Dinner at Home
Where do you like to eat?
You might say in the kitchen, in a restaurant (a favorite restaurant), your Mom’s, your cousin’s, walking down the street, your bed, in the car, at your desk, in front of the TV, in the dining room (a whole room just for a place to eat!), on the train, on a plane, while sailing the sea (except for when the ship pitches and rolls), sampling while shopping at Costco or your supermarket, grazing at a free-food art opening or book launching… other suggestions? What’s your favorite?
I’ll bet 99.9% of you will say the kitchen. Okay, maybe not. A more precise 99.9% may prefer the restaurant scenario. Or how about a nice combo-place favorite? I’ve got a few of them: I love eating a Good Humor chocolate eclair bar while riding my bicycle; I love eating watermelon at the coffee table while watching TV; I enjoy tiny measured forkfuls of scrambled egg while standing at my kitchen counter, and I think a crunchy-squishy grilled cheddar cheese sandwich at a diner counter is some kind of heaven (not sure which kind).
I also love hosting dinner parties at home.
That’s when 2-10 people come over for dinner. It’s like producing a show, mounting a play. Your script is the menu. The stage is the table. The actors are the guests and I’m the stage manager, director, writer and producer. We perform the play without an audience. And no one seems to mind… no glory in performance, just happiness in the real time moments and scenes of the play. But there is a Greek Chorus present. The Greek Chorus plays out as comments in my head. Who had seconds of what, who left which thing on their plate, who drank a lot of wine. My Chorus makes comments like: “Of course, Henry prefers the red tomatoes to the yellow in the salad, he probably never saw a yellow tomato before.” “Linda is devouring those mussels. She has twice as many shells on her plate.” “Isn’t that funny that Johnny loves brie but won’t touch the taleggio? Maybe it’s because he’s full.”
It’s like producing a show, mounting a play. Your script is the menu. The stage is the table. The actors are the guests and I’m the stage manager, director, writer and producer. We perform the play without an audience. And no one seems to mind… no glory in performance, just happiness in the real time moments and scenes of the play.
I have a stuffed folder with scraps of paper each listing a menu, date, and names of friends who came for dinner. Sometimes there’s even a seating chart. I kept records so I wouldn’t serve the same dish to the same person a second time. By the dates I can clock the fluid line of my cooking tastes and pleasures; influences from recent trips to Italy or France or Spain, dishes my palate imported, which I’d percolate in my kitchen and serve to my guests whose eyes and smiles would widen.
In that folder are also notes from friends: “What a delightful evening it was for me!” “Where there is good company, good music, good conversation, and good food and drink, what else could one possibly want?” “Thank you again, once again, and again, again for the delicious meal and company.” “From the scotch and olive to espresso and biscuits and in between everything gustatory completely satisfying!” “I felt sincerely privileged to be at dinner. Everything was so delicious. Small dinners… It’s refreshing. We will between the three of us do more of that!” “What a fascinating evening of culinary treats!”
Home Cooking. Isn’t it grand?
Now I went to culinary school. And I’ve lived in New York City for many years. I traveled in Western Europe extensively. I’ve eaten in some of the best restaurants and unique holes-in-the-wall. So my palate has sampled and enjoyed, has learned and adjusted, has indulged in a lovely and tasty spectrum of flavors. But I’ve finally come to realize that my favorite place to eat — even more than my house — is your house.
Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me (anthropology was almost my major). I’m endlessly fascinated with people’s kitchens: how do they set it up, what’s on the counter (what’s in the cupboards if I could see them… dishes to the right? What kind of dishes? Packaged foods to the left? What’s IN there?) I love to see how someone cooks. What they decide to cook. What ingredients they use. What brand salt, where do they get their vegetables (what vegetables do they favor?). Do they like meat? Fish? Do they use wood or plastic cutting boards (Do they even use cutting boards? My mom uses a paper plate and paring knife to cut up everything, she doesn’t like the idea of food traces on a well-used board.) How do they serve the meal? Individual plates, family style, buffet, load up in the kitchen, sit in the dining room, hold a plate on your lap, eat at a counter?
I like the taste of someone’s home-cooked food. Even if it’s not tasty. It’s so much an individual product of one person (or a team in the kitchen). It creates such a personality stamp. So telling of who that someone is. Even if the cook believes the result was a disaster. Meat burned? In what way? How’d they do it?
In Europe I always wangled my way into the domain of home cooks; absorbing every detail from how they cut an onion (and with such an ordinary knife) to how they boiled the rice. I spent hours in the aisles of foreign supermarkets mining the shelves for local favorites of jarred and canned goods, varieties of cookies and crackers, even the size and shapes of paper napkins. Outdoor markets were my Disneylands; tiny food stores specializing in bread, meat, produce, and wine my pots of gold. And as much as I loved to choose from the menu of a new culture, I much preferred shopping in those markets and cooking in the kitchen of a rented apartment imitating what I learned at the shrine of the home cook.
When I was in culinary school learning all the basic French techniques, my friends and family suddenly suffered from stage fright when I was in their kitchens. They were afraid to cook for me. But I was no different. My taste buds still lit up for the things they always lit up for. The biggest revelation that culinary school inspired was: add more salt. That’s about it. It was a culinary boot camp mantra sounded by every chef-instructor as we offered up our cooked creations of the day: “needs salt.” And even though we were making foie gras 10 ways, I still craved my friend Nancy’s lamb meat loaf, and my friend Joan’s grape pie, and my friend Lyna’s fettucine Alfredo even though her recipe was from the Ronzoni box.
In this food-fetishized world, I feel a little guilty getting served a 20-ingredient food-sculpture-on-a-plate for $24 at the latest trendy restaurant. Yes, it’s scrumptious, but there’s something unreal about it. Something out of touch. I think of our pre-agriculture history. Hunting and gathering. Food from the woods. From the sea with a spear. From a deer with a rock. For some reason, I worry about too much refinement and I don’t know why it worries me. As if a skill or human trait is on the chopping block, about to expire without our noticing. Like a species of butterfly we never even saw before suddenly going extinct. Can we afford to completely lose our camaraderie with the common and with the wild?
Maybe I’m a culinary Luddite. Hugging the shoreline of my kitchen counter gazing out at the sea of bobbing superchefs and kitchen scientists while I suck on a spoonful of peanut butter for comfort.
Where do I like to eat? I’m among the 99.9% that prefers the kitchen. At my house. Or better yet: your house.
Cook the orzo in salted boiling water until al dente. Drain and run under cold water until cooled.
Combine orzo with other ingredients, mixing to combine. Drizzle olive oil, lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle fresh herbs.
— (Dinner guests request repeat performances on this.)
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