|Somebody Else's Schnitzel|
Dearest reader: I hardly ever ask you for anything, do I? I mean besides love and validation and maybe some enabling? There was Movember, of course (thanks, by the way, to those of you who donated); but that was like two weeks ago, and, besides, what I'm asking for today doesn't cost you a plug nickel. Just a couple keystrokes.
Here's the deal. I'll be attending the Dad 2.0 Summit again this year, and if you haven't heard about this great event, you should really check it out. In fact, I'll be speaking there, with my friends Faiqa and Jason, about some really complicated, thinky, cultural stuff that's way over my head but that I hope to figure out by the time the conference rolls around.
One of the cool events on the conference agenda is the "Great Dad Cook-Off," in which four dads will have a live culinary throwdown, a la Iron Chef, for a chance to win a grand prize that has to do with cash, travel, and football. I submitted a recipe (Schnitzel-based, of course); and after it was vetted by a crack team of ConAgra food scientists, I advanced into the semi-finals. I don't harbor any great hope of winning the grand prize, but I sure would love to be a finalist because, a) it would be fun and terrifying to be in a live cook-off and, b) ConAgra picks up the tab for the finalists' airfare, hotel, and conference fees. It would make me feel a lot better about leaving my family to fend for themselves while I jetted off to Huston if I weren't paying for my little getaway out of the General Fund.*
This is where you come in.
At this point, there are eight guys in the running, and the next step is to narrow the field down to four, through natural selection. And by natural selection, I mean Facebook voting. WAIT! DON'T LEAVE YET! (Unless you are leaving to go vote, which you would do by clicking this link.)
Let me tell you a story about a little boy. A frightened little boy with a big dream.
Moscow, January 1979. The coldest winter of the Cold War. An American family huddled in the living room of their ramshackle, bug (of both the electronic and cockroachian variety)-infested diplomatic apartment. Outside, the wind whistled dark threats and the snow flew parallel to the black-ice streets. Thermostats dropped to -50 degrees Farenheit. The radiators hadn't worked for days, and the building hadn't had hot water for a week. The mother had been boiling great basins of water on the stove and filling the tub so the children could take turns bathing. The father was across town at the embassy, chipping away at the frozen foundations of the Evil Empire.
The young son brushed aside his blankets, shed his rabbit-fur coat, and arose from his torpor as if something momentous had occurred to him. He was eleven and slight. He was often mistaken for a girl, with his permed hair tumbling past his collarbone.
"What are you looking at, sweetheart?" his mom asked.
"What? Oh. This?" He nodded toward the mint-green paper in his hand. "It's that cook-off thing. At Alfredo's. I think..." He didn't look away from the paper. "I think I can win it."
During the warmest months in Moscow, a person would have been lucky enough to find a few pounds of anemic tomatoes being hawked out of the suitcase of a babushka from Tblisi in the open-air produce market. If that person were a Westerner, they might have had a friend who would bring them back a few heads of iceberg lettuce and a dozen bananas upon returning from a diplomatic errand in Helsinki.
But you could get cabbage any time of year. And in the winter, it was only cabbage you could get, unless you were an ambassador or a politburo member.
To temper the biting bleakness of a malnutritious Moscow winter, the embassy put on a cooking contest wherein the only rule was that cabbage had to be a main ingredient. Cabbage soup, cabbage quiche, cabbage souffle: even cabbage pies and cakes were commonly created as a diversion from the short, mirthless days that mercilessly piled up like a grey Kutuzovsy Prospekt snowdrift. Contestants would bring their prepared cabbage concoctions to Alfredo's, the snack bar at the embassy, and present them to a panel of judges. The prizes were little more than bragging rights, and most of the contestants considered the enterprise nothing but a lark.
But the boy threw himself into his work, combining condiments from the sklad--the oversized pantry filled with canned and dry goods the family had shipped from the States when they had moved to their new duty station--with frozen meat, bread and, of course, cabbage.
Hours and days passed, and the family smiled to see the boy so engaged, despite the haze of cabbage vapor enshrouding the small apartment.
The cold front defected, and a tepid sun warmed the stocky, pallid metropolis. The boy dragged his felt-lined boots through the sooty slush from the bus stop to the embassy gate, cradling his Pyrex casserole dish in his arms.
Inside Alfredo's, the boy sweated in his heavy boots while standing behind the line of card tables with the rest of the contestants and their dishes. The judges talked to each of the cooks and tasted their wares, taking notes and mumbling in pensive huddles. The room thrummed with radiant heat and smells of cabbage and wet wool. He saw his parents come in through the side door.
The announcement of the youth-category winner sunk in as if he were submerged in the deep, cast-iron tub in the apartment, all echo and clang and garble. His vision got ragged around the edges and he blew the spent air from his lungs. When he surfaced, one judge was pinning a ribbon on his shirt, and the other was handing him a certificate.
"I never would have thought to make sloppy-joe cabbage rolls," one said. "Really, surprisingly good."
"The crunchy onions added just the right texture," said another.
"Great work, son," said the third.
The boy's parents watched from the side of the cramped restaurant near where the yellowish light seeped through the sweating windows. His father, tall and straight in his green service uniform, squeezed his mother's shoulder.