Roberta Cliché prided herself on her cooking. She considered herself the Queen of Westchester where food was concerned.
Manuelo Cliché, Roberta’s husband, was the son of a Bolivian mother and a French father who traveled, for his job in the world of nonprofit munitions development, throughout the First, Second and Third Worlds. Some children whose families move around a great deal feel rootless and have few friends. Manuelo treasured the exposure to new cultures and especially new foods but he had few friends.
When Manuelo met Roberta in business school at the Institut Polytechnique d’Algérie, he envisioned a career in the manufacturing and marketing of cotter pins and other sailboat hardware, and Roberta aimed for a life as a wife, mother and hostess extraordinaire. Her business degree was a fallback in case the hostessing part fell through. She went to Algeria for university because she misread the brochure and thought she was headed to Austria, where she’d hoped to learned Viennese pastry. The Algiers Polytechnic, alas, did not have a pastry program.
Manuelo’s career followed his desired trajectory, and he came to be known in the international world of sailboat hardware as the Cotter Pin King. His success supported a comfortable postcolonial home in Scarsdale, new Range Rovers every other year for himself and Roberta, and tuition for Margo, who was the eldest, Miyako in the middle, and Albumia, the youngest. He did not own a boat because he was prone to seasickness.
Margo tired at times of explaining to new acquaintances that his name was the result of a typographical error on his Hungarian birth certificate. He had been born in Budapest while his father was there on a monthslong residency overseeing construction of a new cotter-pin factory, and a “c” became a “g” on the certificate. Authorities in Hungary refused to admit the error or alter the document retroactively.
Margo was a UConn sixth-year junior—major undecided—who returned home from Storrs one or two weekends a semester. He adored his sisters and his parents, and he considered his Scarsdale weekends exercises in maternal culinary adventure. Margo liked to eat.
Miyako Cliché, an eighth-grader at the Lumbermill Country Day School, had since infancy devoted herself to Norwegian dramaturgy. Miyako loved to eat but had few friends. She relished Margo’s visits home.
Albumia, at five, possessed the most refined palate of the Clichés. Barely past weaning she could distinguish a St. Honoré from a Paris-Brest and duck foie gras from goose. She spent her mornings at Santa Monrovia Episcopal Montessori Academy, where she enjoyed many rewarding friendships among her classmates. She excelled at construction-paper chains and pudding.
Neighbors welcomed dinner invitations from the Clichés because Roberta was a skilled and adventurous cook. Goulash appeared rather too often on her menus—the manager of FoodLust Village Market ordered paprika in five-kilo sacks just for Roberta—a remnant of the time around Margo’s birth. But for the most part Roberta explored the cuisines of the world with catholic abandon.
It was on the occasion of Margo’s return home for Spring Break during his third junior year that Roberta decided to produce a celebratory meal of all her children’s favorite dishes. Margo loved ravioli, lumpia and kreplach—he was mad for stuffed foods, a devotion his mother suspected was related to womb-memory. Little Albumia, with her open mind and educated tongue, ate everything but she craved cabbage in all its incarnations except for the more vinegary cole slaw variations. And Miyako lived for curry. She watched Bollywood movies without subtitles just for glimpses of curry.
Manuelo, the Cliché patriarch, took a cavalier attitude toward eating, rarely expressing complaint or praise. He enjoyed the cuisines of the world, most of which he had tried, but what Roberta did not know about and would have been dismayed to learn about was her husband’s penchant for the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s. Most days Manuelo would put away three hamburgers and a McChicken or two. When the ice cream machine worked he’d have an Oreo McFlurry. It pained him to lie to Roberta about imaginary business lunches at Passion House, The Veal Nook or Edna’s Ponderosa Canteen, but he knew she would erupt with smug contempt if she learned his tawdry secret.
Margo hit traffic around Westport and reached home just as the Clichés were sitting down at the table or, in the bourgeois manner Roberta preferred, “at table,” or sometimes “to table.” She typically adorned her dining table wth flowers from the garden—it was to be freesias this time—but she discovered mid-afternoon that Clovis, the Clichés’ Siamese cat, had peed in the vase. But it was just as well. Given the feast Roberta was about to serve, every square inch of dinner-table real estate would be needed for the meal.
