Jenny’s mom is an extremely nice person. She was raised right, is how I think about it: quick with a smile, asks questions about you and compliments you on your mashed potatoes, stops and chats with virtual strangers at the stationery store in town, and most impressive of all, consistently chooses not to say anything if she has nothing nice to say at all. She was elected May Queen in college, for crying out loud — and that doesn’t happen if you’re unkind to people. Which is not to say she is not discerning or without opinions, and strong ones, of her own; it’s just that she’s monk-like in her discipline and is somehow able, when called for, to keep these opinions to herself. She’d rather know how you are than tell you how she’s feeling; seriously, the woman is incapable of complaint.
If you know her, though, and listen carefully, there are ways to determine where she really stands on things. There is a word she uses that seems innocuous, but is, in fact, devastating. It is a hammer wrapped in velvet. When you hear it, you know you’re a goner. Interesting. As in:
When opening the box containing her birthday present, a sweater-dress you sensed was a little risky, fashion-wise, but went ahead and bought for her anyway because, hey, it’s cashmere and how could someone not love a cashmere sweater-dress: “Oh, it’s a sweater. Thank you. What a lovely color.”
But do you like it?
“Well,” folding it neatly back into the box, “it’s…innnteresting.”
After watching you toss a handful of red pepper flakes into the pot that will soon hold the sauce for the pasta: ”What is that you’re adding there?”
Red pepper flakes. Just a few.
After going to see Pulp Fiction, which you’d just seen and had been kind of blown away by and talked about to the point that she finally decided to go see it for herself: “I found the director’s style very…innnteresting.”
Her use of interesting had achieved the level of Family Lore long before I entered the picture. It was, apparently, a cherished Christmas morning ritual, the response to every new bathrobe or attempted slipper upgrade. Say it out loud at any family gathering, even today, and everyone cracks up: it has achieved that kind of shorthand power. Jenny had warned me about it before our first holiday we spent together, telling me to keep an eye on her mom as she unwrapped the latest set of pajamas her dad had picked out at Lord and Taylor, thinking that maybe, somehow, this would be the year when he would succeed, when his gift would not be deemed…innnnteresting.
The first time I encountered it for myself, though, was in 1994, in the kitchen of the brick row house I shared with three roommates in Brooklyn. I was a 22 year-old editorial assistant who wore pleated pants and spent a shameful amount of time watching the Yankees and drinking Heineken. Thinking maybe it was time to act like a grown-up, I invited Jenny and her parents to dine one Saturday night in my grime-encrusted living room as a thank you, I suppose, for being nice to me. Looking back on it now, this must have been the first time I’d ever entertained. I mopped and Dust-Bustered and lit candles, but when it came to planning a meal, my cupboard was pretty bare. I knew what my own mom did in these situations, and I had a shaky grasp on three or four meals, so I decided to approximate a dinner she might have put together at home: I’d start with cheese and some fancy water crackers, maybe a bunch of green grapes. For the main course, I decided to do a chicken barley soup, a salad dressed by Paul Newman, and a loaf of bread from the local Italian bakery. For dessert: rice pudding (with raisins) from The New York Times Cookbook.
We were sitting on the cratered couch, eating the cheese and crackers, when Jenny’s mom asked me what was on the menu.
“Chicken barley soup,” I said.
“Soup for dinner,” she said. “Innnteresting.”
Oooooof, that hurt. And, okay, so she was right. Soup at a dinner party is maybe not the best call, but I was 22 and it was either that or chili, so I went with what seemed the more sophisticated option. Plus, in my defense: the presence of barley raises this, Chunky-style, from a soup to a meal — or, at least that’s what I told myself. I ended up marrying Jenny, of course, so it couldn’t have been that bad. – Andy
Chicken Barley Soup
Few glugs olive oil
1 cup yellow onion, chopped
1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs thyme
4 cups homemade chicken stock (if you have the book, see page 289) or store-bought chicken broth, plus more as needed
3-4 boneless chicken breasts
1/2 cup uncooked barley
Handful fresh parsley, for serving
In a large stockpot, warm olive oil and red pepper flakes over medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the onion, carrots, celery, salt and pepper and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or until onion is soft. Add the stock, bay leaf, and thyme, and bring to a boil. Add the uncooked chicken and simmer, over medium-low heat, for 15-20 minutes. Remove chicken from pot and, using two forks, shred it. Return chicken back to pot, add barley, and simmer on low, covered, for approximately 20-25 minutes, or until barley is tender but not mushy. Add more stock, if necessary. Serve with parsley and a fat slice of good bread.