Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dicey ladies...

I met Charlie’s mother on a spring afternoon. Home from college on semester break, Charlie and I decided that it was time I visited the family homestead and make an official appearance as the “new girlfriend.” Perched high atop San Rafael hill, the custom-built mid-century home with sweeping views of Mt. Tamalpais and a large open living room with high-beamed ceilings had been built by Charlie’s locally prominent grandparents as an entertainer’s paradise.

Recently passed down to Charlie’s parents, the pristine home bore no battle scars that would hint to the fact that these same parents raised four now-grown children…no tattered basketball hoop in the driveway, no rusty swing set in the yard, not a hint of crayon on the wall or faded Kool-aid stain on the sofa.

A campaign publicity photo from the 50's...that's Alice on the right of the hearth.

As I passed across the manicured front walk, through the big double doors, I was struck by a sense of meticulous order that was bracingly unfamiliar to me.  The white sculptured area rug was immaculate, a glistening sterling silver tea set sat perched atop the dining room sideboard, and beams of sunlight shone through a huge, smudge-free picture wall of glass, highlighting a polished wooden floor oddly free of dust bunnies or crushed Cheerios.
Yes, there we are...the happy young couple, and that's me carrying not only the freshman fifteen, but an enormous hunk of cake to-go.
Back at my family’s suburban split level, evidence of an “active” family life was in full swing. Piles of laundry from two visiting college-aged kids littered the worn sectional couch and muddy cleats, half-completed science projects covering the breakfast table and a fridge plastered with magnets, Little League schedules and homework served as countless clues that a young boy still lived at home.

Yes, walking into Charlie’s family home was like nothing I had ever seen but I think the thing that struck me the most was that it appeared to be “bridge day.” Poised between the cream colored sofa, the marble fireplace and the long maple hi-fi were three card tables, each strategically positioned and neatly covered with a starched, hand-stitched little table cloth created distinctly for this purpose. A white notepad, a sharpened pencil and a crystal dish filled with chocolate-covered mixed nuts completed each vignette.

Was Alice having a bridal shower? What was up with the paper and the pencils? I had only heard of bridge on repeats of the Dick Van Dyke show. Did people really play this game…and in the middle of the day?

At our house, a deck of cards came out only after the big ravioli platter and our mismatched service station juice glasses had been cleared from the kitchen table, and enough red wine had flowed to turn dinner with the neighbors into a late-night Pinochle party. Bridge? Ladies? Tidy white linens? I was intrigued…

Fast forward 25 years and it was time for Charlie’s folks to bid farewell to the family home. Choosing to downsize, they decided to hold an “estate sale” of sorts -- all items free and the only customers, their four children and spouses. With our color-coded Post-its in-hand, each “child” circulated from table to table sticking tags to the items we hoped to bring into our homes to cherish and care-take for future generations.

As the only sister-in-law, I was prepared and willing to take the back seat and scoop up the remnants...a couple of pieces of Tupperware and maybe a Pyrex if I was lucky. To my delight, his sisters had little interest in so many of the treasures I coveted: Alice and Ole’s sliver baby porridge bowls, mini monogrammed sterling ashtrays, tiny enameled jam spoons and yes, those starched card table cloths, hanging over an arm chair, still in their dry-cleaning bags, calling to come home to me.

I gathered my treasures and tucked them away, pulling them out every so often to admire while pondering what life would have been like as one of those “bridge” ladies. But, somehow, when I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I’d trudge between the home office and the washing machine only to see the familiar reflection of a bedraggled woman in a flannel nightie and worn out Uggs, it occurred to me that perhaps my beautiful little linens would never again feel the tippy tap of manicured nails on their starched little selves.
That is, until I discovered a little game called Bunko.
After all, Charlie had his golf buddies, and this girl was starving for some sister-love. It had been years since nights out with “all the single ladies” had given way to nights up with the "all the cranky babies." Now that the kids were a little older, old enough to boot out of the house with Daddy for one evening a year, it seemed time to gather some girls for some good old fashion fun.
I hit the Internet looking for a reason to lure a bunch of gals around a few card tables on a regular basis. A book club…hum, no time to read. A dinner club…yikes, I do that every night. Bridge...I heard you actually need to think.

No, there really was only one option: Bunko… 12 women, 12 bottles of wine, 12 five dollar bills, 9 dice, and one Friday night a month.  No thinking is required. In fact, it’s discouraged.

Three card tables, each set with three dice, hold four women who roll for maximum points while each respective group counts out in unison as points are accumulated. “One…two…three!” we shout out in chorus like twelve ESL students on their first day of Junior College. The counting and rolling proceeds until someone bursts out “Bunko” signifying a lucky roll of three like dice. At that point, everyone grabs their glass of wine and their score card and marches on to roll again at the next table over.

