The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
I’ve always helped in the kitchen, but over the pandemic, I have become Sachi’s sous chef. Along with chopping and preparing, I’m learning about flavor and sauces. She’s my teacher and I try to follow instructions. Sometimes the most mundane things, like chopping onions, have a secret technique that makes it easier.
A few days ago, we came home with a four pound hunk of ham from Costco. It was one big piece of meat, similar in size to a spiral cut holiday ham. Then, yesterday, the power went out as a result of a wind storm and the ham, being fully cooked, started to look like dinner. Preparing for the power outage, Sachi had boiled some somen noodles, which are often served cold with a sesame soy sauce. With the ham and somen, we could have a classic Hawaii dish for dinner.
It got dark, we lit candles and I concocted brandy drinks with a syrup I made from leftover peach juice and Serrano peppers. We had a couple of drinks to celebrate the novelty of being powerless. Then, just as we got comfortable in the candlelight, the power returned. With a sigh, we moved into the kitchen, five paces away, to make dinner under the lights.
The ham, sitting as a heap of protein on the counter, was a puzzle to be solved. We needed a portion for dinner, maybe 10% of it. The rest needed to be cut into pieces and stored in the fridge. This is where the discussion began.
I asked Sachi, “So, how would you approach this?”
Being the sous chef, I wanted to know what she would do in terms of cutting up the ham. Left on my own, I could certainly do it, but I thought it was a teachable moment.
At first, she just kind of shrugged, “Whatever you think.” So, I looked at the ham, then at our storage containers. She said, “That one.” pointing to a larger Tupperware. I didn’t think it was large enough, so I brought out two large containers and looked at Sachi as if to say, “These?”
She didn’t respond directly, but she didn’t have to. Her silence in these situations tells a story. She had thoughts, but she was holding them close and letting me squirm, just a bit. I felt it. She clearly wasn’t sure about needing two containers.
This tiny decision about the containers and the ham was the perfect setup for an animated discussion. If you were to watch from afar, you might have thought we were arguing. While these discussions might include a bit of passion, they remain civil and kind-hearted. Behind the words is a genuine competition to verbally outmaneuver the other side.
Sachi relishes an intellectual battle. She will pick a logical side and stand her ground, just as she did with her brother, Mark, when they were growing up. When the opportunity arises, she expects me to challenge her in the same way. I didn’t grow up with that kind of competition and it took me years to figure out how to fight for an idea with a smile on my face. This was my chance. If you can’t smile about ham, what can you smile about?
We both looked at the ham on the counter and I asked, again, what she would do. She said, flippantly to my ears, “It’s a puzzle. I think it can fit in the first container.” In our relationship, this is loaded language. I’m famously bad with abstract puzzles and Sachi is famously good. Rather than teaching me how she would approach the ham, I heard in my head, “Dance for me monkey boy – let’s see you solve this puzzle.” Maybe alcohol influenced my perceptions just a bit.
In my mind, time efficiency mattered. Looking at the ham compared to the first container, there was no way it could fit; a physical impossibility. I declared, “There is NO WAY that will fit!” Left on my own, I would not waste time trying to solve the puzzle when we could just use two containers from the beginning. I could have it done in ten seconds. We both could have left it alone and disengaged, but what’s the fun in that?
Instead, I pleaded my case. Why go to all the trouble of trying to make it fit? It seemed like an inefficient use of time. All the while, Sachi implored me to try. She also argued, correctly, that two containers was an inefficient use of limited space in the fridge.
Instead of settling with, “Fine, just use two containers.”, she kept saying, “Try it, see if it will work.” I scoffed. There was no way that big ass ham was fitting in the Tupperware. No way. At this point it wasn’t about storing ham as much as the sides we’d picked.
We both have times, during these discussions, when we’ve exhausted our talking points and it becomes repetitive. Sometimes this provokes a subtle shift where other subjects get wrapped into the main debate. In our discussion about the ham, Sachi brought up a point about cleaning up coffee grounds that felt like one of these extensions. At first, I took it as a grievance about me not cleaning thoroughly and said, “Let’s not go there, this is about the ham.”
She understood my redirection and seemed to agree. Looking back, this was a strategy I’d never tried before. We were in a debate about ham and as long as it stayed about ham, we could argue and parry without hurt feelings.
Sachi stuck up for her coffee example by saying it supported her case about the ham. Whether it’s ham or coffee, I often take the easy route versus the most thorough or deliberate route. Point taken. These debates often relate back to the fundamental differences between us. That’s why it was important to me to keep the focus on the ham and not our personalities. A fine line indeed.
We could both feel the discussion coming to an end without a clear winner. The only thing left to do was to solve the puzzle. I grabbed a knife and started cutting up the ham as Sachi prepped other dishes.
As I cut fist-sized portions and placed them in the Tupperware, the outside of the ham seemed to fill the rounded corners of the container. Four portions covered the bottom with a better fit than I wanted to admit. I kept cutting, all the while looking at what remained and glancing at Sachi. “There’s no way this is going fit”, I thought to myself. Layer by layer, the ham filled the container. Sachi heard me mutter, “No fucking way” as the final pieces of the puzzle filled the Tupperware to the brim with ham. It was going to be close.
I was prepared to eat crow, but held out hope. The container still needed the lid to fit properly! Only by successfully affixing the lid could we be sure that the ham fit. That was a rule I made up on the spot. I tried once with no luck. Then, I shuffled the top few puzzle pieces and tried again. Sachi smiled, or maybe it was a smirk, I’m not sure.
The successful click of the lid snapping into place was met with more profanity from me and laughter that forced Sachi into a chair to recover. I hadn’t seen her laugh that hard in months.
In some ways this was the perfect ending. She won, but it didn’t feel like I lost. My approach was emblematic of my personality, but the debate was about the logistics of storing ham. In the end, the winner was clear and I could laugh about losing because it wasn’t really about me. It was about the ham.