Entertaining In Short Order

Getting married on a holiday weekend seemed like a good idea when we set the date. We’d always have a three-day vacation to celebrate our anniversary, right?

Since then we’ve had both spontaneous and planned celebrations blow up because of that weekend. Most memorable: The time we made a snap decision to drive to the Lake Michigan shore. We figured we’d find a cozy hotel along a country road. Romantic, huh? Do you have any idea how many people participate in bass fishing contests? A lot. They had reservations.

Thirty-five years into the marriage, we’re still crazy about each other, but only marginally smarter about our anniversary weekend. Awhile back, we invited three other long-married couples to join us for a 5 p.m. champagne dinner at the (late, lamented) Lobster Pot in South Euclid. The Lobster Pot didn’t take reservations, but we thought we’d be early enough to avoid the dinner crowd. It wasn’t until 4 that afternoon that it occurred to my husband, Don, to see if the restaurant was open that weekend. Um, no, they weren’t. And nobody else was either.

Which gave me precisely 40 minutes to prepare a sit-down dinner for eight while Don phoned the other couples about the change in venue. “Hi! We’re idiots!” he announced cheerily, while I dealt out Aunt Rose’s 1915 china like a Vegas card shark. “Every restaurant in town is closed,” he reported, as I deposited Aunt Lillian’s pink needle-etched wine goblets at each place. “Come to the house instead,” he told them, over the clinking of handfuls Gramma Dewing’s silverware. “No — it’ll be fine,” he assured everyone. “This is as close as Mary comes to having a sport.”

We may not have gotten any better at anticipating other people’s plans for long weekends, but I sure have learned the value of a well-stocked pantry and a nicely stuffed freezer compartment. We’d just been to Sam’s Club, and there was an eight-count box of Tyson frozen breaded chicken breasts, rolled around broccoli and cheese. (Cut cellophane bags, drop onto cookie sheet, bake for 35 minutes.)

Don vacuumed the parts of the house that showed. I started the rice. (Two cups of Uncle Ben’s converted rice into a four-quart pot. Add four cups of water, smoosh up two packages of Ramen Noodles. Dump the broken noodles and the chicken flavoring packets into the pot. Put the hat on. [Every marriage has its odd phrases; that’s ours for “cover the pot.”] Bring to a boil.)

“Bathroom!” I yelled at Don, over the roar of the vacuum cleaner. “Salad,” I muttered to myself. All I had on hand was iceberg lettuce. (Don’t sneer. It’s nice and crisp. Break it up. Oh — turn the heat down on the rice and let it simmer for 20 minutes. Open and dump cans of drained julienned beets, mandarin oranges, sweet corn and asparagus tips into the salad bowl. Dress it lightly with a balsamic vinaigrette or Vidalia onion dressing.)

When the guests arrived, dinner was ready, Don popped the champagne cork and poured while I discreetly opened a 10-ounce box of generic frozen strawberries and let it thaw while we ate. (Mash the strawberries, ladle them onto dessert plates and drop a couple miniature Dove ice cream nuggets in the center of each.) And that’s how we made it over the anniversary dinner finish line.

I felt like a medalist in the Women’s Olympic Indoor Short-Order Cooking Event, Master’s Division.

Mary Doria Russell is the author of the award-winning best-sellers “The Sparrow,” “Children of God” and “A Thread of Grace.” She lives in South Euclid with her husband and too many pets.

Share this story: