I was saddened to hear about the death of Nora Ephron. I’ve never particularly liked her movies, which strike even this die-hard Woody Allen lover as too hopelessly bourgeois for comfort. But I do have a bit of a soft spot for her writing, especially on the subject of domestic life. While dawdling in an air-conditioned Barnes and Noble yesterday, I reread “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir” in a cheapskate homage to the late, great author. It’s a genuinely funny essay about Ephron’s development as a cook and hostess, something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. For Ephron, learning to cook and host parties was an essential component of being a real adult, and not just any adult, but the kind of cultured, rarified adult that she wanted to be when she moved to New York as a young woman. This involved scouring important cookbooks, stalking the movements of food writers and celebrity chefs, and making incredibly elaborate dishes from a variety of international cuisines. Describing the culinary Zeitgeist of 1970s New York City, she writes,
Meanwhile, we all began to cook in a wildly neurotic and competitive way. We were looking for applause, we were constantly performing, we were desperate to be all things to all people. Was this the grand climax of the post-World War II domestic counterrevolution or the beginning of a pathological strain of feminist overreaching? No one knew. We were too busy slicing and dicing.
Later under the influence of Lee Bailey’s clean, unfussy strain of entertaining, Ephron threw out all the complicated recipes, the pathological overreaching, in favor of a simpler, more relaxed kind of cooking:
The point wasn’t about the recipes. The point (I was starting to realize) was about putting it together. The point was about making people feel at home, about finding your own style, whatever it was, and committing to it. The point was about giving up neurosis where food was concerned. The point was about finding a way that food fit into your life.
While Ephron is writing about a very specific time and place in food culture, her observations apply equally to my own generation’s obsession with food and entertaining, though perhaps in less gendered ways. In my own experience, single life cooking was ruled by practicality. An inordinate amount of things seemed to rot in my refrigerator when I tried to cook for myself from scratch on a regular basis, so an army of pre-prepared foods in frozen, pocket, or frozen pocket form entered my diet. It’s no wonder that Trader Joe’s—with its cornucopia of cheap, not-totally terrible pre-prepared meals—is usually a hot spot for singles in metropolitan areas. For me, at least, cooking for myself alone was totally depressing. While this isn’t to say that one can’t happily cook for oneself alone, I started having friends over for dinners as a personal excuse to cook something properly. Those early attempts were marred by my perfectionism, and I often found myself at the mercy of my own overreaching domestic superego. The result was gatherings that—while certainly fine and fun and a repository of nice memories of my early twenties—nevertheless seemed overwrought, both to me and probably to my guests. I regret speaking of this to those of you that ate at my house in 2007 or so, but I was probably a bag of nerves and lost illusions in those days. Those spicy lamb skewers that I wanted to seem effortless actually stressed me out enormously, and I’m sure they tasted of my strain. I apologize.
Two big things happened in my life to change my approach to cooking. First, I moved to Paris, which totally transformed how I thought about food in all of those terribly cliché ways that France transforms how Americans think about food (see: the six million memoirs written on this subject and the first two years of this blog).
This is not to imply that I was some kind of culinary philistine in the first place. My mother is a wonderful cook, both because of her own upbringing in a home of Sicilian immigrants as well as the Julia Childs/Gourmet magazine era of culinary consciousness that Ephron so eloquently captures in her essay. Moreover, my mother was always a very cool cat as far as dinner parties were concerned – everything flowed, with nothing overdone or fussy. My mother is a master of the dinner party were the food is excellent, the atmosphere laid-back, and the conversation sparkling. I now realize there are two very pragmatic factors involved in this success.
Number one, she doesn’t overreach, pairing a tried-and-true classic (often a pasta with a white wine and artichoke sauce or bœuf bourguignon) with a big salad and crusty bread, followed by something simple like berries and ice cream for dessert. Number two, she’s organized and does the majority of the preparation of both the food and the house beforehand. That way, she can actually enjoy her own party. While she still may be finishing up the sauce while everyone is having a glass of wine, you’ll never arrive at my mother’s house to an unset table. She flicks on the tea or coffee pot somewhere late in the main course, so that it appears that the coffee has just magically appeared from nowhere at the exact moment when you want it alongside your dessert. Frankly, it’s a rather artful gesture, one I find maddening in its perfectly executed simplicity. There is fine line to balance regarding organization, I’ve discovered. Arriving somewhere starving and then having to wait for six years while dinner gets made is terrible, and nobody ever wants to look at the dirty dishes from their host’s breakfast. But while I don’t like the idea of arriving at cluttered house or a totally inchoate meal, I also think I can (and have) gone too far in the other direction. Nobody feels relaxed when they arrive and the house looks like a Crate and Barrel ad and the meal-will-be-ready-in-seven-and-a-half-minutes-so-make-sure-you-pound-that-aperitif-so-that we-can-switch-to-red-wine-when-we-start-eating-in-eight-minutes-and-fifteen-seconds. I don’t want to seem a careless slob, but I also don’t want to turn my friends in fodder for my domestic OCD, either.
In Ephron’s case, her stylistic evolution took place over the course of three marriages, each with it’s own negotiations on the subjects of food and décor. For me, the second big change in my life that effected how I cook, eat, and entertain was moving in with B. He would be a rare dude in any generation for a lot of reasons, but he was the first man I ever met that could not only cook, but do so for a seriously enormous group of people in less than perfect circumstances, all without ever seeming to break a sweat. Longtime readers will remember that it was B’s epic American Thanksgivings and taco, gumbo, and chili nights—in which motley crews of people of all ages, nationalities, and persuasions gathered in tiny apartments for delicious food and better company—that really made me swoon when we were still “just friends.” My man can really roast a bird, people, and he can also admirably adapt to the sudden introduction of seven unexpected guests, a situation that would leave yours truly with a panic attack in the corner. Awesome dinner parties are an art being simultaneously hyper-organized yet unflappably laid-back, something B and my mom share and that I ferociously envy.
But I’m getting better, dear reader! Baby steps to the elevator! The last couple of meals we’ve hosted have been pretty masterfully casual-but-delicious, if I do say so myself! I’ve even tweaked plans for unexpected guests at the last moment, with only a minor amount of in-refrigerator grumbling! Getting older seems to be first about getting good at things, then getting relaxed about the things you are good at.
Even those meals that are just the two of us lately have been pretty awesome. I tell you all this because I know I haven’t written about restaurants much lately, but that’s because we’ve been mainly cooking and eating at home. I don’t exactly know if I want to take this blog in the direction of a cooking blog. Cooking blogs require being able to take pictures of the cooking process in ways that make it look like something deliberate and artful, rather than the horror movie set that happens nightly in my kitchen. Moreover, cooking blogs require recipes, which I never follow myself and am loathe to re-compose with any kind of accuracy. I cook from the gut, yo! Though I will say that Yotam Ottolenghi’s two cookbooks (eponymous and Plenty) are certainly in the Zeitgeist of my corner of the world, alongside my newish and already much dog-eared Silver Spoon. Sometimes when I’m bored I’ll just read recipes and peruse the pictures, which is officially the sign that I’m a Bobo goner.
Anyway, here’s a bunch of pictures of what we’ve been eating lately. The good news is, I’m moving back to Southern California in August, so our restaurant coverage will likely resume, OC-style, in a few months. In the meantime, I have some other things up my sleeve, so check back periodically should you be so inclined.
As always, thanks for coming back, dearest reader. I hope this summer is shaping up to be one of your happiest ever.