This is a pandemic story, though it won’t be clearly so until the end. It’s an old story, rooted in distant places, long ago.
We’ll start here: The first time I cooked for other people I was in college. A friend invited several of us to her family’s house in Vermont for a Presidents’ Day weekend of skiing. Only I didn’t ski, and she didn’t love skiing, so while our pals were on the mountain from morning to dusk, she and I read books, walked, and puttered in the kitchen.
We’d both grown up watching our mothers cook, both had virtual index cards in our heads (her mother’s chicken curry, my mother’s orange chicken). Our common experiences made us easy cooking companions, even though we’d never been in a kitchen together before that weekend. I had helped with family dinners and once or twice lent a hand for a holiday gathering, but I’d never cooked for anyone other than relatives, had never chopped onions or ladled broth with anyone but my mother.
We decided to make chili because it was something we both knew by heart how to make, and we felt sure it would please everyone, male and female alike, on a cold winter day. We made a double batch, intending to have leftovers the next day. We set the big pot to simmer and then trekked through the snow for a some fresh air. The house was warm and fragrant when we returned, and as our friends rolled in, tired and hungry, their delight was a kind of deeply pleasing affirmation.
A year or so later, in the tiny kitchen of our off-campus rental house, the same friend and I had our second dinner party of sorts, also thanks to a long snowy weekend. She made the chicken curry for which she needed no recipe; I made carrot cake from the Moosewood Cookbook, a gift from a handsome misfit who taught me how to make lentil soup and rye bread but who was otherwise regrettable. At the end of the evening one of our friends asked how in the world we knew how to cook. Had we taken a course? We laughed.
After college I headed to Boston where I taught art and photography at a weekday-boarding school and lived in a on-campus house with two other young teachers, one of whom was a fellow artist, Olympic-level athlete (field hockey), and excellent cook. Sidelined by an injury just before the ’84 Games, she’d spent half a year recuperating with relatives in Italy for consolation, and her grandmother taught her, in her words, “the real Italian way to cook.”
On weekends when the school kitchen was closed, we had the choice of ordering pizza, going out, or making dinner for ourselves in a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet. Most often we chose the latter, because the first two required money. My friend had lived in the house the longest (two years), and her seniority privileges extended to the kitchen. She enjoyed making enough food for three (or more), provided she had help with grocery shopping and clean up.
We didn’t have a dining room or table, so we ate casually with plates on our laps. Among the benefits of this set-up was the ease of including friends who dropped by or other teachers, without the need for a formal invitation. Communal dinners were the norm, often with the television on – something expressly forbidden in my mother’s house. After dinner we took turns doing dishes because there wasn’t enough room or counter space to leave them for even one day.
In that tiny kitchen, on Friday and Saturday nights when we didn’t go into town, I watched my friend make things foreign to my mother’s repertoire: escarole soup, risotto, pasta puttanesca, and her family’s late-night staple, linguine with baby clams. I remember being unsure that I would enjoy any of the things she was cooking, having never tried anything as exotic sounding as escarole.
It was a kitchen of great discovery. I learned to salt pasta water until it tasted like the sea; to pour a mound of semolina flour on the counter, crack an egg in the middle of it, and mix with a fork until a ragged dough took shape; to whip ricotta and a bit of sugar into something magical when laced with bittersweet chocolate shards and fresh raspberries.
In that same kitchen I launched a catering business, using the only skill I felt confident enough about to shore up the slim $6,000-a-year stipend for first-year, intern teachers. I prepped ingredients on that postage stamp sized counter, packed them up, and finished cooking in my clients’ homes, using The Silver Palate Cookbook as my guide. The money was good and the work was easy, but the whole thing felt impersonal. Even when the food was well received I would head home missing the intimate satisfaction that came with preparing and serving a meal for friends.
My second year teaching I had two new roommates, and I was the one with seniority in the house and in the kitchen. One of the newcomers was a fellow Southerner who also enjoyed cooking. We bought copies of Jane Brody’s Good Food Book and by year’s end could make bran muffins and cranberry turnovers from memory. She pitched in with my catering work, which made it more enjoyable, but it was never wholly rewarding in the same way as cooking for friends.
My two-year stint up, I returned to Memphis with a carload of cooking gear, dishes, and cookbooks, most of which I still have. I took what I intended to be a temporary marketing job with a telecommunications company, planning eventually to head to graduate school, study art, and lead a purely creative life as soon as I the wherewithal. In the meantime, I moved into an apartment that overlooked my favorite park and museum. It had a big enough kitchen to hold things that had been in storage at my mother’s, and it had a large enough living room to fit a dining table.
I joined a morning running group, heading across the street at dawn to jog the loop around the golf course and through the forest. As we ran we talked about books, travel, art, and cooking. We met for dinner every now and then, always at someone’s house, a proper house, owned by people who were grown up, something I certainly was not.
