Cooking has not been an optional practice for me since 1982. That was the year I got serious about the family dinner table and simultaneously began living and learning a hospitality vocation. In these overlapping realms, cooking has been necessary work. Like all necessary work, sometimes it's enjoyable, and sometimes it's just one more thing to get done in a busy day. But there are occasions when cooking is lifted out of the ordinary and necessary, and everything — from dreaming up the menu to the act of cooking to gathering at the table — becomes a meaningful and memorable experience. Though I'm a solid believer and practitioner in the biblical idea of welcoming strangers, some of my most memorable times in the kitchen are when cooking for the friends and family with whom I share a history.
A few years ago, I had a hankering to gather my grown children and grandchildren to our home for a meal. The busyness of all our lives, along with the frequent company of houseguests, makes time with just our family a rarity. In this particular season, I had my head most often in books and academic deadlines while I worked on a master's degree, so moving everything else aside for few days in order to pour myself into the elaborate creation of a meal was a true pleasure. Creativity in the kitchen was good medicine.
I began on Friday afternoon by making homemade chicken stock. I don't always make it from scratch, but if I have the time, I do. The flavors are richer, and I like controlling what goes into our food as much as I can. On Saturday, I turned the chicken stock into “Mexican Chicken Soup” (from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa at Home). While the soup simmered on the stove, I made “Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread” (also from Barefoot Contessa at Home) and baked an “Almond Cake” (from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking) for dessert. Next, I cut corn tortillas into strips and fried them to top off the soup along with the grated sharp cheddar, sour cream, avocado, and lime wedges I would prepare the following day.
On Sunday, I completed the menu with a salad of pineapple, oranges, papaya, mango, bananas, and pomegranate seeds, and freshly whipped cream and raspberries for the cake. The ability to focus on this one meal for the purpose of nurturing our family ties was a gift to me. It was pure enjoyment to turn from the desk to the kitchen, to chop and simmer and bake, to sing along with Shawn Colvin and Nat King Cole while I worked, and to anticipate the comfort and company of my children.
Creating a meal for old and dear friends has the same effect. The pleasure of cooking is heightened by the expectation of spending time with those I know and love best in the world. For one season of the TV show 24, my husband Chuck and I had a Monday night date with Aaron, one of our oldest friends. He was in the midst of several major life changes and the evenings we shared in those months were special in the history of our friendship. He has since moved further away, and with the complexities of all our lives, getting together is more difficult. So I'm especially grateful for the regularity of our “Club 24” gatherings that winter and spring.
Dinner was always part of our evening and provided the setting for pre-television conversation. Before moving into the living room to watch another suspense-filled episode from the life and times of Jack Bauer, we ate together around the kitchen table. Aaron is an adventurous eater who appreciates a home-cooked meal — he even likes beets and brussels sprouts — vegetable favorites of mine, but not something you can serve to everyone! My menus were plucked from winter comfort foods such as meatloaf and butternut squash, and “Pasta Shells with Bacon, Peas, and Ricotta” (from More Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan).
As spring came on, I read through The Zuni Cafe Cookbook in spare moments, inspired by Judy Rodgers's stories of becoming a chef and of the food she creates in one of San Francisco's best restaurants. One night, I made her “Asparagus and Rice Soup with Pancetta and Black Pepper.” She writes, "This simple soup is crowded with flavors and textures. The ingredients are dosed to strike a high-pitched balance between the sweet onion and asparagus and the pungent pancetta and pepper. The mild, tender rice mediates." It was subtle and delicious. We savored every spoonful over updates of our lives in the previous week, while adding one more shared experience to the continuity of our long friendship.
Like many in our mobile age, Chuck and I constantly face the challenge of how to remain connected to our extended family while living in another state. In 1989, we moved our family of four from California to Tennessee for matters of work and calling. A few years later, Chuck's sister and her family came, too. As all of our children have grown and multiplied through marriages, we now have the Nashville family and the Yuba City family, but rarely are we all in the same place at the same time. However, there are occasions when we make the extra effort to find the money to buy plane tickets so that one-time events can be shared. My mother-in-law's 70th birthday in 2006 was one of those occasions.
We decided to have the party on Nashville soil and host it at our house. This time, the California men stayed home, but the women and one baby boarded a plane in Sacramento and flew across the country. Even without the men, we numbered twenty-nine.
The day of the party our house was abuzz with activity: we shared the work of ironing tablecloths, cleaning candleholders, making flower arrangements, and setting the tables, along with the food prep and cooking. Our daughter and son-in-law, Molly and Mark, wonderful creators that they are, had designed an invitation with photographs from each decade of their grandmother's life. For the party, the graphic was blown up to poster size and hung on the wall.
Our menu for the evening: Appetizers — a fruit and cheese platter, homemade “Cheese Straws and Rosemary Cashews” (both from Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris). Main course — fillet of beef with horseradish sauce, roasted garlic potatoes, green beans sautéed with shallots, gemelli pasta with bacon, asparagus and fresh mozzarella, and spinach salad. For dessert — homemade German chocolate and carrot cakes — Mom's favorites.
After blowing out her seventy candles, Chuck and Sam, our son, serenaded her with a much-loved song, "Amazing Grace." We presented her with a book of letters and read them out loud, taking turns around the room. They were letters from family members in both states, and also from old and dear friends. We wrote our individual stories of what she means to us, favorite memories, what we'd learned from her, and our gratitude for her love and her life.
This event was not easy to pull off. Our house was midway through a renovation, our yard was a mud pit with no mud-free entrance to the house, and my husband was not yet finished recovering from shoulder surgery. But like so many things in hindsight, I'm glad we seized the moment. The family has gotten larger in number, making it even more difficult to get everyone together in the same city. Each time any of us makes the decision to scrounge up the plane fare, offer up our houses, and cook volumes of food so we can all be together, we're chipping away at the distance and strengthening our family ties.
Time set apart to tend to our closest relationships is important, crucial even. Through Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites, along with the busyness and high mobility of our culture, many of us are in touch with more people than we could ever truly know in one lifetime. We might have a large roster of acquaintances, yet still experience loneliness on a regular basis. In the whole of life, there's a time to widen the table and welcome the stranger, and a time to narrow it in order to nurture continuity and intimacy with a smaller circle. Creativity in the kitchen, a common table, and the comfort of belonging — these are gifts of God worthy of our attention and work.
For a printable PDF recipe card of “Pasta Shells with Bacon, Peas, and Ricotta,” click here.
Andi has loved books and writing from her earliest years on the planet. If you peek into her office, you'll find bookshelves full of journals — from 1984 to the present. If you search even further to the recesses of old boxes in storage closets, you'll find spiral-bound notebooks from the 70s, and her first-ever diary from the early 1960s. It's pink with a lock and key. The pages contain notes from spying on her older sisters and profess her undying love for the Beatles. Andi is the author of Real Love for Real Life: the Art and Work of Caring, and she's also written for Comment, byFaith, The Washington Institute, and In Touch. Written interviews can be found at Ransom Fellowship, Hair in My Coffee, and Comment. This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, the opinion journal of Cardus: www.cardus.ca/comment.