What are we having, Mom?” Margo queried. “Considering your proven track record with cooking, I can’t wait to see what you’ve curated for us. I’m starving!”
“Well, I’ve been in the trenches all day, but I think you’ll all like what I curated. There is a dining solution for everybody!”
Roberta required six trips to the kitchen to deliver all the food to the table. Once she did so, the family gobbled eagerly.
“Wow, Mom! When you put your boots on the ground and nose to the grindstone, you really are amazing,” said Margo.
“Amazing,” added Miyako between slurps of green coconut chicken curry. “Really amazing,” said Manuelo. Albumia was also likely amazed but she was too occupied with preventing her kimchi from touching her choucroute garnie to join the chorus.
Roberta absorbed the praise like a sunburn absorbs aloe. “I always like to cook outside the box and push the envelope.”
“Really amazing,” Manuelo repeated between mouthfuls of shashlik.
Albumia relished all of her mother’s dishes, arranging the items meticulously on her plate so that no part of any item came into contact with any other item.
“Why do you do that, Albu?” Miyako asked.
“I prefer open-concept eating,” came the reply. Worried about inter-dish contact, Albumia ate her colcannon from a bowl. The pierogies were allowed on her plate because they could be nudged safely away from anything wet. The pierogi was the Venn diagram intersection of Albumia’s cabbage-love and Margo’s stuffed-food infatuation.
Another intersection of tastes was the Fårikål, the Norwegian stew of mutton and cabbage, which Miyako loved because it reminded her of a character in one of the lesser Ibsen plays and Albumia loved because it had cabbage in it.
Margo pointed to little white cottony balls, each revealing a peek of something brown and barbecue-y. “What are these bad boys, Mom?”
“That’s Char Siu Bao,” she replied. “Barbecue pork buns of Chinese derivation.”
“I can’t wait to try one of these puppies,” Margo said excitedly. He bounced a little in his chair.
“Coming up with so many protein solutions took a lot of time,” Roberta said, “but with all of you here at once it was important that I curate flavor profiles for everyone. Nothing is too good for you!”
“Chérie, what’s this?” Manuelo asked, pointing to a platter of red-tinged stew. “It looks familiar but at the same time different.”
“I made this one especially for you,” Roberta said through a grin. She raised her eyebrows seductively. “Remember when we were in Budapest before Margo was born and we took the weekend trip to Zagreb and had those delicious oysters?”
“Of course,” Manuelo recalled. “But what’s this?”
“It’s oyster goulash! The best of both worlds!”
“Looks amazing,” Manuelo said.
“I like to push the envelope, protein-wise,” Roberta said.
“Really amazing,” repeated Manuelo as he reached for a taste of Miyako’s lamb vindaloo.
“Mom?” Albumia said between bites of stuffed cabbage. “I really like this. It’s amazing.”
“Why, thank you, sweetheart! I took an artisanal curatorial approach to those.”
“It’s amazing, Mom.”
As the gobbling slowed and the tinkle of silverware against porcelain diminished in volume, and as Manuelo leaned away from the table in satiated pleasure, Margo asked, “Mom, that was really amazing. Is there dessert?”
“Why, yes, my son! There is indeed!” Roberta rose from the table enthusiastically, as if primed for the question. “I’ll be right back!” She trotted into the kitchen.
Manuelo and Margo and Miyako and Albumia looked at one another.
“Do you think?” Miyako asked, her eyes wide.
“Maybe!” Manuelo replied.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” cried little Albumia.
Manuelo and his brood fell silent, the only sounds from the kitchen the opening and closing of the freezer door. Then there was the rustling of plastic.
The door to the kitchen swung open, and in Roberta’s hands was a tower of treasure. Her husband and children gasped with delight. They clapped.
The base of the ziggurat of sweetness was a blueberry pie, above it a strawberry cheesecake, above that a peach pie. At the peak of the pyramid sat a pound cake.
The family clapped some more.
“Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee!” Roberta said.
“That’s amazing, Mom!” Margo and Miyako cried simultaneously.
“Really amazing,” said Manuelo.
Albumia asked for two plates so her cheesecake wouldn’t touch her pie.