Desmond decided on Thursday’s dinner early Thursday morning. He would rotisserie three chickens on the fancy Weber grill he had bought in Puerto Vallarta. The grill had cost twice as much in Mexico, but it was a “must have” for Desmond and Patrice’s coffee-table book house, Casa Mariposa, which they had built on the coast, a couple of hours north of the city. They rarely entertained at home in Alaska, but here in Mexico, on Paradise Point, large dinners were the norm, so it had to be three chickens.
Most of the meat and poultry in Casa Mariposa was frozen, bought on arrival in Puerto Vallarta at the new Costco and meant to last the three weeks of a mid-winter stay, so dinners were usually planned in the morning, sometimes the night before, depending on what had to be thawed.
Casa Mariposa had two refrigerators with large freezers to accommodate the purchases. Desmond always brought Bachoco brand chickens, which came two to a package. They were small enough so that he could cram three of them onto the Weber’s spit, each professionally trussed with the cotton butcher’s twine Desmond brought down from the States, because all he could find locally was cheap plastic twine which melted in the grill and burned inedible pink plastic nodules into the chicken.
For this winter visit, Desmond also had bought six frozen Costco ducks. But it would be Yucatan chicken with saffron rice tonight, a favorite of neighbors and assorted guests – there were sometimes as many as eighteen for dinner. The year before, Patrice and Warren, Desmond’s old friend and a constant guest, had ordered a round, custom-made marble table in Guadalajara. Almost eight feet across, it could easily seat most nightly crowds. The standing joke was that you needed a megaphone to carry on a conversation with someone across the table.
Three chickens would be plenty, especially since Martin and Elizabeth Jane, the next-door neighbors in Casa Don Martín, always brought a dish or two of their own, plus appetizers. Desmond and Elizabeth Jane were the principal dinner cooks, with Martin grilling huge chunks of marinated pork, or smoking the local fish. Patrice made bagels every other day and gave water aerobics classes in the Big Pool each noon. Warren made rye bread, pickles and popovers.
Desmond rarely interfered with Elizabeth Jane’s dinner preparations, whereas Elizabeth Jane did not hesitate to correct Desmond’s recipes, one time pouring a whole pint of potent lobster broth into his Bolognese sauce when his back was turned. Elizabeth Jane could be surprisingly quick.
Yucatan chicken was by now a traditional hit: Desmond marinated the birds in a mixture of achiote paste, garlic, onion, soy sauce and olive oil. Towards the end, he brushed the chicken with sweet soy sauce, which partially caramelized so that the chickens came out a rich golden brown.
Carrying the loaded spit to the kitchen island for carving generally caught everyone’s eye, for the chickens looked truly delicious. Desmond would choose a moment when most of the guests would see him bring it in. If they weren’t paying attention, he’d shout, “Make way!” Elizabeth Jane always applied one of her “A” adjectives to the chicken: “Astonishing!” “Amazing!” “Astounding!” Desmond liked Elizabeth Jane’s praise of his cooking even though he didn’t quite believe her superlatives.
Tuesday’s dinner was a local leg of lamb, bought from a butcher in Tepic, the state capital. Martin had studded it with garlic cloves, then rotisseried it on the Weber. It was really a leg of mutton, as the joint was oversize for lamb, so there was quite a bit left over in Elizabeth Jane’s fridge.
Wednesday’s dinner was barbecued duck – two of them – plus a third duck Elizabeth Jane had prepared in her oven, as only two ducks would fit on the Weber’s spit. Desmond’s ducks were briefly charred: he had neglected to scrape out the Weber’s drip pan, so the accumulated grease ignited, sending billows of acrid black smoke into the house.
Desmond promptly extinguished the blazing ducks, but they were already black beyond remedy. He chose a moment when no one was paying attention to bring them into the kitchen and didn’t cry out, “Make way!” Desmond was mortified by his culinary faux pas, so he decided to mitigate the disaster by drawing attention to it after all, presenting the charred birds as “Crispy Napalm Duck.” Everyone laughed. Desmond had wanted to call them “Vietnamese Napalm Duck,” but he thought it might be considered a trifle too insensitive.
Desmond needn’t have fretted: the intense conflagration had liquefied most of the ducks’ layer of fat, which had almost instantly burned off, leaving the meat done to perfection. At the end of the dinner five duck quarters remained, stowed in Desmond’s kitchen fridge, top shelf, left, along with some leftover saffron rice.
