Since Mike, our youngest, went away to college, Derek and I have been eating a lot of meals in front of the TV, or, specifically, while watching Chopped, which seems to always be on the Food Network. We’ve started to eat dinner in front of it most nights, not sure what to say to each other. We need something to fill the silence.
I’ve never considered myself much of a cook, nothing special, anyway. I made meals the kids liked, homemade mac ‘n cheese, lasagna, hamburgers and roasted potatoes. But now that they’re both in college and thousands of miles away—they both insisted on getting as far away as they could—Derek and I have been eating a lot of premade and frozen meals. It’s different with half as much food to make. I keep buying more than we need and having to throw out rotten apples and potatoes with eyes. I have to halve recipes. Sometimes I buy things out of habit, like beef jerky or Double-Stuf Oreos—Mike’s favorite—and they go uneaten for months.
After work Derek and I change from our pressed suits into jeans or sweats, hit the couch with a bottle of wine, and tune into the Food Network and there it is, like always. We listen to each of the four competitors’ stories and we both pick who we think is going to win the $10,000. Then, in each of the three heats—appetizer, entrée, dessert, all made with four mystery basket ingredients— we make bets on who will be chopped when one person is selected to be eliminated at the end of each round. The unlucky contestant is revealed after a commercial break by presenting that person’s dish under a cloche that host Ted Allen (of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” fame) picks up, and everyone gasps. Loser of our bet has to do the dishes or take out the trash.
I like it when they screw up, burn the meat or forget the sauce with three of the four basket ingredients in it, especially when more than one person screws up in a round and you and the judges have to decide which is worse, forgetting an ingredient or undercooking the meat (usually the most significant offense you can make). Derek always sides with the cockiest competitor who brags about how much better he is (it’s always a he) than his competition. I prefer the humble ones, like the single mother of three with bright pink hair, who make sure to commend everyone in that awkward period of time where they have to talk together in front of the camera while they await the judge’s decision. There’s clearly a cue card they get with possible responses: “It could really be any of us,” “I think it’s a toss-up,” “That was harder than I thought it would be,” or, “Good luck.”
Everything is quieter without any kids around. It’s just been Mike these past two years, since Amy went away to school. It’s not like he was that rowdy or anything by himself, but there was a noise to his presence, his clomping around the house, slamming the fridge door every few minutes. There was a rhythm to him that’s been disrupted and the quiet sits with us. I had hoped things would be better between us once Mike was gone, less restrained, maybe, but so far that hasn’t been the case.
It’s been nearly a year since I found out about Derek’s affair with Tina, a woman from his office with hair that always looks like she just stuck her finger in an electrical socket. I’ve seen her at the company Christmas parties and the occasional retirement party over the years. I always found her a bit abrasive, even before. She was usually drunk and talked too loudly. She’d do things like put her arm around me and ask me to go to the bathroom with her, like we were friends. She quit shortly after I found a Facebook message with a photo of her huge bare breasts when Derek was still signed into my computer. Derek assured me it was over. He claims it wasn’t really about her, that it was about us, that something was missing between us. Of course, I had felt it too, but not wanted to admit it, hoped it would resolve itself, like things usually do over time.
Derek has to go to a conference across the country, so I’m left alone for a few days. The first night on my own I eat a bowl of cereal for dinner in front of the TV. While I watch chefs whip up beef tongue and ricotta gnocchi with chard and pancetta, I slurp gray milk from my bowl of Raisin Bran. I don’t know what to do with myself on my own.
I log onto Facebook and see Derek’s profile picture in the corner: he’s logged in on my computer, just like the time I accidentally saw that private message from Tina. I know I shouldn’t, but I look in his messages and there she is, just a few days ago. “See U @ 7 tmrw.” That was the night before he left.
Tonight, it’s an amateur chef episode, which are my favorites. They mess up the most. Instead of every tiny error being fatal, there are egregious errors all over the place and it’s harder to guess who’s going to get chopped. One girl burns butter and tosses the contents of the flaming pan into the garbage, which sets the bin on fire, and she watches in disbelief as the flames eat the trash can. A man in jeans and a black t-shirt has to put the fire out while the chef waits, helpless. I feel like that sometimes.
