Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Dinner Party That Almost Wasn't

I should have known that I was pushing my luck to schedule another dinner party. I have hosted many large dinners on our veranda, always managing to have electricity at the right times to get everything cooked. There have been a few close calls, like last month when the power failed just as we finished cooking, so I guess I should have known that eventually my luck would run out.

Thursday night we had invited all of the graduating college students for a final farewell dinner. With administrators and wives, the expected guest list swelled to forty. I had hired help: Harold, the assistant cook for Harding In Zambia, and Obrien, who was home from boarding school. They had started early in the day making cole slaw, cutting up eight chickens, and setting up tables.

The power often goes out around 5:00, so Harold and I planned to get the chicken in the oven at 2:30 so it would be done early just in case. Harold had rolled the chicken pieces in butter and cornflake crumbs and put the first two trays in around 2:40. About that time the sky darkened and a distant roll of thunder sounded. David, ever the pessimist, warned, “You’d better get the brick oven going in case the power goes out in the storm.” I ignored him—we had no time for building fires right now. The second set of pans went into the oven at the Hamby guesthouse at 3:00. At 3:20 I put the last two trays into the oven at the Mann guesthouse and headed back to my own kitchen just as the first raindrops fell.

I made it to my house without getting too wet, hoping against hope that for once we could have a rain shower without losing electricity. I should have known better. At 3:30 the fans stopped, the lights blinked off, and my dinner party took a decided turn toward disaster. Sometimes the power comes back on quickly, so we waited and hoped. The rain lasted only about 10 minutes, and as the skies cleared I stared at the ceiling fan, as if I could will the blades to start spinning again.

At 3:55 it was time for Plan B. Harold and I headed for the backyard of the Hamby guesthouse where there is a homemade brick oven. It hadn’t been used for several weeks, so the first step was to pull out a rake, several huge logs, an axe, and some bags of food and trash stashed there by a temporary worker. Then we had to cart a bag of charcoal from my house and get the fire going. By 4:30 the fire was just getting started and I was approaching panic.

Harold(shown here on the left) is the epitome of calm. I needed someone to share my sense of impending doom, so I tried to explain the finer points of food poisoning to him and Obrien. The chicken in the oven, I told them, was just warm enough for germs to start multiplying. We must, I warned, get the chicken cooking as soon as possible or risk all of our guests getting sick from eating tainted food.

Harold gave me the look he often gives me, the “I feel sorry for this poor, crazy American woman who doesn’t understand Zambians” look. He sighed, saying, “Madam, we Zambians will not die from food poisoning. We could leave our chicken out all night and not get sick. It will be okay.” I resigned myself to panicking alone.

It was approaching 5:00 and the dinner party was supposed to start at 6:00. We still had rice and a tomato/onion sauce to cook. Obrien went to work starting a fire in the outdoor grill for those pots, and I went to my house and brought all the ingredients down to the Hamby backyard so all the cooking would be happening in the same place.

The fire in the brick oven was finally ready at 5:00, so I retrieved all six pans of chicken from the three different ovens/houses and we got them all into the oven at once. The rice and sauce were soon bubbling on the grill fire. Obrien set off on his bike to pick up the rolls from Mrs. Phiri’s house across campus, and I got everything set up to serve the meal on the veranda.

The chicken wasn’t ready by 6:00, but then none of our guests arrived at 6:00 either. They began trickling in by 6:15, and by 6:45 we had a critical mass. The chicken still wasn’t quite ready, so I made opening remarks about how special this group was to me, how much we would miss them, and how much we expected of them. And, as we often do in Zambia, we sang.

Meanwhile, David drove our truck to the Hamby house and loaded up the trays of now-cooked (I hoped) chicken and the huge pot of rice. Harold hand-delivered the sauce. Meagan arrived to help, and we served dinner at 7:00 by the light of lanterns and flashlights.

Everyone declared the food delicious, there were no leftovers to worry about, and I crashed into bed at 8:45 wondering if I’d ever have the desire to entertain again. And for those of you who are wondering, Harold was right—no one got sick!


~amber said...

I enjoyed reading this story, as I do all of your posts. Thank you for sharing!
Love and appreciation from Austin,
Amber Weed

Mary Ann Melton said...

As I read this story, I had to think about God and his providence. In America, chickens have been raised in very crowded pens on chicken farms for so long that salmonella is common in live chickens and their meat and even found in most eggs. We can no longer make eggnog from uncooked eggs as we could when I was much younger. As long as we cook chicken and eggs properly then they are safe. But in Zambia chickens are free range chickens, never grown in the same conditions, so perhaps the germs that cause Americans so many problems with improperly cooked poultry is not the same in Zambia. As for God's providence in this, He knows that many Zambians don't have the refrigeration, so perhaps this is one of His ways of protecting His African people. Who knows?

Kemmel and Lisa Dunham said...

Great job! Our Guatemalan friends give me the same look when I ask them if it will be okay to eat that meat they are offering me, that has been sitting out all night........ We haven't died yet.

Sandra T. said...

Linda, This story kindled a memory of past Teacher Appreciation Dinners. I can imagine that you took detailed notes on the preparations and next time will certainly avoid such a crisis. ha!
My love and prayers,
Sandra T.

David and Linda Gregersen said...

Sandra, The only note I took was a mental one: From now on we'll have David's GRILLED chicken and not worry about electricity! But yes, I do rely on years of experience with Teacher Appreciation Dinners at BOCC. I miss doing them with you!

David and Linda Gregersen said...

Kemmel and Lisa, I have to laugh at myself when I think about what a germ freak I used to be. I've learned to eat whatever I'm offered and enjoy it. One of the many joys of living here!