Desmond announced Thursday’s dinner plans to Elizabeth Jane and Martin at Casa Don Martín, around lunchtime. The two were sitting in wicker armchairs at their coffee table next to the kitchen, having late coffee when Desmond came in and joined them. Elizabeth Jane frowned, for she had other dinner plans.
“Can I have the leftover duck?” she asked. “I want to make a rice casserole with the leftover duck and lamb. Do the chicken tomorrow.”
Half-relieved not to be preparing the main dish that evening, Desmond promptly agreed, “Sure, take the leftover duck. It’s in the kitchen fridge, top shelf, left. I’ve cut some off one quarter, but you’ll have a good four quarters to work with. I’ll put the chickens back in the freezer.”
Desmond was rather fond of leftover duck, and had quietly been slicing little pieces off one of the quarters all morning long. Although wary of Elizabeth Jane’s rice casseroles, he didn’t want to stir up that pot at the moment, so he decided to forgo more cold duck, if necessary, in order to Preserve the Peace.
A beaming Elizabeth Jane sailed briskly out of Casa Don Martín and returned a minute or two later bearing a Ziploc bag with the leftover duck quarters.
“I left the partly-eaten quarter for you,” she said, then asked, “Can I have the leftover saffron rice, too? I’ll add it to the casserole.”
“Yeah, go ahead and take it.”
Elizabeth Jane finished her coffee and sailed out of Casa Don Martín again. She quickly returned, this time scowling – and empty-handed.
“Dinner is canceled! They want the leftover duck for lunch!” kvetched Elizabeth Jane, bristling with indignation and gesturing with a vibrating, downturned hand towards the unseen Philistines next door in Casa Mariposa.
Evidently, one or more of the guests at Casa Mariposa had eyes on the leftover duck, too. Elizabeth Jane was furious that the duck was about to be pre-empted for a puny, ignoble lunch. Martin, puffing on one of the cigar butts he habitually looted from the previous dinner’s ashtrays, looked disgruntled as only Martin could look, like when he has to go shopping.
Martin hates to shop, and has decreed that he and Elizabeth Jane can only stop at one supermarket on the way up from the airport, either Sam’s Club or the Mega, but not both and never at Costco, because Costco is quite a way down towards the city, the opposite direction from Paradise Point and going to Costco meant another hour’s delay in getting to Casa Don Martín. Martin’s distaste for shopping was a perennial burr under Elizabeth Jane’s saddle, but she used it to advantage whenever she forgot to pick things up that she had undertaken to get for Desmond and Patrice, because they couldn’t be found in the one store they stopped at – or so she said.
Elizabeth Jane, on the other hand, routinely asked Desmond and Patrice to pick up special pita chips for her at Costco, because Martin refused to go there and neither Sam’s Club nor the Mega sold the right kind of pita chips. Desmond thought all pita chips were alike, but Elizabeth Jane was an accomplished Marin County epicure who knew better. She cooked in tin-lined copper saucepans at home, and insisted, inter alia, that imported, ten-dollar-a-pound bronze-die-cut pasta from the Abruzzo was the only pasta worthy of her sauces.
Desmond and Patrice always went to Costco anyway, despite the distance and delay, because Costco was the only place that sold frozen ducks.
Now four quarters of those ducks hung in the balance.
“Well, why not wait and see how much duck is left after ‘they’ have lunch, and use that in your casserole?” suggested Desmond, trying to take some angst out of the rapidly unfolding imbrolgio.
Martin grumpily broke in from the depths of his cigar smoke cocoon, disclosing that he, too, had a keen interest in the leftover duck, “No! It was marginal at best with only four quarters. It simply can’t be done with fewer!” He subsided into a pout.
Martin and Elizabeth Jane had probably been plotting this revolutionary rice casserole dish starting the night before, so by noon on Thursday they had firmly set their hearts on it. Their disappointment was palpable. Desmond wanted only to get away.
“That Warren,” Martin erupted again, with a quiver of bitterness, “He’s so fucking headstrong. First he insists on making those fucking popovers every night and now he’s appropriating the leftover duck!”
