I’ve grown to really appreciate receiving food from others, and I consider it a gift of the utmost class. It’s such a no-brainer that it almost seems too obvious, that food is perhaps the easiest and most pleasing gift to give. I’m going to take stock of some of the times that gifts of food have made me feel amazing.
Growing up, I ate three home-cooked meals every day. All of my mom’s cooking was great, but I don’t think I really appreciated it that much because it was just there all of the time. Friends would get excited about Mom’s food and seem really impressed that we actually had a set dinner time every night and that we didn’t eat in front of the TV. Since I was deprived almost completely of frozen food, I remember adoring Totino’s Pizza Rolls after having them for the first time the summer after 11th grade. My boyfriend at the time, a latchkey kid, had a routine of eating something frozen, unhealthy, and full of cheese after school every day and I was happy to join him. Pizza rolls, bagel bites, Hot Pockets, and other frozen treats seemed like the holy grail to me.
But having grown out of that youthful fascination with the freeze-dried and the cheese-filled (note: actually I’m still way into those foods), I’ve come to look forward to meals at my parents’ house with gusto. Every time we go over there, I know Mom is cooking something amazing and that I’m going to have that very calm, satisfied feeling after the meal that only Mom’s cooking can produce. Spaghetti, fried chicken, rolls, mashed potatoes, salmon cakes, veggie paninis, salad, baked macaroni and cheese, egg rolls…these are just some of the regular occurrences at Mom’s table. No doubt others feel the same way about their mother’s cooking — that everything she makes is the BEST of that particular dish, and that anybody’s else’s interpretation of that dish is somehow off. On top of being stuffed with a delicious dinner, most nights when we go over there we get a grocery bag full of leftovers to take home. I love having those leftovers for the rest of the week, taking something of the comfort of Mom’s cooking to work with me or even serving it to guests. With her usual leftovers and her summer garden produce, visiting Mom regularly keeps me from having to go to the grocery store very often. And that is another gift on its own.
My next reminiscence takes place sometime in 2003 or 2004, when I was nearing graduation from college and trying really hard not to go into any further debt in order to reach that goal. At the time my friend Jason lived across the street and was “a regular fixture at family gatherings, holidays, mornings before school, and most afternoons” as they say in The Royal Tenenbaums. We often had tea together, and he was well aware that breakfast was my favorite meal of the day and that it usually consisted of some combination of eggs, toast, grits, english muffins, and the like. Upon reaching a particularly rough patch financially, I set down a rule for myself that I was not to go to the grocery store again until I had eaten the entire contents of my cabinet. As you might imagine, my days were a little sadder when I had plain cellophane noodles for breakfast or dried-up bricks of bouillion for lunch. One morning Jason just showed up at my front door unannounced, and I’ll never forget seeing him standing there on the porch with a full grocery bag. He stalked to the refrigerator and began putting things away: a whole bounty of breakfast foods! “Don’t ever say I didn’t give you anything,” he said, and I haven’t. A hearty breakfast restored my spirits, and the sweet gesture of taking care of a friend meant a lot to me.
The process of cooking was always a part of the hospitality I felt when visiting my friend Mandy, who is likely to be making something delicious if she has people coming over. Whereas I get stressed if I’m still doing prep work when people come over, Mandy has the gift of being able to cook and talk at the same time and to let her guests get involved in the cooking as well. She has answered her doorbell a few times with one of her signature zucchini rounds in one hand, patting it flat with the other hand and smiling away. Her stuffed mushrooms disappear at an alarming rate when passed around amongst hungry partygoers. One day I came over and we baked madeleines together and talked about boys as the wonderful smell of cookies filled her kitchen. We’ve celebrated the release of one of the Harry Potter books with homemade butterbeer. Recently Dan and I met her for some drinks at Mars, and she brought me a jar of pickled vegetables that she had canned with her grandmother. Part of what’s particularly great about Mandy is that I know she loves giving food as a gift, and she knows I love receiving food as a gift. And so our friendship is locked into place with memories of baked goods and blackberry-picking expeditions.
Just a couple of weeks ago I was IM-ing with my friend Daron, who has been known to try baking lime bars unsuccessfully, and who now lives in LA instead of across the street from me. I was telling him about how great everything is and about how I don’t have a care in the world except for one: wanting fancy cheese and not being able to justify buying it instead of paying the bills. He was very sympathetic, and we talked for a while about how the simple indulgence of some nice cheese can really make or break a meal. A few days later I had completely forgotten about that conversation, and was heading into the kitchen to try a new recipe, making a mental note to myself that I would have to substitute swiss or cheddar instead of goat cheese. For some reason I decided to check the mail first, and found a package waiting for me on the step — full of several different cheeses surrounded by ice packs. My eyes filled with tears of joy as I pried open each package and sampled the cheeses with delight. So on one of the hottest days of the year I received cool, refreshing cheese in the mail and then made a successful, goat cheese-laden tart for dinner. WIN.
These are just a few examples of the many times I can think of where receiving food as a gift has affected me profoundly. I could mention a dozen other people I know who bake amazing cupcakes or make the most perfect sushi or give out free garden-fresh produce. So the whole point of this rambling essay is to say how much I enjoy and appreciate this simple gift, and how much I hope to keep being its happy recipient. ❤