I am on a plane heading from California, where I grew up and where my family lives to New York, where I am going to spend Christmas–a fact that has sent some members of my family into states that vary from mildly hurt head-scratching to something on the verge of anger.
I grew up in San Diego and lived in New York for 12 years before I moved to Los Angeles, which was my way of moving home without actually having to live in San Diego, and during that time I never once missed Christmas at home. I lied. I spent one Christmas with distant relatives in Mexico City, where I was writing a story, and where I found myself on Christmas Eve crying on the phone home that I’d never not be home again. And a few years before, I spent one Christmas in New York because my dad had just died and I’d just been home for the funeral.
My dad had died a few weeks before so I had just been home for the funeral and back then, before cell phones and the web and all the other things that make the world seem like a smaller place, flying across the country felt like a big deal. But the real reason was that after my dad died, my ex-boyfriend Henry called to say, “Sorry your dad died,” and even though he had a new girlfriend and even though he had told me that I couldn’t come to his restaurant (he was a chef, which at the time justified everything), and even though he had also told me to never, ever call his house again (this was also before *69 and the end of phone stalking as we knew it), the fact that he called about my dead dad gave me hope, so I wanted to stick close by in case things got really good.
I got a Christmas tree that year in my little West Village apartment and some vintage ornaments I picked up at the flea market on 26th Street, and spent Christmas day with a woman named Francine who was a food writer and my mentor at the time—in writing, in life, and in food. Francine had all kinds of opinions about food, sophisticated opinions that harked of conspiracy back at a time when people just didn’t talk about food in those terms. “One day, all of our food will be labeled,” she said. “You mark my words.” In fact, I mark them every time I peel the sticker off of a lemon, which I do with shame because I live in Los Angeles, where they sell lemons without labels at the local farmers market.
Francine had an open house and I don’t remember anything about it–I have no recollection of who came, if there was a tree, if we listened to Christmas music or what she served except… All I remember is that she served a big bowl of clementines, which are an easy-to-peel tangerine-like fruit with no seeds from Spain that can be seen for sale in every corner market in New York, and roasted chestnuts. On one table, that was it: just those two things.
I didn’t know who Alice Waters was. There was no book extolling the beauty of a simple platter of figs. I had, from Henry, just begun to hear the phrase, “Let the ingredients speak for themselves,” but it had not yet become the mantra it is today, recited even by chefs who mold carrot and coconut to look exactly like a fried egg, or break their mother’s meatloaf down into an “essence” and a “foam.” Still, even though I wasn’t sure quite what they were saying, those ingredients spoke to me. I got it. I got how pretty they were for one thing. And how special even if only because clementines are in markets for just a few weeks.
In the years since, I became—without any deliberate intentions—a food writer, too. And the world has changed. All of our fruit is labeled. And we have *69. And ingredients are America’s new culinary heroes, speaking, marching, crusading, picketing, doing everything they can to save themselves from extinction.
My family gets upset that I do not want to be with them at Christmas. But it’s not that. If I had to name it, I’d say that it’s that I don’t want to be with their food. Or that there is food I would rather be with. I don’t want to go into a long thing about my family, but suffice to say that they are Costco shoppers. That they do not believe that ingredients matter. They do not think it is “worth it” to pay more for cancer-causing meat that was not raised in filth and killed in fear. They do not believe that the spirit in which something was cooked (resentment, rush, indifference, boredom) is as important as the food itself. Instead, they think I am “picky.” A “food snob.” And since my beliefs about food are the closest thing I have to religious beliefs—and they are my political beliefs—I find their dismissal of everything I believe in unpleasant in a number of ways. “They have these great cheeses at Costco,” my sister-in-law says and I think: Does she really think I am interested in Costco cheese? It’s like saying to a Christian: “Hey, have you read the Koran lately?”
We as a family do not believe in God—or last I knew we didn’t, although that might change as one by one we find ourselves in hospital rooms clinging to our delusions of immortality. Now that my brother’s kids are grown, we don’t even exchange presents anymore. So what is Christmas about? For me, it’s about being together with people I love, and the way I know to do that, the way that I want to do that, is to cook. And not just to cook so that there is food to eat. But to cook as an expression of myself and all that I have to give. To be into the process, into the cooking.
Last year, my friend Steven called me on Christmas Day. He was in the townhouse he had just restored into a masterpiece, his life’s work, in the Village, cooking with his family, who unlike my family, is into cooking, into fine food. “We’re just thinking of you and wishing you were here.” After so many years of trying unsuccessfully to convince my family to do things differently, to be different, or to appreciate the way that I do things and the things that are important to me, I finally decided: How about I just do things my way and not care what they do. So this year, instead of trying to teach old dogs, I am going to Steven’s house.
“I’m going to make a roast with a garlicky spirit,” Steven wrote in an email. “Feel free to suggest…”
This simple email was like a revelation for me. I felt free. Hopeful. Unshackled. And I had that inimitable, almost euphoric desire to express myself. I wrote him a short list of ideas. “And what about, for dessert, I could make a fruit dessert–something with apples or pears. Or maybe we could go simple and elegant. Like a plate of clementines and some roasted chestnuts…?”
I’m not saying that I am going to spend Christmas away from my family forever. Just that this year, I wanted to be seen. Understood. Isn’t that the definition of love?