Warren had brought down sixty pounds of American bread flour and all-purpose flour (not available locally in Mexico, even at the big box stores), for baking bread, and – a first on this visit – for making popovers, which he made almost every night in two heavy-duty cast aluminum popover pans he had also brought down, along with twenty LED flashlights, sixteen clocks, a couple of dozen ersatz Leatherman tools and numerous framed portraits of the staff, which he distributed as gifts on the first day.
Warren had glommed three extra pounds of sweet butter at Costco expressly for the popovers, of which he turned out two dozen at a clip. He tried cream puffs as well (Warren had an insatiable sweet tooth), but due to a miscalculation of one kind or another, they came out with the precise shape, size and heft of hockey pucks. Warren tried to use them as bait in the raccoon trap, but the raccoons weren’t impressed by his baking skills and spurned them.
Elizabeth Jane snatched up the Ziploc of leftover duck quarters where she had left it on her kitchen counter and marched grimly back to Casa Mariposa to surrender the duck to the leftoverducknappers.
Eager to Spread the Latest Gossip, Desmond got up from his wicker armchair to escape, saying, “I’ll keep the chickens out and do three cups of saffron rice, as planned. See ya later.”
Rice was a sore point between the two households. Elizabeth Jane had prepared a rice casserole the previous Sunday. Not much was eaten, so it re-materialized and re-re-materialized as a side dish at subsequent dinners through Wednesday, with few takers. One particularly unkind guest had dubbed it “stucco rice.” Desmond had suggested to Elizabeth Jane that she pat the considerable remainder into little rice casserole latkes and fry them in oil. Elizabeth Jane chose not to dignify his suggestion with a reply. She merely glared at Desmond.
Back at Casa Mariposa, Desmond told Warren about the canceled dinner, and what Martin had said about him and his fucking popovers.
Warren laughed. “I’m headstrong? Well, so what if I am? But it’s beside the point here, because I had nothing to do with the leftover duck. As for popovers, people seemed to like them just fine: they were gone every night and I don’t see any being recycled, like Elizabeth Jane’s stucco rice.” (Warren had been the unkind guest.)
“Anyway, here’s what actually happened with the duck,” Warren continued. “Frieda had a leftover duck quarter for lunch a little while ago. She said it was ‘super delicious,’ and told Dan, who was scrabbling about for food.”
Frieda is Warren’s daughter. Dan is Frieda’s always-hungry boyfriend. They had come down to Paradise Point for a five day stay.
“Dan went searching for the duck on the top left shelf of the kitchen fridge, where Frieda said she had left it. The duck wasn’t there, so Dan looked in the laundry room fridge, but it wasn’t there either. Dan asked Patrice where the duck was. Patrice said she last saw it in the kitchen fridge, top shelf, left, ”
Warren gave one of his chin-up pauses to let you know a punch line of sorts was in the offing.
“Just then Elizabeth Jane breezes into the kitchen to expropriate the leftover rice, and I ask her, ‘Elizabeth Jane, have you by any chance seen the leftover duck?’ ‘Yes, I took it,’ she says, her face falling and reddening at the same time, ‘I’ll bring it right back.’ And she did. Dan wolfed down two duck quarters for lunch, so now there are only two left.”
That explained why Elizabeth Jane had stormed back to Casa Don Martín to announce that dinner was canceled for lack of adequate duck, then stormed back to Casa Mariposa with the Ziploc of duck quarters and shoved them in the kitchen fridge, top shelf, left, and why there were now only two quarters left.
It’s half-past four. Desmond, in his red Casa Mariposa apron, is busy marinating his three Bachoco chickens, turning them over and over with a carving fork in a huge terracotta olla. The rice cooker is set up to go, with three cups of rice, some Knorr Caldo de Pollo and some allegedly Iranian saffron Desmond had purchased on eBay.
Elizabeth Jane breezes in, re-beatified.
“Hi Desmond. Can I have the leftover duck?” she chirps rhetorically, traversing the kitchen, opening the fridge and removing the remaining duck in a single, smoothly choreographed maneuver.
“What?!” objects Desmond. “You canceled dinner, remember? I’m grilling three chickens, OK? So why do you want the duck now?”
“I decided to make the casserole anyway,” Elizabeth Jane replies, no hint of rancor in her voice, as if the earlier duck contretemps had never taken place or had taken place in a parallel universe which she, Elizabeth Jane, did not care to revisit at this particular moment.
