Kevin Petrie, the Café No Sé Tequila Bartender, is filling in for the Surly Bartender, who is still trying to shake off his Thanksgiving hangover. If you enjoy this story (or Kevin’s other submission on page 5 of this issue), then drop on by the Café Tuesdays to Saturdays and buy him drinks, which will encourage him to tell you more disturbing stories from his past. Cheers, The Editors.
Diddle: To insert ones fingers into a soft moist place and twirl rhythmically. To many this definition of ‘diddle’ may suggest a sexual connotation, but to me it simply says ‘Grandma’. Wait. Let me clarify. I’m talking about noodles here. Wait. Let me clarify further. I only diddle with Grandma on Christmas Eve. That still doesn’t sound good. OK. My Grandma and I diddle noodles for the whole family all day, Christmas Eve. My brother helps. So does my mom. Yeah. That sounds right.
Diddling is a Christmas Eve tradition in my family. I’ve been doing it ever since I was a little kid. So has my mom. Even my Grandma has been a skilled diddler since she was a youngster. Which amazes me because she’s incredibly old. Almost as old, I think, as those Bristle Cone Pines in California. And those are supposed to be the oldest trees on earth at something like 89 years. She tried to tell me once that HER mother diddled as well, but having read Genesis I view this statement as illogical.
One of the keys to diddling a good noodle is getting the right amount of milk. I’m not sure why this is, but to listen to my Grandma tell it, I can only assume that if the wrong amount of milk is used, one’s only remaining recourse is to burst into tears and await death. The milk is perhaps as important as the egg, and the egg is really the soul of the endeavor. The milk and the egg must be diddled together and expanded to birth the noodle. And there’s a little salt involved as well. But of course you wouldn’t want it too salty.
I still feel like maybe this whole thing doesn’t sound right.
So every year on Christmas Eve my Grandmother Jane, who has consumed the better part of nine bottles of Bailey’s Irish Cream, will stagger out into the living room and say something like “OK! Time to start diddling!” By this time our beef has been simmering for several hours, so it really is diddling time. This is also the cue for me, my brother, and my father to ‘remember’ that we still have Christmas shopping to do (as in all of it) and that we must go to the mall immediately.
Most years this shit does not fly, because my mother has ensured that we finished our shopping the previous day. She does this by employing a variety of tactics such as begging, threatening us with completely unnecessary exploratory surgery, or, failing that, doing our shopping for us. My brother will say “Oops! Forgot to do all my shopping. I have to get to the mall.” And my mother will say, “No you didn’t! You’re getting me your gall-bladder. It’s already wrapped. In YOU. Now get to diddling.” It really is a magical time of year.
We all file into the kitchen where Grandma slurs something completely incoherent at us, which leads to a rousing game of ‘What the Hell Did Grandma Say’, after which she hands/throws/drops in our direction a bowl of flour with a little depression in the middle. We each add a little salt, crack an egg into it, and then pour in a little milk. I add an amount of milk which my Grandmother declares is too much, and then my brother adds an amount that she declares is too little. But here’s the kicker: It’s the exact same amount of milk! We know this because we’ve taken to measuring the milk with the same kind of micro-pipette used in DNA testing. We are left to assume that Grandma, who has had multiple eye surgeries, can see, without magnification, actual individual molecules of milk. Because to suggest that Grandma might be wrong about anything noodle or diddle-related would be grounds for familial excommunication.
Now it’s time to argue about how many noodles we will need, a noodle being defined as one egg worth of noodle dough. This leads to a discussion of who will be attending our traditional family feast, which has, oddly enough, not been discussed at all up to this point. The usual suspects are all well accounted for and assumed to be coming: aunt, uncle, cousins, that lot. The only real wild card is Carol, a dear family friend whom we all love very much and whom we welcome to every big family event despite the fact that not one of us can stand her company for more than one minute and 15 seconds (a record held by my mother). So we settle on a number, usually five or six, and then make some other number between four and eight, the important thing being that there is a discrepancy between the number decided upon and the number produced, as contradiction makes the noodles taste better.
Here’s a question: how do you know when your noodle is completely diddled? It has to do with firmness. A well-diddled noodle is firm, but not hard, and it shouldn’t be sticky at all. If it’s sticky, by God, you are in for a world of trouble. Because it’s time for the hard part. Now that the noodles have been diddled, and diddled well, they must be flattened. My brother and I, who are responsible for the bulk of the rolling, begin to pray that my Grandmother hasn’t forgotten her big, purple, metal rolling-pin, because the little wooden one that my mother annually fails to replace is a real piece of crap. It is thin and spindly, and while it could easily be used to stake up sagging tomato plants, as a rolling pin it is virtually useless.
We take turns rolling the noodles. It takes a lot of flour. On the rolling surface (or ‘kitchen counter’ as we like to say), on the rolling pin, on myself, on the floor, and, I think, on the dog. Once the dog is properly floured I can begin to roll. I am an excellent noodle roller, unlike my brother who always tears the noodles and rolls them into weird, amoeba-like shapes, and who should probably stick to toaster-shaped items as his sole culinary endeavor. Really. I’ve seen him fail to properly microwave canned soup. And he’s 30. Take it out of the can, guy!
My brother and I take turns rolling one noodle at a time, mine getting progressively better, his slowly taking on the appearance of Jackson Pollock paintings. Grandma, whose job is basically done, occasionally wanders over to mock my brother and remind both of us that “It’s not thin enough until you can read a newspaper through it.” An absurd claim since, to the best of my knowledge, she has never been able to read.
At this point it’s getting close to dinner time and we would be cutting the noodles into strips, or ‘noodles’, were they dry enough. But of course we started much too late in the day so my mother has to get out the hair dryer and blow flour all over the kitchen, but not dry the noodles out too much or they will crack which, I’m told, really pisses off Jesus. Cutting is another moment wherein Grandma has a chance to shine by telling us how wide or skinny to slice them. It is also the only point in the noodle process, from diddle to consumption, when we can basically ignore her.
Eventually the cut noodles go into the water that the beef was cooking in all day, where they become gravy, then we all settle down to drink until someone realizes that we don’t have nearly enough potatoes. We run around awhile, eventually submitting to the grim reality that there is absolutely nothing we can do about the potato shortage, after which we settle down to drink and chat with newly arrived guests and eat too much cheese.
Soon we all congregate around the big table where Grandma is passed out, and it’s dinner time. Here is the proper way to eat Beef and Noodles on Christmas Eve.
1) Wake Grandma.
2) Take a giant chunk of beef, which is tender and delicious, and put it on your plate. DO NOT OFFER TO SERVE OTHERS! The table is very big, and the platter is very heavy, often with hilarious results.
3) Take an absurd quantity of potatoes, preferably before anyone else, because there aren’t enough and you won’t get seconds. People will point out the potato shortage. Ignore them.
4) Take a giant ladle full of noodles and apply to the potatoes as with gravy. Take as much as you like, there are WAY too many noodles.
5) While reaching for string beans, notice something out of the corner of your eye. Turn and realize it is your brother’s unwashed index finger buried up to the second knuckle in your tender and delicious chunk of roast beef. Notice that he is smiling at you.
6) Smirk, get the beans, and when he’s reaching for the rolls drop an olive into his wine.
7) Gorge. Merry Christmas.
Kevin Petrie hails from Seattle but lives and works in Antigua for no readily apparent reason whatsoever. He is lucky to have a family who allow themselves to be publicly mocked.