I still can’t believe that I won a dinner with Ina Garten. Barefoot Contessa has been one of my favorite shows since I started learning how to cook in high school. Being able to spend this afternoon with Ina, learning how to make her perfect roast chicken, and serving it to Jeffrey in her light-filled New England dining room is an absolute dream come true. I know that I won’t forget this day for the rest of my life.
After I finish my pear clafoutis, I excuse myself to use the restroom.
“You go down the hall painted butter yellow, and remind yourself that anyone who makes brownies without butter should be arrested. Then, turn left when you reach the blooming peony arrangement. Fresh flowers always make the most drab spaces feel special. Don’t you agree? At the third door on the right, you’ll remember that not everything should be made from scratch. No one wants to make puff pastry.” Ina explains with a charming twinkle in her eye. “It’s the third door on the right.”
I stand up, and suddenly the Aperol spritzer has gone straight to my head. Trying not to look like a fool in front of the queen of daytime culinary programming, I collect myself, graciously nod my head to thank her, and stumble towards the hall.
Get it together, Catherine, I mumble to myself. Just go down the hall, turn right, and then it’s the third door on the left.
I reach for the doorknob, but it’s so hot that it burns my hand. Don’t embarrass yourself, Catherine! How would Ina open the door without blistering her hand like a shishito pepper drizzled with black sesame oil and a sprinkle of Celtic grey salt? She would use a potholder. Just use your skirt as a potholder, grab the doorknob, and go inside. Would my therapist love all of this self-criticism? No. But I’m desperate to make a good impression. And if years of self-criticism got me a slightly-above-average SAT score in high school, I’m sure it will help me befriend Ina.
I’m expecting a powder room decorated with quaint trinkets that remind me of summers in Nantucket. However, when I open the door, there’s a bright white laboratory waiting for me. I’m sure that I’m not supposed to see this, but it feels like the room is pulling me inside. The laboratory is filled with whirring devices and bright lights, and a single machine in the center of the room towers above the others.
“I see you found my special room.” Ina is standing in the doorway, calm as a cucumber finger sandwich with the crust cut off.
“What is all of this?” I ask, my voice shaking.
“You know, I didn’t just crack the code for a simplified version of beef bourguignon that still offers the traditional technique’s depth of flavor.” She pauses, smiles, then continues, “I also cracked the code for the universe.”
There’s something sinister about this room and that dark machine in its center. “I don’t understand. Do you mean like physics or something?” I ask.
“Did you know that I used to work as a policy analyst for Jimmy Carter? I specialized in nuclear energy research. You learn a few things by reading all of those papers. One night, it hit me. I cracked the code for the universe and built that supercomputer right in front of you.”
I look up at the tall, flashing machine and my head starts to spin.
“So you, what, study the universe?”
She chuckles. “Oh, I don’t study the universe. I run it! I cracked the code and created the simulation that we’re all currently experiencing. That machine—my supercomputer—runs the simulation and projects it into our reality.”
“So you’re running everything. You’re creating everything that’s happening to, like, everyone. The good, the bad, it’s all because of you.” A disturbing realization washes over me. “You created this pandemic.”
“In my shows, I always said Store-bought is fine. Store-bought is fine. But store-bought really isn’t fine, is it?”
I shake my head, “No”.
She continues, “But who had the time or energy to use anything besides store-bought in the before-times? Who had the time to make homemade croutons, or marshmallows with real vanilla beans, or Provençal lavender cocktail tinctures? No one, that’s who! But I fixed it. I cracked the code, and I fixed it. Now everyone has an endless supply of free time, and they’re all desperate to fill it by feeding sourdough starters! And yes, people are dying. But the art of home cooking was dying. Trust me, it’s better this way.”
I don’t know what to say. I rub my forehead searching for a bump to prove that I fell on my way to the bathroom and that this is all just some concussion-induced hallucination.
“Come,” she says, reaching for my hand. “Jeffrey is waiting, and I prepared some digestifs and a gooey baked brie for us to enjoy on the veranda.”
I grab her hand, step out of the laboratory, and walk towards the veranda. Outside, I look into the twilight sky, knowing that although I may never be able to return home, I’ll finally learn what it means to fold cake batter.
Catherine McHenry currently lives in Pittsburgh and grew up in the hippie town of Ann Arbor, MI. She studied English and American Culture at the University of Michigan. When she’s not writing, she’s playing with her cat, Peaches, doing yoga, and trying to numb the clawing feelings of existential dread.