, Georgia. Her kitchen experiments (known as “cooking” in more conventional homes) most often end with a mushroom cloud of smoke or a call to Poison Control. In spite of this, she’s deeply loved by her husband who prefers neon-colored cereals to all foods homemade, and her 3-year-old daughter who will eat almost anything, as long as you call it “chicken.” Need more Andrea? Follow her at www.andreagoto.com.
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