“But there are only two duck quarters left, and Martin said that even with four the dish was ‘marginal.’”
“Look,” says Elizabeth Jane, “You’re doing three chickens, right?”
“I just said I was. In fact, I have to turn them right now,” Desmond said, spearing the nearest chicken out of the olla with the carving fork and waving it like an inverted pendulum in Elizabeth Jane’s face, the marinade dripping onto the beige stone floor, making brown stains.
“Can I have one?”
“What the hell for? You just commandeered the leftover duck. For the second time today.”
“Right, I already have the duck, see?” says Elizabeth Jane, dangling the Ziploc tauntingly in front of Desmond at face level, “But when the chickens are ready, just cut one of them into small pieces for me and I’ll use them to extend my rice casserole.”
“Jesus Christ!” says Desmond. “OK, that’s fine by me if that’s what you want. How small do you want the pieces, E. J.? In quarters?”
“Nope, smaller than that. I need at least a dozen pieces.”
Desmond agrees. Then Elizabeth Jane spots the open rice cooker with the three cups of rice, already filled to the mark with water, the allegedly Iranian saffron pooling red-orange on the surface.
“You … are … making … RICE?!” she accuses, in ascending prosecutorial stridor, instantly back on the warpath. “We can’t BOTH make rice!”
“Why not? I already told you I was making rice tonight, and you didn’t say anything then.”
Ignoring any inconsistency, because “then” had been in the now-uninhabited parallel universe, Elizabeth Jane heatedly continues, “Because if you make your rice, no one will eat my rice! I’ve already spent hours on this rice casserole. It’s a masterpiece! I don’t want all my hard work to go unappreciated!”
Desmond suspects Elizabeth Jane has had an early margarita, or something. “She’s totally serious about this,” he thinks, itching for a good culinary brawl but scoping out the nearest exits all the same.
Elizabeth Jane sometimes gets that way. A year or so earlier, Francisco, the night watchman, killed a snake that was under his hammock, bashing it with a shovel, and Elizabeth Jane had to be physically restrained from firing him on the spot, because Elizabeth Jane venerated snakes.
“It’s an odd Marin County trait,” Desmond reflected whenever the matter of snakes came up, which was pretty often, because there were lots of snakes at Paradise Point, some of them six-foot boa constrictors, who slithered up the oil palms to eat the black-bellied whistling duck eggs. No matter that embryonic ducks were somehow less precious than snakes in Elizabeth Jane’s cosmology.
And no matter that Francisco had felt his life was in danger, that he understood no English, that Elizabeth Jane spoke no Spanish, that Francisco did not work for Elizabeth Jane but for the homeowners’ association. Elizabeth Jane had had a margarita or two that time, Desmond recalled.
So now Elizabeth Jane was snake-mad over some rice, and considered Desmond’s proposing to make three cups of it an epic betrayal.
“Elizabeth Jane, would it be OK if I made just one cup of rice, instead of three?” Desmond asks, slowly edging out of the kitchen, hoping she’d say “Yes,” so he could keep increasing the hypothetical volume of rice to see exactly where Elizabeth Jane’s betrayal threshold was and still be able to get away fast.
Elizabeth Jane ponders a scant moment. “One cup would have been OK, but not three.” she declares, sliding out the kitchen door with the Ziploc of doubly-leftover duck and making extraordinarily rapid headway towards Casa Don Martín, leaving a wake of incredulous silence behind her.
“Fuck the saffron rice,” Desmond mutters. “It’s not worth it.” He drains the water from the rice cooker and puts the cooker insert into the fridge for a future dinner.
Thursday dinner at Casa Mariposa is preceded by two pitchers of Elizabeth Jane’s margaritas. Like the legendary ultra-dry martini, where the vermouth’s cork is ceremoniously wafted like a censer over a glass of gin containing a cocktail olive, Elizabeth Jane’s margaritas are straight eighty proof booze, with a feeble tincture of lime, crushed ice being the only diluent. Emmett, their Irish neighbor, has three, a serious misstep.
When the chickens are done, ostentatiously borne into the kitchen and removed from the spit, Desmond dutifully carves one of them into small pieces and asks a courier guest to deliver them to Casa Don Martín, where Elizabeth Jane has repaired for final ministrations to her ricelamb- duck-and-now-with-added-chicken chef-d’ouvre. Five minutes later, a radiant Elizabeth Jane appears in the doorway of Casa Mariposa’s kitchen bearing a heavy, red-enameled cast iron casserole gripped between two huge yellow potholders.