On my last night alone, I decide to cook. I’m going to compete alongside the Chopped chefs. Of course, I won’t have the random and obscure ingredients they have to use. I’ll have to make do with what we have in our fridge and pantry, which will be enough of a challenge, I think. In the twenty-minute appetizer round, the chefs on TV have to use octopus, maraschino cherries, won ton wrappers, and endives. I find a nearly-full jar of maraschino cherries in the door of the fridge (When did we buy these? And why?), half a cabbage that has browned and gone a little soft. Nothing resembling octopus, so I chop up a frozen fish stick. I tear up tortillas and fold them into won ton shapes with the fish, diced cabbage, onion, and garlic, and fry them while I boil down the cherries and mix them with soy sauce and diced ginger. It takes me twenty-two minutes (I’d be chopped for that), and I eat them as the judges taste the dishes in front of them, pretending they’re eating my dish and complimenting my creativity, though the execution, I’ll admit, leaves room for improvement. The breading has fallen off the fish and gone soggy. The cherry glaze is sickly-sweet, but overall, it’s not a bad dish. I think I’d go on to the next round.
One man tells the audience that he’ll use his winnings to visit his mother in Haiti, whom he hasn’t seen in over a decade. He’ll give the rest of the money to her, he says. A single mother tells us all how she’ll be able to turn her life around with $10,000, get her own place, how it will save her. I try to think of what I would say I’d use the money for. In reality, I’d use it to help pay Mike’s tuition (Amy’s on scholarship) this semester and it would still only barely make a dent. But that doesn’t sound very exciting, so I think I’d say I’d go on a cruise around the world.
I wanted to kick Derek out when I found out, but I worried about Mike. In reality, he probably would have been fine. He was already seventeen by then. I think I was making an excuse to myself. I was scared. Derek slept on the couch for a few days, then came back to our bed and we pretended everything was fine. We’re pretty good at it.
For the entrée round the chefs have to use fried chicken, mint chutney, rock candy, and sea beans (what are sea beans?). I take frozen green beans, frozen chicken fingers left over from Mike—he loves those things—green curry paste, and candied ginger I find in the pantry that’s gotten a little hard. I peel the breading off the chicken, coat it in the curry, and bake it. I fry the green beans and toss in the ginger to coat them. The chicken comes out a little dry. The green beans taste better than they look. The plate looks a little bland. I don’t think I’d move on to the dessert round, except for one of the chefs forgets to plate the sea beans and is, predictably, chopped. She talks about how disappointed in herself she is. I know how she feels.
The single mother gets chopped for overcooking her chicken, like me, and for not transforming the basket enough. She tries to hold back tears while telling the camera what a talented group her competition was.
The Haitian man makes it to the final round, along with a young guy hoping to use the winnings to buy an engagement ring. I’m rooting for the Haitian. The ingredients are coffee, white chocolate chips, mint liqueur, and Nilla wafer cookies. My guy’s making coffee ice cream cake. I love when they make ice cream; they screw it up at least half the time, too runny or over-churned. His is perfect.
I’m making Grasshopper pie with slightly-freezer burned mint chocolate chip ice cream instead of the liqueur. It’s a safe bet, no-bake pie. I would probably be chopped. I try not to think about what to say to Derek when he gets home. We’re going to have to confront this, however much I want to ignore it. But I can’t afford to get distracted now; I’m on the clock. While the pie sets in the freezer, I whip up heavy cream. I stir and stir and stir.
Erika Nichols-Frazer is the editor of the anthology “A Tether to This World” (Main Street Rag, 2021) and author of the forthcoming essay collection “Feed Me” (Maple Tree Editions, 2022) and the forthcoming poetry collection “Staring Too Closely” (Main Street Rag, TBD). She won Noir Nation’s 2020 Golden Fedora Fiction Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Bright Flash Literary Review, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, Red Tree Review, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Vermont.