One thing that brings me joy is making food and feeding people. December is my favorite month accordingly: I bake cookies and make candy to send off in packages and plan a grand open house with all the care and deliberation (and spreadsheets) with which I would undertake a military campaign.
My cookbooks, many of which have been companions of decades now, have plenty of notes to say which dish and accompaniments I served when, and to whom, jottings about what worked and what didn’t, and substitutions and tweaks. The binder which holds all my handwritten recipes, including ones from my mother, grandmother, and grandmother-in-law, also has a sheet of food likes: no eggs for Nona, Mom hates garlic, Sandra likes the lentil soup, Wayne hates pineapple and olives but loves squash.
A few weeks ago, Cassandra Khaw taught a food writing class with me and had everyone bring in an item of food with which they had strong emotional associations. People brought in sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, hot chocolate, ramen, and, for several, something featuring cinnamon. One person described their parent making cinnamon rolls, which they described in loving detail and then mentioned how they had never been able to find a roll like it again, with the initial crunch and flake, the savor of cinnamon and mouth-glide of butter, so every time had both nostalgia and defeat mingling together. My mother always made cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning and got up early in order to let them rise and then get them in the oven. She served them again this Christmas morning, and they tasted like the holidays and home and love, warm and sticky and delicious.
Being able to make food that people love like that is an art. You have to pay attention. I was talking to a woman who was a chef recently, and she talked about a period in her life when she was very angry and couldn’t peel mangoes without slicing too deep and getting bitterness in whatever she was making. She had to slow down and pay attention to what she was doing, had to taste as she went along, in order to understand her own internal state and how it was affecting her food. If you are bitter, your food will be unpalatable. If you are joyful, it will be delicious and bring joy to the eater.
Macaroni and cheese is another favorite of mine, partially because it’s my brother’s recipe that I make most often, carefully perfected and requiring some steps that I might actually skip, like tempering the egg before adding it. I like to think of him when I make it. I always make three times as much as needed, and then we have fried slabs of it the next day and lie around groaning because it was so rich.
For this year’s open house, I cut back and didn’t have every surface covered with food: just a steady quantity of tasty food, including some vegetarian and/or dairy or gluten free options. Everyone found something they liked, and people brought things that they liked to make, like my friend Liz’s dukkah or Anaea’s hot chocolate, which I accompanied with homemade marshmallows. And I made that aforementioned lentil soup in case Sandra showed up, tasting and tweaking, as well as a six pack of Dr. Pepper in case someone else did…because hospitality is such an act of joy. Of sharing. Of opening up one’s space and saying, here, I made this while thinking of you.
Because surely that is one of the nicest joys of all.