The various dishes, including the centerpiece casserole, are now all deployed on the kitchen island and guests are called to start serving themselves. Desmond, as host, serves himself last; by the time he reaches the casserole he finds it rather shy in the duck department. He gingerly probes under the rice with a fork to make sure, but no luck. “Too bad,” he thinks, “But what can one expect with only two duck quarters and ten people to feed?” Desmond loves duck; he fleetingly regrets hosting the dinner in Casa Mariposa, because had it been hosted in Casa Don Martín instead, as a guest he could have been at the head of the line and not be bereft of duck on his last Thursday in Mexico.
Thursday’s dinner is languidly consumed, punctuated by Emmett’s hilarious off-color Irish jokes and home-town stories about the endless number of village idiots he grew up with, and how they are still village idiots forty years later, when he goes to visit the Old Sod, all the more hilarious because of the three Elizabeth Jane margaritas he has imbibed, not to mention because of the Elizabeth Jane margaritas (or the four bottles of Concha y Toro) imbibed by the dinner party. Emmett emigrated to Canada decades ago, has a moderate Irish brogue, but when he’s had a few, the brogue stiffens like a meringue, so you can cut it. Emmett is at least two sheets to the wind, if not three.
In between Emmett’s jokes and stories, delicately-couched, elegantly polite compliments are proffered on Elizabeth Jane’s rice-chicken-duck-and-lamb casserole, but an “Astonishing,” “Amazing,” “Astounding” quantity remains clotted in the casserole dish, whereas none of the the Yucatan chicken is left.
Flan, Tres Leches cake and local ice cream are served for dessert and Warren distributes Habanero cigars to the smokers The evening winds down. Last out is Martin, after his customarily surreptitious selection of choice cigar butts, which he executes with quicksilver precision.
It’s Friday lunchtime. Desmond plans a big pasta dish for dinner: he’ll make the sauce and Elizabeth Jane can make a kilo of her die-cut Pasta Abruzzese. There’s plenty of basil coming online in the garden, and the local Roma tomatoes are very sweet at this time of year. A marinara sauce with lots of fresh basil seems like the ticket. Almost at the end of their three-week stay, there’s still a good chunk of imported Parmesan to grate.
“Shouldn’t be too controversial,” Desmond muses, wending his way through the banana trees en route to Casa Don Martín to break the dinner plans to Elizabeth Jane. Desmond finds Elizabeth Jane at her big glass-top dining room table, about to have lunch, with a New Yorker propped against a vase overfilled with scarlet zinnias. Knife and fork in hand, she’s about to happily attack what appears to be… a leftover duck quarter.
Coming up behind her, Desmond stops cold.
“Elizabeth Jane! Is that the leftover duck you’re having?” Desmond squeaks, as much at a loss as if he had seen the sun rising in the west that morning, not yet grasping the magnitude of the Great Chicken-for-Duck Swap that had been perpetrated on him and his guests the evening before.
“Yup,” Elizabeth Jane replies, smirking vaguely. “Sure is. The last quarter is over there in the casserole dish, under the rice. Want it?” She gestures with her knife towards her pink marble kitchen counter while at the same time forking a sizeable chunk of leftover duck into her mouth. Martin, in his wicker armchair, engulfed in Thursday’s dinner’s cigar-butt smoke, shoots an anguished glance in Elizabeth Jane’s direction, like a comic-strip character who has just seen his life savings go up in smoke, depicted as a huge yellow dollar sign with wings, ascending into the Blue Yonder.
Desmond, his eyes lighting up, sidles over to the counter, takes a fork, and like Jack Horner pulling out his plum, extracts the final leftover duck quarter from under a mantle of congealed rice, where it had been cached after Thursday’s dinner, in the same way a French peasant woman conceals her money under the mattress. He plunks it onto a plate, grabs a knife, and vengefully consumes it, crushing the bones with his teeth and sucking out the marrow. Elizabeth Jane and Martin pretend not to notice.
Desmond and Elizabeth Jane then plan Friday’s dinner. It’s Elizabeth Jane’s Abruzzese pasta with Desmond’s basil-marinara sauce. It serves fourteen and not a bit, thank God, is left over.