Well I’m A Middle Child, So…

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When you are born a middle child, like I was (second in a line of three girls), people are never shy in sharing with you, their thoughts on why you are the way you are. You’re sensitive; you need a lot of attention; and my favorite, which I heard just last week: you’re dealing with a Jan Brady complex. A lot of it, I laugh off, but on occasion, I do find it interesting to analyze what effect my birth order actually did have on me. Maybe it is because I wasn’t the eldest, who was trusted, and handed all of the responsibility by mom and dad, or because I wasn’t the youngest, who was always given that extra nudge, coddled just a little more, that I played alone as a child and that it was me who decided to go to school 1100 miles away from home and be ok on my own for the next two decades. Perhaps there is a correlation; I really don’t know. But one thing I am pretty sure is a result of being stuck in the middle all those years, is that I always need that pat on the back that says I’ve done well—that little bit of reassurance to bolster my confidence, even when it’s for something I have no doubt I’ve executed without a hitch.

Case in point:

It was last week, when my boss put me on the task of organizing the menu for a working dinner with a new project team which included, in addition to him and a few of my co-workers, two outside consultants and a [very important] client from China. Sure, I could do this, no problem. If there is anything that I know for certain I’m good at, it’s preparing a beautiful meal. From choosing the dinner plates and table linens to arranging the flowers, and writing the place cards and crafting the menu itself, I’m your girl. I love to do it and I know I do it well.

So the meeting was on Friday and I got word end of day Wednesday. Fine. A day to plan was plenty. Before leaving for the evening I sent a kind inquiry to my point person for the Chinese client, asking if they had any preferences for our dinner, or, more importantly, if they had any dietary restrictions.

Mid-morning the following day, I received a note back that read something along the lines of: “Healthy, not too greasy…Greasy food is not good choice… Small pieces of beef are ok…as long as not greasy.”

I kid you not.

I read it three times, during which my mind toggled back and forth between pictures of a raw, Gwyneth Paltrow-style spread of “healthy” food, and the carnivore’s delight: a juicy, rare steak. I was sure that this dinner meeting with our Chinese client was not the occasion to experiment with either extreme however, so I started thinking of more universally appealing options– a menu that fell somewhere sort of in between crazy-healthy and indulgent. Ideas began swirling. I started looking at websites for all of the local ‘purveyors of fine foods’, browsing catering menus. Nothing seemed quite right. It was that “small pieces of beef” line that kept throwing me. Would he mention beef if he didn’t want beef? No! He wanted beef. Beef, beef! Citarella had a Filet Mignon platter and at Dean & DeLuca there was a Provence Grill platter or a Pan-Asian platter. (Though, a Pan-Asian platter is weird for a Chinese client, right?) Anyway, a group of eight was really too small to go the catered platters route, so I figured I’d put something together myself, prepared of course, as I don’t have a working kitchen at my disposal.

I took a venture to the nearby Whole Foods thinking skewers, and made a beeline to the dinner-ready window. Et voila! There they were, piled high, calling my name. I would do a few chicken, a few beef, a mixed greens salad and a nice side of grilled veg for the non-meat eaters, and a summer pearl couscous (or some equally delicious starch). Well, my hopes were dashed as fast as the brilliant plan had come to me—when the man behind the counter explained that the skewers need to be reheated and that the recommended method of doing so is low heat on a stovetop. Ok, so skewers were out and it was on to Plan B. At least I got the starch and the salad.

On the walk back to the office I shuffled through the list of restos in the vicinity that with some sweet-talking might make me exactly what I wanted and deliver it hot. Then back at my desk it was a call to a new place just around that corner at which I’d recently discovered (and I say this because it’s a sports bar) a surprisingly good menu that includes, what else but skewers.  So after trying to explain to two lovely Irish gals what exactly I wanted to do [and getting nowhere] I was finally connected to the chef himself.

“So I’ll take four orders of the chicken skewers… and…do you have any beef?”

“We don’t have beef skewers but we’ve got steak.”

“Hmmm. Steak could work. What kind of steak?”

“Steak Frites with an herb butter. It’s a prime-aged, grass-fed hangar steak.”

“Is that what I see in the picture on your website?”

“Yes it is.”

“Well that does look delicious. Can you make me three of those medium-rare hold the frites?”

“Three of those, medium-rare, hold the frites. Sure thing.”

“And do you have any sort of vegetable?”

“I got a roasted vegetable– chickpea, tomato, artichoke hearts, asparagus…”

“I’ll take three!”

And at that, everything had fallen into place.

At 6:30 my culinary work of art was finished—the paper takeout cartons were traded for ceramic serving dishes and made pretty with sprigs of watercress and bright purple leaves of radicchio, and under the lights, gently dimmed for effect, our minimal black dinnerware looked elegant. The glasses had a delicate sparkle to them, and somehow the silverware looked shinier than usual. Any trace of Whole Foods or sports bar menu had disappeared, and now it was nothing less than a gorgeous feast. I opened a bottle of white and a bottle of red, fluffed the lettuce greens one last time and smiled to myself, content with my little masterpiece, pleased with my mission accomplished. But of course, there was still one thing I would wait for….

The next morning at work, there were the expected rumblings around the office about how the meeting had gone, and from the boss-man, there were a handful of thank yous—to everyone on the team, for all the hours they’d put in, for all the hard work. Of course, my contribution was minor in comparison—a day of my life instead of weeks—but when it came to me, there was no acknowledgement at all, like the dinner had never happened…or better, as if I’d tossed my hands up and served McDonald’s to our guests, paper wrappers and Happy Meal boxes included. So I fixed dinner. Still, it was my effort. And I wanted that reassurance that my effort was appreciated; maybe even impressive. When noontime came, there was still not a word. Was it that he had forgotten? Or had he said nothing on purpose? Was my version of beautiful so far from his? My ‘masterpiece’ really nothing so special at all? My mind began in a downward spiral. But wait… There was still hope. The day was not over. There was still his goodbye.

And then there before me, it happened. Or… it didn’t. “Good night,” he said, buttoning his raincoat. “I’ll see you Monday.” My heart sank. And from behind my blank-faced “goodnight” in reply, my inner Jan Brady set off in hysterics—one part frustrated, one part confused and the rest just sad. And I felt like chasing after him in search of an explanation.

Wait a minute here? What about me? Did I not do well? Didn’t you mean to thank me?

It was an hour later when the note came. Via email. A thanks for a beautiful dinner and a job well done.

So, in the end, however late it arrived, I got what I wanted… or, being the middle child I am, what I needed. I guess that the lesson this time—because there’s always a lesson, no matter how grown up we are— is that beyond always trying to do my best, I should learn to live with the possibility that I might not get the pat on the back and feel content enough with the knowledge that I have done the job well.

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