…more social activity for me in the last 3 weeks than the last 3 years.
Eating in solitude can be a lovely experience, with a unique element of romance all to itself. But too often it degenerates into an illicit parking lot Whopper combo or cold pizza gobbled over the sink for breakfast. There truly is an art to solo dining which makes the experience as pleasing to the soul as to the palate. I say this because the quiet meal exists without the burden of distraction and gives center stage to mindfulness, reflection and concentration. It can be rejuvenating. But this wasn’t the month for that kind of rejuvenation.
Commensality is the act of eating together, a ceremony that is so important to our collective humanity that ritual vocabularies have developed around the world: Spanish provecho (everyone may start eating), Italian mangia, mangia! (eat up), French Bon appétit (enjoy the meal) and Japanese itadakimasu (I humbly receive this food). I am utterly amused by these phrases and spout them liberally and without irony whenever I cook, as if I’m prepping the masses for an impending feast. But there’s no crowd of adoring fans. I’m usually cooking for anywhere from two to four people, all family, all hungry and all too wise to to be anything but complimentary and grateful.
Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, has been a really good role model for many novice home chefs, especially those like me with a reduced family – she cooks for Jeffrey and I have Husband. I always liked that she was a not classically trained Michelin line cook, but simply someone with voracious curiosity and a love of delicious food. She did not emerge from the world of celebrity catering, but rather learned from cookbooks (by Julia, etc) and hosted weekly dinner parties at home to share her passion and talent. In spite of her perfect kitchen, wild success and seemingly effortless gourmet skills, she comes across as calm, generous and approachable.
In a recent interview the contessa admitted she was a nervous, unconfident cook who re-measures and practices every single recipe to this day. I am not a nervous cook. “Cocky” or “self-serving” or “stubborn” are better words for me, although I enjoy these privileges because I have a conscripted clientele, two of which I actually made myself. I may share my thoughts and ideas about cooking with the blogosphere, but the actual eating part is a closely-guarded family affair. Perhaps the next stage of my growth in the kitchen really should involve sharing, which means being charming and social like Ina. I knew I’d need a few more role models, and by that I mean real people who I actually know instead of dead chefs or cookbook authors. So this month I went looking.
I did not have to look far. October brought such a frenzy of social invitations and excursions that even I could not resist. The largest gathering was a charcuterie party – loud, festive and bursting with the most fashionable meats, cheeses, fruits and jams you could imagine. I say fashionable with adoration, not snark because I could never conjure these pairings in my own, some classic, some contemporary. The sheer scope and volume of the evening’s flavors were also impractical for a family of two, so it was sensory overload and commensality at its very best.
Women much cooler than I supplied the extensive spread of delicacies and I basically just showed up and wallowed. There is genius to board mastery which I’ve always admitted I lack; I’m not much of an arranger of anything. But I’m not a complete savage so I did contribute a TikTok-inspired butter board I read about in The Washington Post (because I’m not TikTok-savvy). It’s basically a slab of room temp butter with various toppings that you drag warm bread slices through. It was a little tacky, kinda gross and sooooo very bad for you, but wowsa. Even the bread thanked me.
lemon-garlic butter board
- 6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 Tbs olive oil
- 1/4 lb. Kerry Gold unsalted butter, room temp
- zest of 1 lemon plus about 1/2 tsp juice
- 1 tsp sea salt
- fresh ground pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup crushed marcona almonds
- 2-3 Tbs fresh snipped chives
In a small saucepan, heat olive oil on medium until hot. Add garlic slices and chain yourself to the stove. Stir gently and flip as needed to ensure each slice becomes toasty brown without turning nasty. You’ll know.
Allow garlic to drain and cool on paper towels. Meanwhile, spread the butter on the serving plate of your choice. I opted for a flat, rectangular porcelain dish because the thought of decaying butter oozing into a wooden board is too much to handle. Try to make a decorative wavy pattern. I tried.
Sprinkle the prepped butter with the remaining ingredients, making sure to distribute and arrange so every bite holds the many flavors and textures. Serve with warm baguette slices or your favorite bread. *will substitute with pistachios and orange zest on the next go-round.
By contrast, our quick visit North to check in on my Sous Chef was a series of far less boisterous and considerably more intimate gatherings. At times Georgia can seem impossibly far away from the northeast, and I almost give in to that idea daily, given the recent news cycle. But I have important people and precious memories up there that I treasure far too much to allow any additional fabricated distance. And everybody eats, right?
Part of the weekend’s festivities included apple picking in rural Pennsylvania, an outing which very nearly reversed my historic disdain for apples. Maybe it was some latent hunter-gatherer instinct or simply maternal joy, but the act of collecting food with my child was a little poetic, especially on a picture-perfect fall day in some of the most beautiful countryside on the east coast. I even played along and nibbled on a Honeycrisp and a Gala in the orchard. The difference between an apple plucked from the tree and the waxy, months-old offerings at the grocery store is shocking, but I’m still not a raving fan.
We also splurged on requisite cheesesteaks, a few outrageously wonderful NJ Italian dinners and a good old-fashioned WaWa tailgate. Per usual, food was the unwitting anchor of each encounter – a universal excuse to connect. And that connection was instant – I was reminded that the world is never as large as I remember or as small as I fear. My point is that conviviality is often accompanied by food in some way, large or small. It’s all about your point of view, your state of mind, your needs at that very moment. Whether a paper-wrapped hoagie or a delicately-seared portobello mushroom (or even some annoying apple), I think food is a catalyst for engagement, even if it’s never as delicious as I remember or as unhealthy as I fear.
The wildcard gathering of the month was in Colorado where I spent an extended weekend with three friends from our slightly motley, but very close-knit college eating club (think co-ed, upperclass social & dining clubhouse). The promise of reconnection brought us all together, and while we did celebrate with an assortment of yumminess, it was the laughter, the story-telling and those threads of familiar, shared experience which made the trip. We spent the first hour comparing ailments and medications, but then quickly got to work laughing and pretending to be 20 again. It was glorious, in a glory days kind of way.
Food was not the centerpiece of the weekend, not by far; friendship was. But time and time again we compared recipes, expounded on favorite meals and re-imagined out loud the most fanciful and decadent flavor combos we could think of. It wasn’t that we needed to fill any uncomfortable silence with mindless chatter, but cooking well was a commonality, part of our collective daily routines and 3/4 of us actually adore doing it. It was one of many natural and comforting takeaways from the weekend – sure, we have many years behind us but I think we all returned to our own realities with renewed optimism. Kudos to my friend Louise of the West, the cranky and reluctant chef, for making it happen and hosting our Go-Gos retreat.
I started my cooking frenzy during the isolation of the pandemic when we were
locked brought together again under one roof. We did fine as a family of four, but there were edgy moments when togetherness mandated silence, which felt like solo dining…but with side-eye. I swear, alone cones should have been issued with N95s. Still, it was (forced) micro-commensality at best and oddly, I haven’t really expanded my base.
I’m comfy in this space, but I do tend to outgrow spaces. While any true communal aspects of my cooking are mostly absent, I do love the act of serving my people something deliciously and thoughtfully crafted; I don’t love the stress and pressure associated with entertaining. I’m getting better at it; or at least thinking about getting better at it. But don’t hold your breath – you still can’t come over.