I’ve written before about a friend whose entertaining could make you move into the in-law suite. And if that was occupied, you’d set up a pup tent in the backyard in the middle of winter. Truly. Her cooking is enough to make you cry tears of joy that you have a seat at her table.
Her daughter told me once that her mother had taught her that “food is love.” This is not just a pretty saying in her house. Her mother’s Serbian family truly believes that food is a way to express love. Hence, your pup tent. Stake your claim now, friends. There will be a line down the driveway—I’m sure of it.
I grew up in a Midwestern town with salt-of-the-earth parents. Culinary adventures just weren’t in their blood. At my parents’ table, salt and pepper were considered seasoning. My mother’s chop suey was an “exotic” dish, replete with an underwhelming combo of soy sauce and canned Asian vegetables. Don’t get me wrong—I loved it as a child and even asked her to make it for me when she came to visit after I had a baby. It was comfort food. But as I look back on my epicurean journey, I smile at what a babe in the woods I was.
I grew up eschewing the kitchen. My father could cobble together a meal with unique flavors from whatever we had in the kitchen, sans recipe. He wanted me to share in his love of all things culinary. “Here, here’s how you chop celery,” he’d say. And I’d deliberately turn the other way and tell him I had homework to do, not the slightest bit interested. My mother would leave a recipe and instructions on defrosting the meat that went into it. But she quickly learned that my cooking lacked a key ingredient: edibility. And she soon learned to lean more on my older sister who had a natural talent for being Betty Homemaker, a name I used for her often and with scathing sarcasm.
I was going to be an executive, you see. I was going to follow in my mother’s footsteps. Someone else was going to feed me and my family, iron our clothes, clean our bathrooms. I said this without snobbishness and with an honesty that assumed the world would be fine with my choice. I simply lacked interest and ability in creating a cozy home and hearth.
Years passed and I moved to the Big City. Dinner consisted of a salad picked up after working late and hitting aerobics at my downtown club. Breakfast was cereal or something homemade from the Greek family restaurant in the basement of my employer’s Michigan Avenue building. Lunch was eaten at the hottest new eateries, sampling cuisine in which nothing came from a bottle or a can. And the weekends were pretty much cocktails and cheese fries. Literally. Oh, to be a 102-pound 20-something with a rock-star metabolism again.
My palate changed over time. So did my circumstances. When I met a nice man just as I began graduate school, he cooked for me on the days I had class. And soon, I began to want to repay the favor.
My early efforts were sad but comical. The Valentine’s Day cake that wouldn’t come out of the heart-shaped pan except in tiny pieces that looked more like crumble than cake. The pancakes that never quite took shape, running all over the griddle and burning until unrecognizable.
I had mastered Chicken Acapulco, a dish my friends had probably come to loathe because it’s the only thing I ever cooked for them when I invited them over. And yes, it involved many canned and packaged ingredients.
When my attention shifted from my career to my life and love, something changed. My shrimp plumped up and pinked up in a way I hadn’t thought possible. The light cream sauce I made to accompany them was seasoned with fresh herbs in a nuanced fashion that made it more than edible—it was actually good. And the pasta I served both on top of was al dente to perfection, after months of trying to perfect that art.
There was much comedic fodder amongst the victories. The spaghetti sauce to which I added raw ground beef instead of cooking it first. The beef stroganoff that included one cup of bouillon cubes instead of 1 cup of bouillon. I didn’t realize there was a difference.
I’ll spare you the rest. It’s a litany of errors that you’ll either relate to or at which you’ll gape in astonishment. I still laughingly recall a college roommate’s mother who asked me how I expected to find a husband if I couldn’t cook or sew. I gently reminded her that finding a husband wasn’t why my parents sent me to college. She frowned and looked away. I wondered how it felt to live permanently as a woman in the 1950s. It didn’t look like fun.
Back to the nice man who cooked for me during grad school. He became my husband and his Cuban/Colombian family opened my eyes to many culinary sideroads. From a brined Thanksgiving turkey so moist your mouth watered when you bit into it, to a salad dressing so good you couldn’t believe it was just two fresh ingredients, I was treated to a new world of food. In his family’s home, the appetizer and wine course could go on for hours. It was a sensuous, elegant ballroom dance of a dinner. I felt like my previous culinary experience was of the frat-house party variety. You went with high expectations and always left underwhelmed.
When I had children, they ate like kings when I cooked. Sure, we had occasional taco nights or hot dog picnics, but for the most part they ate food with fresh herbs, exotic spices, organic ingredients. It took longer to create this sustenance and sometimes tried my patience, as I tried to watch young boys in the backyard while cooking a gourmet meal in the kitchen. But I think I was channeling my friend’s family mantra without even realizing it: Food is love.
I have since altered that mantra. “Food is love” is a dangerous mentality sometimes. I hold it responsible for a loved one’s foray into unhealthy weight. It’s also the excuse my father gave himself for eating entire half gallons of chocolate almond ice cream—which didn’t help his genetic heart disease.
I’ve replaced “food is love” with “food is life.” And it is—literally. We can’t live without food. But what we choose and how we prepare it makes a world of difference. Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, gourmet coffee, amazing seafood and more feed our bodies in a way far different than packaged snacks, gluten-filled processed carbs and industrially farmed meats.
Food is life. But the quality of that life depends on the choices we make. As someone who has gone from Chicken Acapulco to a fresh, organic, garlic-lemon chicken that makes my friends swoon and ask for the recipe, I know that of which I speak.
Wishing you a bountiful, beautiful table this holiday season. We may not be surrounded by family and friends this year, but we’ll gather again soon. Very soon. In the meantime, enjoy your own culinary adventures. You’re worth it.