Then one fall morning, for reasons I can’t remember or now explain, I invited everyone to dinner at my apartment.
I’d never hosted a dinner party on my own. I’d cooked for other people before, of course, but never in my own home.
I decided to keep things simple, so the menu was salad, pasta, dessert. The latter was easy to decide: My mother’s chocolate soufflé, since it never failed to delight my catering clients. The salad preparation was also straightforward, because simple is always better when it comes to green salad.
What the hell would I make for the main course? Raspberry chicken (the catering favorite, by far)? Lentil soup seemed too unglamorous, pasta with ordinary pesto too trendy (at the time), ratatouille too much work.
I looked through journals from my teaching days. I thought about all the times we’d gathered in the living room of that tiny campus house, laughing and eating and drinking and feeling cared for. I found the page where I’d written notes about my friend’s grandmother’s recipe, the dish she considered a family staple: Linguine with baby clams, lemon, garlic, and fistfuls of fresh parsley. I remembered the night my friend served that to us for dinner, how I didn’t think I would like it (canned clams??) but then hoped for leftovers the next day.
It was a simple dish, easy to make and hard to screw up. It would hold well at room temperature, be hefty enough for dinner but not so heavy that no one would want dessert.
I spent the week nervously preparing, planning out every tiny detail. Saturday arrived, and we met in the morning for our weekly long run. I spent the day cleaning and prepping, chilling wine, setting out candles and flowers. I prepared the pasta before I showered and dressed, knowing it would keep. I tossed the salad at the table, got everyone started and ducked into the kitchen to whip the egg whites, fold them into the chocolate base, and put the soufflé in the oven to bake while we ate dinner.
I served buffet-style because I didn’t have enough chairs for us to sit at the table. We ate on our laps, watched the Memphis Tigers’ basketball game, emptied all the wine bottles.
It is a memory that lives in my whole body. The slight ache from having exercised in the morning; the flutter of anticipation and nervousness; the joy of preparing and serving food that my friends enjoyed; the deep sense of satisfaction after everyone had gone home, the dishes were cleaned and put away, and I fell into bed. Unlike the feeling after a performance or presentation, this experience felt like being deeply cared for by everyone present, even though I was technically the hostess.
I can feel this memory, still.
It welled up, unexpectedly, last week when I invited a group of friends to have dinner on my porch, now that we are all vaccinated and tentatively poking out of our cocoons. I offered the invitation and then had a momentary panic, unsure what to make or how to serve a shared meal after so many months of hypervigilant living.
I’d cooked for family and friends, hosted dinner and cocktail parties for decades, but all of that came to a screeching halt in March 2020. The long months following the shutdown were marked by often-uncomfortable growth and self-reflection. I felt unsteady and out of practice, an odd feeling because I cooked, short order style, non-stop through the entire pandemic, trying to keep hungry, home-bound teenagers fed, sane, and safe.
I reached for the familiar things that would feel like a return to normal, pulling all the usual suspects from the cookbook shelf: Ina, Alice, Julia. I looked on the NYT app, perused the list of things I’ve cooked over all these years of blogging and finding my way in my own kitchen.
And then I knew what to do, what to make, how to serve. The knowing washed through me, felt like returning to a self I’d almost forgotten.
Salad. Pasta. Chocolate.
Because when I think of what I want ahead, coming out of the pandemic, 2019’s standard just doesn’t cut it. There’s no returning to that version of life, anyway, but even if there were, I wouldn’t choose it.
I spent the day prepping and cooking, pulling out linens and dishes I hadn’t seen in ages. I cut flowers from a neighbor’s yard, arranged a buffet serving table, filled an ice bucket that had been hiding out above the refrigerator.
My friends arrived a little past 6:30, knowing I’m never ready on time, knowing I need just a minute in between preparing and hosting so I can breathe and settle myself down.
We sat in a circle, sipped wine, marveled at being together in person, laughed at the awkwardness of it all. We served our plate and ate not on our laps but at a table that was properly set, because we are grown enough to prefer it. We are also grown enough to know better than to empty all the wine bottles, although we came very close.
After everyone left I brought the food and dishes in, started washing glasses. My son wandered downstairs for a midnight snack. He started eating the leftovers straight from the container before I could warn him of its contents.
“This is pretty good, Mom,” he said. “I’ll bet your friends enjoyed it.”
“It’s linguine with clams; I wasn’t sure you’d like it,” I said.
“Huh,” he said, digging his fork for more. “Maybe I like clams and just never knew it. Why don’t you make stuff like this more often?”
He helped me finish cleaning, checked the doors, turned out the lights.
“Night, Mom,” he called as he went to his room.
I crawled into bed, tired and a little sore. An anchoring, familiar comfort settled me to sleep.