Friday, July 05, 2013

COLUMN: Couscous

I've been called a lot of things over the years, but "party animal" has never been one of them. If I had to choose between a life of being constantly surrounded by friends vs. a lifetime of isolation, I'd probably choose the latter... and maybe a good book or two.

Don't get me wrong, I love my friends to pieces and my life would stink without them. But I grew up an only child, and I learned from an early age how to appreciate a vast amount of quality alone time. I've just never been one to put on a party hat and race to where the action is.

But if I'm the one THROWING the party, it needs to be legendary.

It started in junior high. As the only kid in my clique lucky enough to live on a 50-acre farm, shindigs of varying size were a natural occurrence at my place. Whether it was water balloon tag in the summer or epic sledding parties in the winter, my house was a primary destination for weekend fun. There were cows to terrorize in the pasture, creeks to jump in the woods, and computer games to play when we realized we were all a bunch of nerds who preferred virtual nature to the real thing.

In high school, I was far from one of the cool kids, but it didn't stop our ragtag posse from throwing envelope-pushing parties as often as possible. Some were stunning failures (it turns out our "Strobe Light Only" party was less cool and more retina-damaging.) But some, like our epic senior year scavenger hunt, will hopefully live in Galesburg party infamy.

Speaking of infamy, if you asked anyone who went to my college at the turn of the 90's to name their favorite weekend destination, I'd wager a whole week's pay that over half would mention my old frat house. What looked like a standard dilapidated dwelling on the outside hid a nearly full-functioning dance club on the interior. With the kind of creativity that could ONLY stem from enterprising college students, the kitchen would transform into a DJ booth, the living room a dancefloor, and the basement...? Well, some secrets are best left OUT of the mainstream media, thanks. I'm not claiming it was smart, I'm not even going to claim it was entirely legal, but good gravy it was fun.

In case that last paragraph didn't sully your impression of me entirely, here's where I tell you that AFTER I graduated college, a friend and I supported ourselves for a couple years causing measurable damage to your children's hearing by introducing rave culture to the Quad Cities. It was as simple as finding a space, hauling in the best sound and lights and DJs that we could possibly afford, and letting the beat drop from sundown to sunup. But what looked like a dangerous slice of counter-culture on the surface was actually a serious business model, complete with permits, licensing fees, uniformed security, and profit margins.

So I guess when I sit back and think about it, this only-child loner DOES have a knack for entertaining. Ergo, when a friend suggested that I throw a get-together at my house over the Memorial Day weekend, I was down. My house, after all, has all of my requirements for a Grade A hootenanny: lots of open space, a decent stereo, and a soundproofed basement that ensures no neighbors come a-knockin'.

What sorts of trouble would we get ourselves into? Memory loss? Public nudity? Farm animals? NOTHING's off the table for this party veteran, am I right? (High-five.) And sure enough, by the end of the night, my friends and I had taken things to a new level of untold debauchery. Forget the amateur nudity, skip the farm animals, and ignore all rules. That's right -- we went straight for the hard stuff.

We got our couscous on.

It turns out there really IS an age when a night of thumping bass, animalistic hedonism, and next-day regret starts to sound LESS appealing than a good meal with pleasant company. I guess that age is 42. It's apparently time to put me out to pasture, because I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening with little more than a kitchen full of good eats and a living room full of good friends.

No scandalous drama ensued. No one got especially naked. Worse yet, I didn't realize until everyone had left that I hadn't even turned on any music. WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME??

Instead, I cooked. That's the one hobby I've picked up in middle age: learning what this room with all the stoves and sinks and refrigerators is for. In my old apartment, it was the Empty Pizza Box Storage Room. Now that I've got a house, and especially one with a machine that washes the dishes for you, I'm realizing that I'm not entirely inept at cooking.

It's one thing to grill out some burgers. That was Old Shane. New Shane (or, more appropriately, Older Shane,) left the burgers and brats for an afterthought. First I grilled out an array of vegetables with a balsalmic maple glaze, packets of dilled summer squash, fanned potatoes, and yes -- a summer salad of fresh cilantro, cucumber, and couscous. Guess who's been watching the Food Network?

I now know what it's like to party it up as a 40-something, and it actually involved me saying the words: "Sorry there's no room in the fridge right now - my broccoli is marinating." Somewhere as we speak, Spuds MacKenzie's rolling in his doggie grave.

This is not to say, however, that Shane's Culinary Shindig 2013 was without any envelope-pushing excitement. Presumably in response to my intentions of consuming vegetables (an act which goes entirely against nature,) nature in turn replied by unleashing Weatherpocalypse on us roughly five minutes after firing up the grill. Most of my masterful grilling ended up taking place under a raincoat and galoshes. And if anyone asks, all the dishes I served were "basted in a reduction of hydrogen and oxygen" and not "covered in rainwater" and that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

I guess you'd have to ask my friends if it was a good time or not, but I'm going to call the night a success. I got lots of compliments on my handiwork, no one appears to have been struck down by e.coli, and I made it through recipes more difficult than my usual peel-back-foil-stir-and-continue-microwaving frozen meal prowess. And heck, I'm still a party animal, because guess what? After everyone left by the polite hour of 11:30, I decided to take a relaxing bath. And yes, I'm proud to admit there was nudity involved. High five!

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