Your adrenal system and you! …why catering might be a bad life choice (featuring blueberry lemon polenta upside down cake)

I knocked gently on the bungalow’s front door, my arms laden with insulated bags of food and bubble-wrapped serving platters. Glenda and Shmenda (names have been changed to protect the “innocent”) were throwing a fancy mutual birthday party luncheon and had chosen me as their caterer.  The journey to this moment had been an arduous one with endless phone calls, emails, and zoom meetings. There had been months of Shmenda holding her face right up to the lens of her computer’s camera and squeakily shouting questions from her itemized list like, “Will you please tell me what the server will be doing during the party???”

I appreciate the attention to detail and know that people (especially women of a certain age <– no judgment) who have never hired a caterer are full of insecurities. Glenda and Shmenda had put me through my paces and I welcomed this game day like no other.

It would be a buffet of small food for 17 ladies, featuring items like smoked salmon mousse on corn blinis, blue cheese profiteroles, curried chicken sates with mirin mint dip, fennel and potato samosas, chicken Bastilla, grilled vegetable sandwiches with fresh pesto on homemade focaccia, flourless chocolate cake, and layered lemon cake with raspberry buttercream frosting. I began to unpack the food onto the side table in the kitchen when Glenda entered.

“Do you know what I just realized?”

“What’s that?” I asked, my smile as wide as it would get that day.

“We don’t have a working oven!”

It was a feeling of emptiness and nausea, like the very first time I went on a Ferris wheel. It was a feeling like neither my legs nor the floor existed any longer and I was just plummeting through the bowels of Northeast Portland.

It has been over 30 years that I’ve been cooking in people’s homes and I’ve had plenty of surprises, but this was a big one. When my legs reappeared, I finagled a toaster oven/low-temperature regular oven process that created a meal that was far from perfect, but at least safe to eat.

I slept the whole next day after that shock to my adrenal system.





One week later, I was catering a 50th high school reunion at a venue in The Pearl District.

“Get closer to the back entrance!!!”

The shrill pre-party hostess tone of the woman greeting me cut through the thrum of rush hour traffic like a cleaver to a chicken neck and other drivers craned their heads to see if she was yelling at them.

I nodded and put my Honda in reverse.

“There’s the back door. Do you need any help?” she asked, looking wildly around at the traffic and then at my fully loaded car.

“Nope, I’ve got it all. Thanks so much!”

People always offer but I don’t ever acquiesce when it comes to helping unload food and equipment. The process is more methodical than just lugging a bunch of stuff from one place to another. Not only do I make decisions about what order I will handle my onsite cooking tasks, but my body acclimates to the new space. It learns its patterns.

Arms full; I nudged the door’s wedge wide open with my foot. Four stairs down, hard left turn, and there was my workspace. This “kitchen” was just the end of the large venue room cordoned off by a black curtain and consisted of 2 long tables and 3 wall outlets. On the opposite wall from the staircase was a small room with a fridge and a sink and then a separate bathroom next to that. It seemed smaller than it had when I walked through the space the day before, but my job is to make every “kitchen” work and I always do.

I moved the tables into an L shape, and on the first, I set chafer #1, my portable convection oven, chafer#2, and stacked four full-sized foil pans of non-perishables. Then I made five trips carrying food from the car to the fridge. Then I brought the serving platters to table #2, disposables on the floor, my chef kit, and lastly two very large plastic-wrapped charcuterie platters, tentatively balanced on a wheely cart holding the venue’s garbage bags, a wrench, and a random umbrella. I took in a breath to add punctuation to this completed task. A period to my sentence.


Peeking through the black curtain I saw that most of the organizers had left to get ready. Round tables with high school reunion souvenir napkins were set, mic stands and stools awaited instruments and musicians, sign-in sheets were clipboarded with dangling pens on a ballooned table next to the front entrance.

This is my favorite moment in catering—this electric serenity, the distant anxious echoes, this ghostly stillness before the chaos…

Where the hell is my staff!?!  I thought loudly to myself as I marched back into the kitchen space. Someone’s bringing ice which we need to cool the booze and get the bar set up and fill the tubs and unwrap the drinkware and help unpack the platters and get the stations set up and set the charcuterie on one of the bar tables and they’re never ever late and suddenly 4 people are late by almost a half hour and I had asked them to come in early just to avoid this very panic and they also need to help with the flowers and get the napkins fanned and get the platters on the…

Ok, cool, here they are.

Someone in all black (my staff’s uniform) was coming down the back stairs. They had a black sweatshirt on and the hood was pulled down over their face so I couldn’t see who it was.

“Ha, ha.” I think I said, not understanding what was happening.

The person moved through the kitchen toward me while time oozed and whirred simultaneously. It wasn’t one of my staff, it was a stranger coming right at me. He grunted, now I knew it was a he, but his face was still covered completely. One step, two steps closer, then he slithered by, jostling my left shoulder and walked into the bathroom behind me, locking the door quickly.

