If I had a time machine, I’d revisit cherished food memories, entering into those moments where food connected me to love and warm hospitality.
I first invited someone to the table at age three. I had a ritual of tugging my just-home-from-work father into my playroom where a miniature tea set was centered on a child-sized table. My father would squeeze into a child-sized chair and sip his pretend tea, making a huge fuss over his “fancy cake,” which in reality was a graham cracker.
At six I inhaled the seductive aroma of freshly baked bread for the first time.
My mother had two younger children, making it hard for her to keep track of me. I would use my freedom to visit a neighboring elderly couple whose wife baked bread every Monday. As soon as the bread had cooled enough to be sliced I was given a chunk laden with butter. I savored every bite.
During the Christmas season when I was in grade school I looked forward to making holiday cookies with my maternal grandmother, who taught me how to mix and roll out her famous sand tart cookie dough. It took a lot of practice to arrive at Nana’s paper-thin dough. Nana’s melt-in-your-mouth buttery sand tarts remain my all-time favorite Christmas cookie, which I reproduced for my own children.
College summers I cooked dinners for friends, borrowing my mother’s leather-bound Gourmet cookbook to prepare heavy French stews with gobs of red wine, which in retrospect where a terrible choice for hot weather meals, but they made me feel very cosmopolitan.
I would set the table with my mother’s best china. linens and crystal. My scruffy friends would lap up my Boeuf Bourguignon, heaping praises on the chef, and leaving sauce stains on my mother’s linen napkins.
Once I had babies I became obsessed with Adelle Davis’ books on healthy eating.
Determined to raise healthy children I passed on Gerber baby foods to make my own. I was a labor-intensive mom-cook, making from scratch whole wheat bread, and yogurt, but my efforts where curtailed when my oldest son David was about 7 and asked if we couldn’t have the Dannon yogurt like he ate at his friend’s house.
My married-life dinner parties were joyous (and often rowdy) occasions. My college cooking had improved after poring over cookbooks from Dione Lucas, Julia Child and the Silver Palate.
I’d spend two days getting ready: making a fancy cake and homemade pate one day and the next a time-consuming entre, like moussaka. Those dinners were filled with lots of wine and after-dinner cordials, which meant my famous chocolate mousse often had guests running for the bathroom!
I had my share of stumbles as a single parent, but one area where I got it right was to have my sons share in the meal preparation. Every night one of them was my sous chef.
There is something magical about food preparation that seems to let people put their guard down. My teenage sons and I had some of our best talks chopping vegetables and tinkering with recipes so that they resembled the picture in my cookbook. To this day both sons like to cook.
I have many fond memories of restaurant meals, like the enormous Bouillabaisse my ex-husband and I shared in Antibes or the roast goat from Alice Waters’ restaurant, Chez Panisse, but nothing can replace sitting at my dining room table or at a friend’s, where conversation and laughter flow and where guests sometimes linger until midnight, or until the last bottle is drained.
As I write this I’m promising myself to host more dinner parties in the New Year. It’s one way I can help foster positive connections. To paraphrase Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet Magazine, ‘The most loving thing you can do for someone is to cook for them.’