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Business Casual: Food and Friends

The year I lived in San Francisco I was invited to a big Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house. I accepted with gratitude and a request to know what I could bring.

“Well, you’re Southern,” my hostess said. “Why don’t you make a pecan pie?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be happy to.”

Moments later I was on the phone to my mother in Atlanta. “Mom, I need to make a pecan pie. How do I do it?”

“No idea, honey. I’ve never made one. Don’t you have a cookbook?”

Clearly, I was on my own. I found a recipe – I think it was on the back of a box of brown sugar – and set out to buy pecans, which I quickly learned were not as readily available in California as they were in Georgia. I finally tracked some down in a health-food store for about the same price as Beluga caviar.

Next, I stormed into the kitchen, rolled up my sleeves, mumbled a few curses and managed to come up with something that vaguely resembled pecan pie, which I took to the dinner.

I placed it on the dessert table, amid scrumptious-looking pumpkin pies and coconut cakes, and walked away. Never even tried it, and, judging by the amount left over at evening’s end, hardly anyone else did, either.

I wish I could say I was inspired by that early pie misfortune to become a great cook, but that’s simply not so. I’ve always enjoyed having people over, but the food preparation part did not come easily.

I blame my mother, of course – she was a working mom, a single mother to a classic picky eater (“Eww. What’s that?”), and had no real motivation to cook until I left home, when she began to find her groove.

But earlier, at a time when cooking wasn’t particularly valued, just considered one more thing women were supposed to do, she was generally content to open cans and remove packages from the freezer. As I was, for a time.

But the truth is, good cooks make great company. And so I have fallen in with a crowd of foodies – food lovers, food writers, food magicians, food adventurers seeking recruits.

One makes chicken and dumplings angels might envy; another concocts chocolate desserts that bring tears to your eyes; yet another can put anything on a grill and produce perfection.

One cooks everything she offers guests with apparent ease and fabulous results, and she will probably be offended that I single out her “David Hasselhoff” potatoes to mention.

Another once prepared a version of James Beard’s mother’s spaghetti that is beyond memorable. Still another has a knack for cheese selection and procurement; and everybody seems to have first-rate wine-choosing skills.

It’s a formidable crowd, and the first time I entertained them I stuck them all in the living room with appetizers and drinks while I bumbled around in the kitchen. I didn’t want them watching too closely, fearing they wouldn’t like what they saw. (“Did she clean that chopping board properly? Did she mean to add so much salt?”)

The meal – beef stew, as I recall – was fine, but the evening was missing something. So the next time the group came over, I invited them into the kitchen.

It was crowded, noisy and mildly chaotic, but certainly more fun than flying solo, even if I was bumping into people to get to the refrigerator or the oven. I enlisted help setting the table, lighting candles, filling wine glasses, plating food and keeping cats at bay. I don’t actually recall what we ate, but we all had a great time.

As I got a little bolder, I tried out some new recipes. The quality of the food improved in direct proportion to the camaraderie factor. With so many good cooks, there was always help available – plenty of encouragement and no judging. The kitchen didn’t get any bigger, but it didn’t seem to matter. No one ever left hungry.

I have now ascended to what I regard as “competent cook” status. I consider my crowning achievement to be preparing risotto and seared scallops for 10 very hungry people one summer evening – all watching the preparation and all smiling as they cleaned their plates.

A small personal triumph, but a real one. One of these days, I may even give pecan pie another shot.

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