The holidays are over, we’ve hauled the tree to the curb, and the decorations are steadily disappearing. In our house, it is also the time of year when we begin sorting and disposing of the items in the holiday gift baskets we received from my husband’s various corporate associates.
Some of the items we devour immediately (BTW, thank you, to the individual who sent the choclate pecan turtles; they were delicious–all of them, which I know, because I ate them all myself). Other items…well, let’s just say they make you wonder if someone was on the naughty list; sea urchin caviar or squid ink fettucini, anyone? Though the contents vary somewhat from year to year, the silly and child-like excitement I experience now from opening each basket has grown steadily over the years, part receiving an unexpected gift and part treasure hunt–you just never know what you’ll find inside. Here, for #FlashbackFriday, is the tale (an homage to the late, great MFK Fisher I wrote while still at DePaul University) of one such treasure we received, many years and many lovely baskets ago:
Une Tranche de Vie (2005)
Corporate holiday gift baskets can, at times, be somewhat depressing: bottles of dicey wine; diminutive cardboard boxes full of communion-wafer crackers; almost inevitably, it seems there is always at least one shrink-wrapped brick of some cheese-like substance, the criss-cross stripes of its rubbery beige rind like pale scars—all festively cellophaned and tied with a gaudy bow. Happy Holidays! from our Human Resources Department to you…well, you humans.
This basket, however, was different. It had already been opened, for one thing, which is generally not the custom in our family: we prefer to leave them unopened. The other thing was the way in which my husband swept into our kitchen like a conquering hero, placed the basket on the counter with a flourish, and immediately pulled out of it a chunk of something crumpled into plastic wrap. He danced straight to the silverware drawer for a knife. “You have to try this.”
Allow me to say, at this point, that I am not possessed of an adventurous palate, a fact of which my husband is quite aware and which he has used against me in the past. (The last time he said “You have to try this”, I wound up choking down an elastic mouthful of calamari, a food he knows that I detest. As our children were present at the table, and we plead with them to be “tryers” of all things, no small hypocrisy on my part, my husband knew he had me cornered: I had to swallow the vile bite.) I eyed the plastic chrysalis in his hand with some misgiving.
“Try what?” I suspiciously watched him peeling the layers of plastic wrap from the mass. Through the plastic, I could see smeary glimpses of verdant green, like moss through a foggy window.
“What is it?” He removed the last of its filmy cocoon and held it out triumphantly for me to see. “It’s cheese.” I looked skeptically at the large wedge he was cupping reverently in his hands: it was surprisingly beautiful. The rind revealed was more like an emerald in color; the cheese itself was firm and a milky white, alabaster flesh untouched by the sun. I leaned a little closer and gave a small sniff, still not quite trusting my husband’s motives. Was this, perhaps, Limburger in disguise?
As I inhaled its fragrance, my fears dissolved. My mouth began to water, convulsively so. Its perfume was pungent, richly infused with an almost palpable creaminess and a tartness I could not define. I felt the first stirrings of hesitant desire. I looked up and nodded to my husband: I would, indeed, try. He eagerly and tenderly coaxed a small, crumbly morsel from the wedge, and placed it on my waiting tongue. I could feel its tanginess penetrating the tender buds on the tip of my tongue, as the velvety white flesh melted in my mouth. Delicate crystals shivered their way across my teeth. I closed my eyes, lost in blissful gustatory communion. I swallowed the last glorious swallow with a feeling of profound sadness at the emptiness of my mouth. Without opening my eyes, I said “More. Please.” My husband happily obliged, granting me another precious mouthful, a dewy milkpod bursting open on my tongue and flooding my mouth with delight. Fairly purring now, I sank into a chair and sighed contentedly. “What is this and where can we get more?”
He joined me at the table, carving off, I noted, a quite large slice for himself; my eyes narrowed as I visualized the tipped scales of his portion as compared to mine. “Isn’t it good? I don’t know what it’s called,” he blithely replied, gobbling his entire slice down in one hedonistic gulp. The briny kiss of this new love still tingling on my lips, I felt the beginnings of panic start to rise. “What do you mean, you don’t know? Where did you get it? What store did they buy the basket from?” As my husband unconcernedly chopped off yet another enormous tranche for himself, I began tearing apart the rest of the basket, searching frantically for a store label. There was none. Typical corporate holiday gift basket, I thought bitterly. I sank back into my chair, dejected.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?” My husband was blissfully unaware of my sense of loss at realizing that this rapidly shrinking wedge was all that remained of such ecstasy. I felt the desolate sensation of two ships having passed in the night.
Seeing my husband raise the knife once again, I moved quickly and grabbed the remaining treasure, hurriedly, but lovingly, cocooning it once again in its cradle of plastic wrap. “Why don’t we save this for later? Maybe this weekend, get a good bottle of wine to go with it?” My voice sounded artificially cheerful even to me. “Okay,” my husband said over his shoulder, as he left the kitchen to change out of his work clothes, innocent of my machinations.
After watching him retreat down the hallway, I gazed in wicked, adulterous triumph at the surprisingly weighty jewel I now held in my hands, knowing full well that this weekend, the good bottle of wine would be consumed sans fromage—at least, sans this fromage. I hid my stolen, anonymous love deep in the refrigerator, behind the plain yogurt (where I knew it would be safe). I dreamed of the midnight rendez-vous to com