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Essays

It’s All Alien to Me

Alex O’Connor

Five p.m., five hungry stomachs, a stocked refrigerator, a preheating oven, and important first impressions: the steaks had never been higher. Pun intended. Steak was not on the menu, it was something much simpler but equally as exhilarating. The meal? Chicken, rice, and broccoli—I had never cooked a meal for myself, let alone for five people I only vaguely knew, so simplicity was essential. I didn’t want to set myself up to fail. The night was about first impressions, but not only that, it was about first-time cooking experiences. If I messed this up, the repercussions would be immense.

I was preparing to undergo a month and a half process, a process that would lead to the production of a play called “The Aliens.” And as the director of the play, I was not only the organizer of the production, but also the emotional and spiritual leader of the team. If their first impression of me was a night spent writhing in pain from salmonella, the quality of the show would certainly suffer. I couldn’t mess this up—the show depended upon it.

I wanted the cast and crew to trust me, and what instills more trust than the incredibly domestic and familial activity of cooking? Nothing. Therefore, I assembled my team so that we could all meet for the first time, and I could establish myself as not only the director of our ensemble, but also the head chef of our metaphorical kitchen.

Like any good play, the dinner was full of zany characters: Will, the heartthrob, Ally, my strong-willed and unforgiving stage manager, James, the goofball, Matt, the pleaser, and Devyn, the quiet and sweet one. Will was the first person to arrive, and he did so just in time to help me lather curry powder onto the tender chicken breasts. Next Ally arrived. She and Will began chatting while I put the chicken in the oven. James arrived soon after and introduced his presence with some witty humor; I knew I cast him for a reason. He announced that he smelled burning, making us all laugh. He was preparing to play one of the more comedic roles in the show, and so perhaps he was engaging in some method acting. The chicken was now cooking in the oven. Next up was the rice.

How much water did the rice need? I honestly had no idea. Too much water, and you end up eating soupy rice; too little water, and you end up with teeth-cracking pieces of rice. I didn’t want to compromise the million-dollar smiles of my actors. The problem of when to start the rice so that it was ready at the same time as the chicken also remained! I decided that I would follow the instructions on the box and cook it with a two-to-one water to rice ratio, but I wouldn’t start cooking it until after I had flipped the chicken in 15 minutes. My anxiety was clearly visible, I had no idea what I was doing, but as soon as Matt arrived I felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. His warm and gracious presence lightened the mood in the room and our cast really started to feel like a family. A zany and anxious family.

Devyn arrived soon after and our family was complete, but she also commented on the burning smell, (thanks Devyn). Devyn’s comment wasn’t funny like James’, but was filled with genuine concern and worry. The oven is very old, and as soon as you turn it on there is a vague burning smell. The culprit was not the chicken, I reassured her. Even if it was, at least no one could contract salmonella from burnt chicken.

Things were rushing by rapidly, so I thought I would slow down the pace of the night with a poem from an author who is referenced in our play, Charles Bukowski. It was a poem called, “Dinner, 1933,” which seemed relevant, but what I didn’t realize was the poem was about a child who didn’t like their parents cooking. The poem is quite blunt: “The food that I had eaten and what I had seen was already making me ill.” I should have read the poem beforehand. As the metaphorical parent of this production, I felt slightly attacked. Was it possible that I was sowing the seeds of dissent within my own cast and crew?

Fifteen minutes quickly passed and everyone was having a pretty good time, quietly chatting on my living room couch. I asked if everyone was ready for the beef bourguignon—the joke was met with mild approval. I flipped the chicken and it looked like it was browning nicely; maybe this would actually work out. I put the rice on and gloated to my cast that I was actually doing alright. One by one they came to micromanage my cooking process, though, judging the pot I used to cook the rice, my rice to water ratio, and even my choice of seasoning for the chicken. Was it too late to hold a second round of auditions? It seemed as though my cast was bonding and getting along quite well, but perhaps they were all united by a common enemy: their director.

We all tentatively waited, with Will and James in particular drooling in hunger. Will periodically helped me check on the rice; it was still soaking in water, so perhaps I got the ratio wrong in the end. Will and Matt insisted that I remain steadfast, but the colander sitting in the kitchen cabinet began to look ever more appealing. Luckily the rice started to harden up.

Five minutes until showtime. I went to cook the broccoli in a pan with olive oil, but before I could cook the broccoli, I had to wash it! The sanity, sanctity, and general sanitation of the whole operation would be compromised by unwashed broccoli. Unfortunately, I had already cut the broccoli—it was in a thousand pieces, so I gently tossed a few pieces back and forth in my hands under running water. I have to assume there is a better and more efficient way to clean away bacteria from broccoli, but this was the best I could do. As I prepared the pan to cook the broccoli, I accidentally put too much olive oil in and also turned the heat up too high. The olive oil started boiling on the pan and making a mess. A few droplets of olive oil bounced onto my skin, leaving me with little burn marks around my hands. Luckily, no one in my team noticed, or they were too nice to say anything, maybe too diva-ish to care about my pain.

The moment of truth was almost upon us, so I took a moment to reflect. What an incredible opportunity to direct a play, and what an amazing moment in time, the inciting event of our whole theatrical process. This dinner, this cast, and me, being worshipped by them, I the chef, with my eager eaters. Lotus eaters.

The time had come. I ran to take the chicken out of the oven, and I beckoned my cast into the kitchen and handed them each a plate and told them to serve themselves. My face was too close to the oven when I opened it, and I almost scalded myself. Matt made sure to point out that I shouldn’t put my head in the burning oven. Thanks Matt. I put on the oven mitt, but the oven mitt was more of an old kitchen towel rag, and I burnt my hand on the pan trying to remove the chicken from the oven. I still have a mark on my right pinky from the accident. But I played it off like no big deal as to not alarm anyone, and the cast began to serve themselves.

A single tear rolled down my cheek.

I had forgotten beverages, but the night would have to continue with parched mouths. We all took our seats around the table and I put on some smooth jazz. Will was excited about my music selection, but I suspect no one else was. I could barely eat the food as I tentatively watched them, wondering whether they were enjoying it. They all had their fair share— Matt even went back for seconds, but Will barely even finished his first portion. Yikes.

I asked them what they thought, and they all reassured me that they liked the food. Their so smiles indicated mild satisfaction; it didn’t seem like any fireworks were lighting up on their taste buds as I had expected. They were also all very quick to leave after they finished eating, probably a bad sign. Did they not realize the magnitude of the situation? Families are built around the dinner table—rule one of domestic life— and yet they all scurried off like they were eating at some fast food buffet style restaurant. I was heartbroken.

After all was said and done, the food’s reception was lukewarm, but honestly, I’m just glad there was no vomiting involved. This wasn’t the perfect night, but it also would not be the perfect show—there would never be a perfect performance, not in the kitchen or on the stage. What I was sure of was that there would be smiles, laughs, tears, and probably a few more burn marks along the way.

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