For that first meal for guests, I as easily could have prepared some dish of my mother’s.
The first time I invited company to dinner I was not yet 20, was newly wed, and “house proud.” I was impatient to set out Reed & Barton’s even then old-fashioned, heavy Melrose on my pretty blue-and-white checked luncheon cloth. 1 was eager to use my white with cobalt rim, made-in-France stoneware dishes. I imagined the rare roast beef slices, asparagus tips, and red-jacketed new potatoes I someday would arrange on them. I imagined a Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas feast, a New Year’s Day banquet for 12. Lord knows I had enough cookware, china, stoneware, silver, crystal, and linen.
Alas, for all my wedding booty and imagining of grand meals, I couldn’t cook much but frozen vegetables, grilled cheese sandwiches, and breakfast. With the latter I rarely could coax a fried egg from the skillet without breaking its yolk, and the morning I’d learn to do this appeared as impossibly distant as a snowcapped Everest. Also, because my mother had kept me out of her kitchen, fearing I’d make “messes,” almost every cooking implement I’d received as shower and wedding gifts felt unfamiliar. Even my new measuring spoons — the quartet of quarter-teaspoon, half-teaspoon, teaspoon, and tablespoon jingling on their metal ring — caused my small hands to feel overlarge and inept. And I was terrified the old four-burner gas stove in our apartment would blow up, afraid I’d burn down the kitchen and singe away my hair.
I was lucky, because I could invoke flavors of everything I’d ever eaten and imaginally smell and taste, say, moist breast meat carved off a roast turkey or a boiled turnip and that turnip’s green leaves or the difference between a Bosc or Bartlett pear (the Bosc tastes more of honey and the Bartlett feels grittier against the teeth and offers a lesser range of flavor “tones”). Some people seem particularly gifted at fact memorization or easy recollection of faces and names that go with them; I was and am, as are many people, gifted at what James Beard called “taste memory.” So while I could not make my way through even simple food preparations, I could lie in my newlywed’s double bed, stroke the knobby chenille bedspread, and let flavors coalesce in my empty mouth.
I like to believe that nowadays when a young woman utters her “I do’s” that her promises spill out as consequence of love and respect for a person who to her seems singularly desirable. When I married, not long after John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline moved into the White House, young women readily, even greedily, gave themselves up to matrimony for reasons quite apart from the husband who shakily agreed to love and honor. Perhaps I idealize women now in their 20s, presume that the world treats them better than it treated me. What brought me in a white brocade gown to an altar was not simple love for the person who stood pale-faced there with me. I wanted to be a wife, because I couldn’t figure anyone else to be; I wanted to escape my mother; 1 wanted a home of my own.
I didn’t know much about how to cook, but I knew enough to know I’d better keep it simple. What I fixed that evening I first entertained company was a meal I’d eaten at my friend Joanna’s parents’ house: beef and kidney bean chili, gingerbread studded with raisins, and coleslaw. (If your taste memory seems to you fairly accurate, try these flavors and textures out in your mouth.) I telephoned Joanna’s mother for her chili recipe, a simple preparation that began with chunks of round steak and onions browned in olive oil, to which one added garlic, chili powder, cumin, canned tomato paste and tomato sauce, red wine, and several cans of kidney beans. She warned me not to scorch it. Coleslaw I made pretty much as my mother did — grated cabbage, carrots, green bell pepper, mixed with a dressing concocted from Best Foods mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar to taste, and celery seed. Gingerbread I stirred up from a recipe in my still-unspotted Joy of Cooking.
I wish I still had that blue clothbound tenth edition of Joy, coauthored by Irma Rombauer and her daughter Marion Rombauer Becker. Mrs. Rombauer and Marion were my companions during my first years in the kitchen; it was to their book that I turned to learn how to fold egg whites into cake batter (carefully), how to peel a tomato (dip it into hot water and then cold water), and the distinction between quick and light breads (quick breads need baking powder or soda to expand dough; light breads need yeast). I’d used the tenth edition Joy for some ten years plus, when my husband, who’d begun to take an interest in cooking, urged me to throw it away. Why he wanted it tossed was that its pages were so gummed with ingredient splats as to be in certain spots unreadable. Some pages, particularly in baking and canning sections, stuck irreparably together. We replaced that Joy with a newer edition. When I look through this copy and stop at corn relish or butterscotch brownies or Wiener schnitzel, dishes I cooked often, or pie crust, with which I unsuccessfully struggled for years, I miss the innocent, hopeful girl I was then. In fact I mourn her.
The basic cookbook that I would recommend now for new cooks is the 13th edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (A.A. Knopf), edited by James Beard’s protege, Marion Cunningham. For $25 you get almost 900 pages and 1990 recipes. This is the finest beginner’s cookbook available. As bonus, the author’s photo on the dust jacket shows Cunningham in black apron over white blouse, gray hair pulled into a discreet bun, and grandmotherly face smiling out at you as if to say, “You can do it, you can.”
For that first meal for guests, I as easily could have prepared some dish of my mother’s. She was a far better cook than Joanna’s mother, who relied almost entirely upon Annie Mae, who let herself in the back door at dawn and did not leave until she washed, dried, and put away dinner dishes. My own mother, long divorced and hard-working at the university where she taught singers, by herself conjured up lovely and complex company meals; her preparations faithfully steered taste buds back to ingredients on which these dishes built. She set out on the table tiny pewter pitchers bearing blue hydrangeas or a wide water-filled bowl where lit flat candles floated among lilac sprigs. She piled records on the changer; all through an evening, Bach two-part and three-part inventions, Mozart horn concerti, and Puccini arias filtered as naturally as breezes through guests’ conversations.
