Strategic Point 1: Build a sturdy, well-planned menu where the onion is nowhere near the main feature.
I read the whole Internet, every cookbook I own, and all the recipes my mom has cut out and mailed to me from Real Simple to try to find the perfect menu to complement onions. Despite what you may think about onions tasting like roses and enhancing the flavor of everything they’re cooked with to taste like God’s breath, I believe they taste like butt cheese and nothing on the Internet’s 234 million websites, especially my own, did anything to change that belief. So instead of creating a menu that was in any way related to onions, I just found some things I thought would taste good and that I could probably make without fucking up, and let the onions be an afterthought, a side, a featured element, but not the main feature. Even with this plan, the menu was still ambitious: homemade hummus with pita, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes; soy-glazed salmon on orange, watercress and chard salad with homemade dressing; and beer-battered onion rings.
Menu planned, check. Up next, shop for groceries.
The very last battle of the war absolutely should not have been the first time I approached shopping strategically, because I have been the picture of insanity every time I darken the doors of a grocery store and find myself immediately lost while simultaneously hoping I’ll suddenly be an expert in stock boy trickery. Every time. But I like a challenge. I secured my very first Julie Versus Vegetables chaperone more by accident than by design because my car was in the shop and I really just needed a ride, but for the purpose of giving me credit for thinking ahead, we’re going to call this:
Strategic Point 2: Take a chaperone to the farmers’ market.
I spent Sunday afternoon home alone without a car, waiting for my ride to be available to escort me. I tried to maximize my at-home, day-before-the-big-event prep time while I waited. I scribbled my menu over and over on a scrap of paper. I deliberated over various greens for the salad. I started my grocery list. I stood in front of my pantry and stared off into space hoping that what I already had and what I still needed would imprint itself on my brain by osmosis and I wouldn’t actually have to sort through the collection of items on the shelves in front of me, most of which were my roommate’s and foreign. I sat on the sofa and picked at my toes. I looked at the clock.
Eventually my ride called to say he wasn’t going to have time to drive me to the store. Not going to the store that day and not having food to make dinner the next day was not going to work out for the “schedule everything well” and “keep everything running smoothly” part of Onion Night.
Plan B. I looked out the window to see if Jon and Melissa were home. Damn.
Plan C. I texted everyone I know to beg for a ride. My mom and my sister were long shots since they live in another state and outside the perimeter, respectively. Lauren was on vacation, but she was kind enough to tell me I would probably love the onions in San Francisco; don’t you just love San Francisco?
Plan D. Finally I struck gold with Randy, who is sometimes a naysayer, but who also always seems to have his BlackBerry glued to his face, a fact I knew and exploited, even at the risk of being subjected unnecessary naysayerness. This battle was bigger than me now and I had to think of the greater good.
Randy picked me up, and in the car on the way to the farmers’ market he asked, “Do you have a list?”
I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. Is he already naysaying? I looked around to see if anyone else was in the car, anyone to hear him naysaying me, anyone to verify that what was happening was happening.
“Do you have a list? You know, a grocery list, the things you need to get at the store. A list?” He smiled kindly.
I shot back furiously. “Are you serious?”
He was serious.
I may be a below average cook, I may eat like a pre-pubescent teen, I may not know where the garbage bags are stored at my house, but don’t you think if there’s one thing we all should have learned over the course of this project it’s that I can make a list and stick to it? Except for this one time right now with onions. And that other time with celery. And of course, tofu.
“Yes, Randy, I have a list. I’m a professional.”
“Let me see it.”
He stuck out his hand.
I spent the rest of the ride to the farmer’s market not showing him my list.
Even though Randy was supposed to be my “chaperone,” to that point he was still just a mouthy chauffeur, and because I still didn’t believe I was as incapable as I am, when we got to the farmers’ market I grasped my list tightly to my chest and marched in the door without him. I got a basket and took off for the….wait. I looked at my list. OK, got it. So I went in search of the…wait. I looked at my list again. Dammit. My menu, which seemed somehow both simple and complex, included almost all new foods or foods I’ve never cooked before: watercress, chard, onions, chick peas, even salmon. I turned around to see how far behind Randy was and how many of my false starts he had seen.
All of them. Of course.
“Let me see your list.”
His eyes twinkled as he stuck out his hand. Is he enjoying this? HE IS ENJOYING THIS. Begrudgingly, I handed my list to him. And then I stood there embarrassed while he chuckled.
“What is this?” More chuckling.
What skills I lack in cooking and cleaning, I make up for with a highly evolved ability to create detailed lists. My lists are agonizingly organized and accompanied by painfully square boxes, which are neatly and meticulously drawn next to exact rows of items arranged in perfect order. My lists used to be the subject of much ridicule around my office, but when people realized that every time a box is checked an angel gets her shit done, they changed their tune from the sort of smirky, “Have you got a box for that?” to the more friendly, hopeful, “Can you put that on your list?” Good dogs.
“That’s my list.”
He turned it over a few times, upside down and right side up, held it up to the light to verify its authenticity, clearly amused with himself, dragging out the minutes and letting my face rocket from rosy pink to beet red, before smiling again and saying, “OK, let’s start with Swiss chard.”
Swiss chard was a good choice because it was one of the vegetables I didn’t believe was real. I used to think it was cheese. I was half right. We found the chard aisle and there was no such thing as Swiss chard, only California chard, and neither of us knew the difference or what it tasted like or if it would make or break my salad, but I got it anyway because it was on the list.
After chard I took my list back and took off on my own, wandering aisles like I always do, bouncing from one side of the market to the other with no real route or pattern, stuffing my basket with watercress, then I headed down the dry aisles for soy sauce and other things I probably already have, before suddenly thinking I might need more watercress. Randy asked as nicely as he could, but a little pitchy, “What are you doing?” Naysayers like Randy and Jon and even David could take a few tips from naysayers like Tom, who will watch me do something stupid and completely ignore me. At the most he will give me a look that says, “This is going to be entertaining,” but otherwise, he ignores me. He definitely doesn’t offer to help. That is a quality naysayer right there.
Without answering, I handed my list back over and let Randy point out where everything was so we could collect things by traveling to the bins more like how the crow flies and less like how a bee flies, until I had checked every box on the list but onions. A lump lodged itself in my throat.
We made our way over to a massive, exploding bin of Vidalia onions. Vomit. This time I for real felt faint. Not like all the other times I for fake felt faint. For real. The blood rushed to my face and my knees buckled and I thought I might fall.
“Do you know what you’re looking for?”
Um, I’m fainting here.
I grabbed on to the bin to steady myself and said that I didn’t. At this point I was way too keyed up to decipher whether he was naysaying or being helpful, even though I’m pretty sure he should have known I wouldn’t have known how to choose the best onion, since they all look like crispy balls of hate.
Randy picked up an onion and held it out and talked a lot while I focused on staying upright. I didn’t hear a word he said.
“OK, your turn.”
To make it appear as though I had been paying attention, I picked up an onion and turned it over in my right hand while I continued to white knuckle the bin with my left hand. So far so good.
“See how that one’s not good?”
Then I turned on a star performance. I reached to the very top, back of the bin, dug to the bottom, and plucked a fat, ripe, smelly onion from the bottom of the pile. I held it up for inspection.
“Why did you do that? That one’s no good.”
And that’s the last time I take a chaperone to the farmers’ market.