I haven’t written here in awhile for a number of reasons, only one of which I will get into now, and that is that in one of my last posts I asked what people might serve to Alice Waters should she come to their house for dinner, which was, looking back, an inauthentic question that has left me mute. It was inauthentic first of all because I know exactly what I would serve to Alice—or at least exactly what types of foods I would serve to Alice, because they are the same types of foods I would serve to anyone coming over for dinner: best quality seasonal simple… etc. And second, it was a bullshit question because that is the kind of question that, should someone pose it to me, I would have very strong opinions about them having asked it at all.
My friend Colman Andrews always says that the worst thing that happens when he is invited to someone’s house for dinner is to arrive and see a cookbook out—the host pressing to make something out of his or her range, in his honor. “I always say I want what they cooked for dinner last night,” he says, which reminds me of the comment someone made to my post about getting all worked up to cook for a chef only to learn later that the same chef served boxed pasta to his kids. To which I want to say: WHAT KIND OF PASTA WOULD YOU THINK HE’D SERVE TO HIS KIDS!?
People have so many misconceptions about the way food professionals cook at home that remind me of the way some people say, after they meet a famous movie star: “He was just like a regular person.” And I think: because he is a regular person—maybe slightly more narcissistic but otherwise smack in the center of average. Food professionals know how to make food good, but roll their child’s Spaghettio’s they do not. The most remarkable factor about the way food pros entertain is that they know how to keep it simple and where to cut corners. Nancy’s favorite way to entertain, for instance, is to either have a big hamburger buffet (complete with Lay’s potato chips and dip made from Lipton Onion Soup mix), or take-out from Carousel, a local mid-eastern joint where we pick up wonderful side dishes (babaganoush, hummous, some pink puree of pomegranate and walnuts whose name I always forget but that I absolutely cannot stop eating) and serves them along with chickens roasted over a wood flame, purchased from Pollo alla Brasa. (Good thing NS doesn’t do computers because she might get mad at me for giving away her secrets!) Home cooks, by contrast, take on too much. When I went to a friend’s recently, she asked for my help getting dinner on the table in between her loads of laundry and breast feeding, and she at one point, as the first guests are starting to knock on the door, she starts plunging sliced onions in a bowl of ice water. Her husband, she said, told her that this takes out the bitterness. And it sure does. But not when the doorbell is ringing. “If you haven’t done it yet, lose it,” I told her. When Nancy and I realized we hadn’t made the yogurt-dill sauce to accompany the lamb we’d grilled, we didn’t think about rushing into the kitchen for a previous version of perfection. “Oh, well!” we laughed. Onward.
My cousin Dean was right on when he suggested I serve something from my homeland. Dean grew up a whiteboy from Santa Barbara (Montecito, no less) and I was his half Mexi cousin with whom he evidently remembered some South of the border adventures that for me would have just been a part of everyday (or every week) life. We didn’t end up making Mexican, but it was in the same spirit of simple and comfortable: a mixed grill (heritage pork, lamb chops, and Santa Barbara spot prawns), grilled whole fava beans in the pod with grilled green garlic (a weird wonderful tangle of spring green, grilled), roasted local chanterelle mushrooms, asparagus, roasted baby broccoli, and a salad.
“Make a salad and Alice is happy,” a mutual friend had reminded me.
Dinner was wonderful. But more importantly, the friends and the conversations were great. Nobody talked about food.