The rules tend to change to suit our needs and our murky memories but somehow, someone always walks off with some cash for “high score” or a bottle of wine as the consolation prize going to the biggest loser of the night.

I have a feeling that this is a little different than an afternoon of bridge with Alice and the ladies. For some reason, I envision their gatherings to have been more like a scene from “The Help”, complete with tidy coiffed hair-dos, snappy little purses and sandwiches served with the crusts cut off.  Our evenings tend to be a bit more colorful…
The group has evolved over the years and is motley by design: a hair stylist, a poet, a teacher, a dentist, a realtor, a couple of mortgage brokers, a few part-time stay-at-home moms, a wine distributor and several combinations thereof.

Gals with kids, some without, and a grandma to-boot…we’ve come together through school, through work, through family, through neighbors and through friends of friends of friends, but somehow we have gelled into a crew of unlikely comrades who share an addiction to belly laughing till we’re sore, a tolerance for loud music and off-color remarks, and an insatiable need to commune in the unique way we do.
The smokes are the way
We eat an un-dainty meal of pasta Bolognese or pozole, drink tons of wine, and snack on cake and cobbler and chocolates while we pretend to keep score.

Sometimes, so caught up in conversations ranging from night sweats and new shoes to varicose veins and Vegas, we don’t even get to the game. During our last get together, my mom, the adopted grandma of the crew, professed during a lively debate on cosmetic procedures (who’s had ‘em, who wants ‘em) “You girls are my Botox!” Well said, Mama, well said!
Last month was my turn to host and here's a little something my poet friend wrote on my chalkboard on her way out the door. It's still on my wall even though it makes William crazy, "Mom, I don't get it!" Son, you never will...

A couple of days before the big night, the ceremonial preparation began as I trudged my card tables in from the garage, hoisted my buffet plates down from the high shelves, pulled out those beloved little cloths and began to drape them lovingly over each table.
I smoothed my hand over the laundered linens, smiling to myself as I noticed little grey ghosts of parties past. I closed my eyes and chuckled, remembering red wine flying from either Paula's signature expressive style of conversation or Lizzie's new twist on flinging the dice with flair. Hummm, I guess they drank club soda back in the bridge days because these cloths did not look like this when I got 'em.

As usual I used the girls as a testing ground for a recipe that was new to me but one chock full of my favorite and familiar Moroccan flavors: Chicken Tagine. I served it with a beet, orange and fennel salad, couscous with parsley, and for dessert, a polenta pound cake with wine-poached pears, dried cherries and whipped creme fraiche. Yes...yum.
So my friends, I urge you to grab some dice, gather up eleven feisty friends and simmer up this dish which I hope you find as sweet and spicy as the ones you hold dear. Why?
"Because there is night
Because there is wine
Because tangled female love nests
creep through song
Because stories are born on Friday dice
Because cake."

  Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Almonds

Note: Do not let the long list of ingredients scare you off. Basically this is just chicken stew using Moroccan spices. If you are out of cilantro, don't sweat it. If the preserved lemon is too much trouble, leave it out. Feel free to improvise!

Mix in a large bowl:
  • 2.5 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2.5 tsp ground ginger
  • 1.5 tsp turmeric
  • 1.5 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 5 Tbs olive oil
Add and toss to coat:
  • 6 pounds boneless chicken thighs, cleaned and dried
Heat in a large Dutch oven:

  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
Brown chicken in batches on both sides, transfer to a plate.

Saute slowly until soft in the seasoned Dutch oven:
  • 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
Add the browned chicken and reserved juices back to the pot and add:
  • 5 fresh sprigs of fresh parsley and cilantro tied with kitchen twine
  • 1 1/2 cups water or chicken stock (or enough to cover the meat about 1/3 of the way up)
Cover and simmer slowly for 30 minutes. While the chicken is simmering add to a separate small saucepan:
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup Turkish dried apricots, separated into halves
Bring to a boil then simmer, uncovered until apricots are nicely softened. Remove apricots and simmer sauce until it is reduced to a thin syrup. Return apricots to the saucepan.

Heat in a skillet over moderate heat:
  • 3 Tbs olive oil
Add and cook until golden then drain on a paper towel:
  • 2/3 cup slivered or whole blanched almonds
Add the apricot mixture to the tagine, remove cinnamon stick and herb bundle.

Add to the tagine and warm:
  • 1 preserved lemon*, rind only, quartered and sliced thin
Serve tagine over couscous, sprinkle with almonds and chopped fresh parsley.

Serves 12, generously with left overs