And then I was alone again. Maybe 4 seconds had passed since he walked in, but I was different.




But guilty feeling, too.

Because I grew up in New York and should be tougher? Because I should have stopped him? Because maybe he just needed to pee? Because nothing had happened? Nothing had happened.

He was still in the bathroom. I listened to myself panting. Alone.

Uncertain about leaving all of my equipment unattended, but knowing I had to ask for help, I found the venue’s manager in the larger room.

“Um, someone came in,” my voice sounded high pitched like a child’s. “And they’re um, in the bathroom. It’s a person, maybe a houseless person, I don’t know. He’s got a hood pulled over his face. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry.”

I’m embarrassed to admit that I apologized. It’s my inappropriate pre-loaded response to many things that don’t deserve an apology from me. The manager nodded, looking a bit lost in how to console me and also handle the situation.

“I feel bad because he didn’t really do anything,” I continued, ”and I don’t know his situation, but he’s in the bathroom still…”

“It’ll be ok,” the manager padded my shoulder and then asked, “How did he get in?” floundering with his next step.

“Though the back door,” I replied.

“Yeah, well that happens these days if a door’s open,” And I felt the weird victim-blaming guilt dance reload. 

“I KNOW,” I said. Because I do know. And because the play-by-play situation of this story has no content. The story of a man with his face covered entering a private event space and locking himself in the bathroom is terrifying because there is no room in my imagination for anything other than tragedy. I am caught in the riptide of the distrust of 2022. We all are.

At the same time, it’s not like the hooded stranger was in the bathroom making balloon animals for guests who would soon fill the space. He was in there for about 25 minutes. My instinct leads me to believe he was shooting up.

“He’s in which bathroom?”

I pointed to the corner and the manager walked over and knocked. “Um, this is a private event and you can’t be in there.” He sounded like a little, powerless boy. “I’m gonna call the cops.”

I rolled my eyes and I bet the guy in the bathroom did too. The police are short-staffed for real crimes, forget “breaking and entry peeing.”

I saw that my staff had arrived as well as members of the reunion committee and I felt a warm safety in numbers.

Then a round little woman from the planning staff whom I had not yet met marched over to me and said, “There’s a man in the bathroom? Oh, I don’t think so.” 


There’s a tone that some women can wrangle– let’s call it an angry mother tone — that stops everyone and everything in their tracks. 


And I felt him relent, though I didn’t see it happen. Across the venue, through the bathroom door, I felt his tailbone arch, the door unlock, and he was escorted out. Perp vs. angry mom tone? Perp doesn’t stand a chance.

It took me a while to regain my focus that night. I dropped food, and burnt stuff, and was completely off my game for the first hour of the party. My team helped wherever they could and by the end of the night we were back in full force. I am so lucky to have such powerful women on my team, as well as one particular Lincoln High School graduate force of nature mom who rescued us all – from what I’ll never be sure.

I still have a lot of conflicting feelings about this event as well as these times we live in. Fear, anger, guilt, shame, pride, respect, and frustration are some of the highlights of the list. I’m trying to listen to my gut and my heart… and maybe the news a little less.

Take care of each other. We’re all we’ve got.

Here’s one way to share the love…

This is an adaptation of Nigella Lawson’s polenta cake. I prefer lemon juice to oranges so here’s my version.

Blueberry Lemon Polenta

Upside Down Cake


  • 1 pound of fresh blueberries
  • ¼ cup sugar (for the berries)
  • 1 cup and 2 tablespoons sugar (for the cake)
  • 2 lemons, zested and juiced to produce 1/3 cup of lemon juice
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
  • ½ cup polenta (NOT instant)
  • 1 ¼ cup flour (can substitute 1:1 gluten-free flour)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Line a 9-inch round cake pan with a parchment round (or cut parchment to fit inside cake round).
  3. In a bowl, toss the blueberries with ¼ cup sugar and lemon zest. Dump berries into parchment lined cake pan, covering the bottom of the pan in a single layer.
  4. In a medium bowl, beat the 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of sugar, 2 eggs, 1/3 cup lemon juice, olive oil, and vegetable oil.
  5. In a separate bowl combine the polenta, flour, baking powder, and salt.
  6. Gently mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and then pour the mixture over the berries in the cake pan. Do not mix them together, just spoon the batter over the fruit.
  7. Bake for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck in the center of the cake comes out clean.
  8. Let cool for about 15 minutes and then invert onto a plate.










2 thoughts on “Your adrenal system and you! …why catering might be a bad life choice (featuring blueberry lemon polenta upside down cake)”

  • I don’t know which i like better – your recipes or your writing – your “tales” are so many things – amusing- poignant-and so much more – please do a cookbook and include your stories. As to this recipe i shall definitely make it – blueberries are my favorite berry (i make an awesome blueberry jam.

  • Terrific blog! I totally get all the mixed feelings your mystery visitor brought up. It really made me wonder what I’d do in that situation.
    I must have some of that polenta cake!!

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