It all started one year ago–last Halloween, to be exact. My husband came home from work early that afternoon to gravely and methodically create a well-researched, well-planned, elusive-but-magical White Chicken Chili for the church chili cookoff–a contest he’d never before entered. And by “methodically create,” I mean that he left work four hours early, spent the first hour wandering around the grocery store muttering to himself in confusion (he’s not so good in grocery stores), then the next three hours over the stove, audibly panicking as he chopped, grated, boiled, spilled and all but destroyed my helpless little kitchen. At long last the chili was complete, the mood heavy and the tension high as I watched him drag the steaming crockpotted concoction to the car. We made it to the church just in time for him to sign his dish in and sit back while the judges sampled Derrick P. Smith’s masterpiece. Calling for three cups of monterey jack cheese, the recipe was surely an indisputable winner, as would Derrick be, he felt certain, when the judges announced his name and he stepped forward ever-so-humbly (“Oh my gosh…really?”) to claim the championship title. Realizing at this point that there was nothing more to do but wait, we found seats and ate other people’s chili, waiting in agony for the winners to be announced. An hour later, Derrick sat on the edge of his plastic chair, palms moist and lips pressed as he willed the MC on stage to announce: And first prize goes to…Derrick P. Smith!
Derrick P. Smith came in second. A respectable showing, but he was grossly dissatisfied.
And so, my faithfuls, I have been listening to my husband revisit that night and that moment–when dreams were dashed and chili chewed cheerlessly–for a year. An entire year. Such a devastating blow would encourage most people to develop a different talent–one, perhaps, that they might actually get good at. Not Derrick P. Smith. Oh no. He immediately set to work planning, dreaming, and talking (a lot) about how his chili was perfect, he’d been inexplicably robbed of victory, and how next year–just to show ’em all–he’d use the same recipe to win. And he’d win big. (Nobody puts Derrick in a corner.)
Let me backtrack a little, lest you are a new faithful. In order to understand my husband’s fixation on perfecting this chili, you need to understand two central tenets of my husband’s personality:
1. He is a lousy cook.
2. He is fiercely competitive, but only about things that don’t matter. Do you make more money, drive a better car, play better softball than he does? Fine. But don’t you dare challenge him on Words With Friends, his juggling skills, or who-can-log-more-steps on the Fitbit; the claws and fangs will come out. (Just ask the poor shmuck who claimed he could “walk the dog” on the yo-yo faster than my husband. It didn’t end well.)
The reason tenet #1 has to do with tenet #2 is simple: my husband is a lousy cook because my husband doesn’t want to cook. He doesn’t care about learning how to do it. He “can’t cook” the same way I “can’t fix the computer”–because we’d rather get the other person to do it. In fact, when my husband gets home late and there’s no dinner left, I’ll generally put forth an (insincere) offer to make him something, which he (wisely) refuses. Then, like clockwork, he’ll open the fridge and squint vaguely inside for a full two minutes, waiting for something already prepared to reveal itself to him. Upon finding nothing, I’ll kindly suggest, “Why don’t you make yourself a sandwich?” His reply never varies:
“Too much work.” So I downshift.
“Bowl of cereal?”
“What do we have?
“Total and Honey Bunches of Oats.”
“No Special K?”
“Dang it.” He closes the fridge door, opens the freezer, and stuffs two fistfuls of frozen chocolate chips down his throat.
“Is that what you’re having?” Like I need to ask.
“Yep.” I watch as he guzzles down a glass of milk and does not put the dirty glass in the sink.
And with that, he’s finally out of my kitchen. Phew. I do not want Derrick P. Smith in my kitchen. Which brings us to personality tenet #2. You see, the only reason my husband ever sets foot in the kitchen is when a championship title–or at least massive recognition–is at stake. He can’t make cookies or a salad, but he makes his self-described America’s Best Apple Pie! every Thanksgiving and Authentic Handmade Tamales! every New Years–and both require roughly the same money and effort it would take to renovate what he now claims is our completely inadequate kitchen. And as if those bi-annual productions weren’t enough, I now have to deal with an Annual Chili Cookoff, the arrival of which finds me suddenly married to an Iron Chef who complains about our paltry saucepan selection and the meager quality of our knives.
This year was no different. The plan was made, the ingredients purchased, the time taken off work. In fact, on the afternoon of the Big Night, he had a conference call he couldn’t get out of, so he conducted it on his iPhone while chopping, grating, boiling and spilling. This multi-tasking seemed to frustrate him a little, but it was great fun for me because now my husband had to Freak Out In The Kitchen silently. He’d be cradling the phone in his ear, nodding and saying “Yes, I see,” to his client while stirring the beans with one arm and waving hysterically at me with other, mouthing “cayenne pepper…CAYENNE PEPPER!!” in a silent, exaggerated scream. Rather than getting it for him, I’d lean against the counter, pick some lettuce out of my teeth, and wave my finger in the general direction of the spice cupboard, mainly so I could watch him tear it apart trying to find the CAYENNE PEPPER!! while saying calmly into the phone that “the fourth quarter projections look better than anticipated, Stan.”
Women have been multitasking like this in the kitchen for a millennia, but men–not so much. And I think that may be where things went wrong, because later that night, after the cooking and hauling and judging and hoping and praying were over, Derrick P. Smith didn’t win first prize in the Annual Chili Cookoff.
He didn’t win second prize, either.
Come the Final Judgment–when the chili was lined up, tasted, tested and talked over by two nineteen-year old boys with surely qualified paletes–Derrick’s chili didn’t win any prize at all.
Derrick P. Smith lost. And he lost big.
And as if losing wasn’t dismal enough, three terrific cruelties followed that ill-fated night:
1. The Master of Ceremonies (and a good friend of his) actually called out his name as the First Prize Winner. Derrick jumped out of his seat and put on his fakest aw, shucks face, only to have the audience point and laugh as the MC said, “Just kidding!”
2. The woman who actually won First Prize (and a good friend of mine) stood up, turned to Derrick in front of the crowd, and stuck her big fat juicy tongue out at him, with all the delight of a four-year old who’d just nabbed the biggest sucker from the goodie bag. It was ahhsome.
3. Derrick P. Smith did not win the Chili Cookoff, but guess what? His wife did. Second Prize. What’s worse, she didn’t really try; she just threw some chili together at the last minute because she’d signed up to help with the food. And even worse, she didn’t really feel that bad about it because, well, she’s spent the last fifteen years chopping, grating, boiling and spilling in that same completely inadequate kitchen and has never once received a prize for any of it. And so, no offense honey, I’m joining my First Prize Friend in the great big fat juicy Tongue-Stickout. But you should know, I do it with love.
And just a wee bit of satisfaction.
Consoling Derrick after the big letdown. You can see he’s laughing to keep from crying.
(Me, on the other hand? All smiles. Second place, baby!)