Marrying so young, I see now that I was eager to put behind me all that my mother and her life represented to me. Most of her friends were unmarried or divorced and many “gay,” although that word was not yet in use. No word was used. People she knew, primarily university professors, lost jobs if their same-sex romances came to public notice. My mother was not gay and I liked her gay friends; it was not “gayness” I wanted to escape. I wanted to enter into the life that appeared to me in my friends’ homes as the “regular life” of husbands, wives, and children.
For that first company dinner, I invited a couple several years older than me who’d been married two years — Sam and Carolyn. Their two years seemed an immensity of connubial experience. They’d already, some 600 nights, cuddled to sleep under blankets and sheets beginning to show wear from weekly washing. They gazed at one another with unblinking calm; nothing, I thought, any longer lay secret between them,
As soon as I tendered the invitation, I was frightened. In all these years, as many meals as I’ve made for guests, I still get scared. Not ravening, heart-pounding terror, but a mild anxiety takes over that must be akin to the stage fright a seasoned actress feels. Once guests accept my invitation, the prospective event begins to rehearse itself in my mind. I calculate menu combinations. I consider flavors, colors, textures, and what, that season, the market offers. I ask myself, “What if John drinks too much and chokes on a tiny bone in the bluefish?” and “Can Pamela, who’s felt iffy, stomach peppers and garlic?” and “Would they really like the muddy, dark taste of black beans or simply vow to eat them because they thought them nutritionally chic?” I pull cookbooks from the kitchen bookshelf. I study recipes. A constantly changing flavor river runs through my mouth. Then, rather as I guess the muse visits poets, a menu visits me: I know what I’m going to cook, and I know how. I begin, then, to fantasize the table. I try out a grape hyacinth bouquet set in an old sugar bowl bought at a tag sale and beeswax, lavender-infused candles someone gave me for Christmas. I place this guest and that next each other. I speculate upon their likely talk. Everything else about which I should be thinking — moving laundry from washer to dryer, bills, letters, overdue library books, work — gets put on idle. I’m obsessed.
We tend to think sexual intercourse, momentarily joining two bodies, is the most physically intimate human act. Preparing meals for another person, in its own way, is more intimate, so much so that I sometimes wonder that we dare eat what strangers feed us. Bare hands rub and finger the cabbage and carrots and raw meat. Sweat on your palms, so slight that not even you feel it, carries your body salts and other castoffs into everything you touch. Skin flakes so small you’d need a microscope to see them drift off your hands and arms and face, down onto dinner’s ingredients. Eight-legged skin mites, for whom your shed skin is perpetual feast, ride atop these skin flakes, munching and defecating and copulating and giving birth and dying. Breath, and entire kingdoms of submicroscopic creatures alive in exhalations scatter and make camp across ingredients’ surfaces. The foods you prepare, together with these outfalls, cross the threshold of a guest’s mouth (which in the case of most guests you would never consider kissing, other than lightly on the lips). All this then enters the digestive tract and begins its passage from esophagus to stomach to duodenum to small intestine to colon. By the time you proudly bear your dessert of poached pears to the table, the lamb chop, spinach and blood orange salad, rye rolls, together with you and creatures who feed off you, have traveled deep into your guests’ bodies and made a new home there.
When I am invited into someone’s house, what I immediately want to do is look out windows. My need to pull aside a curtain and peer out onto lawn and trees and parked cars rises from my dis-ease, almost embarrassment, at having entered private space. Homes’ odors from foods and bodies and sleep and pets, or the attempt to conceal those odors with pine aerosol, seem almost unbearably personal, as do even the newest unspotted sofas or chairs from which the imprint of a host’s buttocks has been smoothed away. I want to hide my eyes. Every object, no matter how impersonal, hints at its owner’s life. Tables, bath mat, wallpaper, lamps, leatherette “Our Wedding” album on a bottom shelf, Japanese screen, armoire, jade plant, unbitten apple alone in the footed glass bowl — all this might as well be a cry overheard from a confessional. Everything we own tells too much about us. I want to stop up my ears.
Some general rules serve a host or hostess well. If food and eating bore you and you eat for fuel only, don’t cook for others. Take them out to dinner. A good editor once told me that too many writers turn out manuscripts that they wouldn’t want to read; don’t feed company what you don’t like to eat and don’t invite people whom you don’t like to sit at your table.
That all said, my first company dinner proved enormously successful. I bloodied my hand on the grater when I shredded cabbage and carrots, but I didn’t scorch the chili or burn the ginger-bread. I poured the harsh red jug wine that in those years we all drank into my new crystal wine glasses, whose slender stems and ballooning bowls so pleased me I almost wept at the pleasure of them (I was young, I was house proud).
Sam and Carolyn praised what I served and seemed genuinely to like it and took more when more was offered. Sam was a doctoral student in American history; discussion centered on Sam’s reading in Charles A. Beard, a historian who had opposed U.S. entry into World War II. I said I had thought everyone was for that war, and he turned to me and said, “Oh, no,” and went on to tell stories of 1940 antiwar demonstrations on the nearby campus. Carolyn, Sam’s wife, typed in the philosophy department office for money to keep them going. We moved into the living room. I served coffee. For dessert I had only more gingerbread to offer. Carolyn and I talked about laundromats and her gray wool jumper that she’d sewn for herself and what it would be like when our husbands graduated and we had babies and money in the bank and cars that started without having to be pushed downhill.
After midnight, my new husband and I, he giddy from drink and I from accomplishment, stood at the door in starlight and thanked our guests for coming. They invited us to dinner at their house and we set a date.
Looking back, I realize that it was an awkward, funny, little meal. Carolyn, whom I grew to love for her kindness, may have wondered at chili, coleslaw, and gingerbread serve on a fortune in tableware. For me my first company dinner was as much a milestone as engagement diamond, wedding ring, new last name, wedding ring, loss of maidenhead, double bed.