Tender at the bone
In the latest issue of Gourmet magazine, Ruth Reichl, in her opening editorial, announces she is going treeless this holiday season. “I kept seeing that after-Christmas image,” she writes, “all the sad, broken trees discarded at the curb, their needles crushed, their limbs dry, waiting for the truck to come cart them away… I just couldn’t bring myself to buy one.” Instead, she says she is going to fill her house with a different scent – that of piles of cookies, cakes and breads.
Before I get into the slight absurdity of a magazine that celebrates sucking the marrow from baby animal bones suggesting that taking the life of a balsam fir is cruel, I really want to get at the heart of the matter.
I just don’t get this whole cooking thing.
It’s not that I don’t understand cooking, per se. I get the principle: apply heat until the inedible is made palatable (or vice versa, depending on who’s applying the heat). The part I don’t get is the swoony-moony, hug-my-Cuisinart (hopefully when it’s off), food-is-love thing. I mean, baking is very nice, and cookies in the oven do smell good, but is she going to keep that machine cranking 24/7? Further, what about her kid? Is her family going to run downstairs on Christmas morning and gather around a pile of donuts to open presents? String lights on a fruitcake? Perch grandma’s golden star atop that eight-burner Viking range? Reichl says she’s hoping when her son looks back on his childhood, his five favorite words will be, “It’s time to start baking.” (More likely, “Time to hit the bottle.”)
Because Reichl doesn’t want a tree and loves to bake, those around her must kowtow to rising dough. It’s tyranny by spatula, I tell ya.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for food and cooking, especially when I’m on the receiving end. It still irks my mother – an accomplished, if reluctant cook – that I married a man who likes to make supper. “What’s John doing?” she’ll ask when she and I sometimes talk late in the afternoon. “Oh, I don’t know – deboning shallots, braiding leeks – something in the kitchen.” This is usually followed by a moment of dead, disgusted silence. “Don’t you ever make a meal?” (This, coming from a woman who has known me for nearly half a century and has yet to be served so much as a piece of burnt toast scorched by my hand.) In fact, the answer is yes. I do cook. It just scares me.
See, growing up in a small town where most of the moms didn’t work made me terrified that if I ever set foot in a kitchen, I’d never come out again. However, since getting married seven years ago, becoming a homeowner and something of a hausfrau, I’ve decided to make peace with the kitchen gods.
One step was subscribing to Gourmet. Not that I’m acquiring any cooking chops (or even learning how to cook chops, for that matter). In the three years I’ve received the magazine, the only thing I’ve prepared from its pages is a watermelon, feta and arugula salad – not exactly cooking. No, I subscribe because I like to read it in the tub while John makes dinner. That’s kind of a foodie thing to do, no?
Another step has been taming the wild legume. I am the Queen of the Bean. I have mastered both lentil and pea soup, a four-bean chili, black beans and rice, bean burritos and a white-bean salad. Only problem is (gastrointestinal issues aside), who wants to eat that crap? It’s punishment enough to have to stand at the stove when I could be lounging with a beer in the tub; sitting down and facing my cooking on a plate is another matter entirely.
But the highest hurdle I’ve had to overcome in this food business is allowing people into my (OK, our) living space and, worse, feeding them. This has been one of the greatest concessions I’ve had to make throughout our years of courtship and marriage. (Aside from changing my use of the first-person singular to plural.)
John loves to entertain. He can’t issue enough dinner invitations. And he loves to pull out all the stops, throwing himself into new, complicated recipes, such as Trout à la Holy Roman Empire (“first, draw and quarter several medium peasants…”), or Marmot en Croute. Who takes on this sort of thing for the first time with company coming, anyway? And medium peasants? By 11th- or 21st-century standards? Hannaford doesn’t even have beef short ribs this time of year. You think they’re going to carry fresh marmot?
I do have to admit I’m a good hostess. I clean, I shop, I set the table. I lay the fire and light the candles. I bring out the cheese and olives and hand out festive cocktail napkins. I fill glasses when they’re low and gather empties. I get everyone to the table and serve. I replenish and fetch things as needed. I clear dishes and make the espresso, and the next day I spend hours at the sink, up to my elbows in Dawn’s magnificent bubbles. No one has ever received bad service in our home.
I slipped into hostess mode naturally, though I kept having déjà vu, the feeling this was all terribly familiar to me. Maybe it was the way I held my arm behind my back when I poured coffee, or said “Very good, sir” whenever I removed a plate, but it finally occurred to me why this all seemed second nature.
I was waiting tables.
It took me even longer to stop checking under my guests’ plates after they departed to see if they left a tip. John has repeatedly explained how this isn’t the way it works when you invite people into your home, but I still feel slightly miffed that there’s not a wad of cash on my dresser the morning after a night of running my arse off.
I know that’s not the spirit of breaking bread – especially this time of year – but after 15 years spent in the restaurant business and 40-plus years of non-entertaining, I can’t help it.
I have to confess something: There are moments when I am ladling out portions of my miserable chili into plastic containers to freeze, or safely returning the last martini glass to the china closet, or sliding that first heap of onions (medium dice, 21st-century-size) from the cutting board into oil, or watching our dinner guests savor their first forkful of John’s Offal Conquistador (and it always turns out beautifully, doesn’t it?) that I feel a certain warmth emanating from the kitchen. Maybe it’s the afterglow from the warped and cracked Calphalon pot I let burn dry one too many times, or maybe it’s a glacial shift in my cold, cold heart – a soupcon of grace, a gratefulness for a place to call home, a husband who reacts to my bean burritos as though they were a special treat, food and love enough to share.
That’s a recipe even I can’t screw up.
Elizabeth Peavey plans to fill her house this holiday season with the scent of her favorite evergreen: juniper.