Today I spent the better part of a drizzly, gray Sunday afternoon cooking for my friends and family. After all the prep and the chopping and the cooking and the checking and the tasting, all the juggling of cooking times and temps to get three dishes out of one oven, I was able to set a meal I was proud of in front of people I care about, to show them, by feeding them, that I care about them. It was a good day.
The weather definitely called for braising, and so I called upon one of our favorite and most used cookbooks, Molly Stevens‘ All About Braising. I tried a new recipe, her Marcella Hazan-inspired Pork Loin Braised in Milk, and accompanied it with an old stand-by, her World’s Best Braised Cabbage, and with my oven-roasted potatoes with garlic and lemon that The Pumpkin and her BFF, whose parents’ birthdays we were celebrating, love.
I love to cook. Sometimes, caught up in the daily routine of getting dinner on the table in a timely manner, I lose sight of that, but when I’m lost in the gratifying minutiae of prep or when The Pumpkin says she wants to help in the kitchen or when the girls call something I’ve made yummy or when friends at our table thank me for my work, I remember.
I grew up in a home in which my dad did all the cooking. He’d come home from school in the mid-afternoon, and while my mom took her doctor-recommended nap upstairs, he’d turn on the t.v. to KCET and we’d watch The Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child and Yan Can Cook and those hoity-toity gourmet travel shows where they’d feature several hotel chefs in upscale locales, me in the living room and my dad listening from the kitchen, coming through the doorway between the two spaces when he wasn’t chopping or stirring. I remember a few times when he’d ask if I wanted to help, but I guess, after being refused more than once, he just stopped asking. Looking back now, knowing how important food and feeding people is and has been in our family, in both my families, I wish I’d said yes. And so now, as an adult visiting the home I once lived in, I do.
I don’t really know when food, the preparing of it for myself and others, the enjoyment of it in all its diversity, became so important to me. Before I went off to college, my biggest culinary achievement was regularly cooking myself breakfast before school, throwing scavenged leftover rice or pasta or meat into a hot pan and scrambling an egg over it all. My family still thinks of me as the picky eater who, as a child, had to be fooled into eating pasta with sauce (white clam sauce instead of red), who refused ketchup and mustard and mayo on anything, who ate salad dry. In the intervening time, I became someone who makes his own salsa and vinaigrette, who loves to cook for friends, who schedules vacations around what and where we’re eating. (Though that no-condiment thing still holds, sorry.)
In college, I reduced my meal plan and started cooking in the dorm kitchen. I wooed my one-day-wife with (my white dad’s) teriyaki chicken, broiled salmon steaks, and attempts at Filipino food from recipes I found on the nascent World Wide Web. We started cooking together, side by side, helping each other, one of us prepping while the other cooked or one of use doing one dish while the other was in charge of something else. Though we don’t get to do it very often anymore, with the exigencies of daily life getting in the way, when we do find time to cook together, it’s like we’ve found a still moment in time together. Now, though, it’s different, because we can involve the girls, especially The Pumpkin, in our cooking, and it becomes that much more special.
I say that I love to cook, that I love to feed people. And I do. But perhaps because it’s such an important way for me to show my love to their, whether they’re family eating a daily meal or friends gathered for a special occasion, the stress of cooking has sometimes gotten the better of me. I remember, before we were married, countless times where I’d force a pointless argument with la dra. because dinner hadn’t turned out how I’d planned, because I’d “ruined it.” And when cooking for a group, well, let’s just say that I can be a grumpy, stressed-out host more than I’d like to admit. I still remember one casual dinner party I had during the year I had to take off during college. It was the first time I was having all my friends, who were still in school and seeing each other on a daily basis like normal, having meals together like normal, over to the house in which I was renting a room, and in my mind, this was my way to show them that I was okay, that everything was okay. You can imagine how things went, how I acted, freaking out that everything wasn’t going perfectly. But all these years later, I’m probably the only one who remembers this, or remembers it this way. Just like, hopefully, my friends leave our get-togethers only happy and full, remembering nothing of my passing irritability or nervousness or disappointment at a dish not turning out quite as I’d hoped.
Even tonight, as our dear friends enjoyed our meal and we enjoyed their company and the kids enjoyed being kids in the other room, I had to stop myself from apologizing for too-dry pork. And I made sure to steal a moment, away from everyone, to kiss the back of my love’s head and thank her and apologize for any gruffness that my insecurities may have unleashed during the day’s cooking. She just leaned back, into my kiss, and laughed, not unkindly, used it to, to me, after all these years.