By the time you open these pages, it will be November, but as I write it’s in the nineties—not the kind of weather we’re supposed to be having for weeks on end in the Berkshires. But global warming is not my greatest worry at the moment, nor is the temperature an acceptable excuse. For the first time in my life I am facing what can only be described as cook’s block. In just a few days I’m hosting a big party to celebrate the union of two very dear friends. When I proposed the event, in the chill of last December, nothing seemed simpler or more heartwarming. After all, I love to cook and entertain, and the prospect of seventy-odd people did not daunt me. So why am I paralyzed now?
Just as a writer faces a blank page, I face a blank menu. The problem is not a lack of ideas—just the opposite. My mind is filled with far too many considerations. For one thing, this sweltering heat may continue, so I have to be sure not to use much homemade mayonnaise, which might spoil. Alas, there go my garden-fresh veggies with aïoli. And then, who’s going to eat this food? The party is not for my family (a known quantity) or for an anonymous public, which is easy enough to cook for (if you don’t know what they’re like, you can make whatever you darn well please). I’m making this meal for the friends and relatives of my friends, real people with real faces, and they happen to be more sophisticated about food than your average group of partygoers. Some are coming from Paris! So of course I must prove that delicious food can be had in a provincial American town. Others are vegetarian, so I want to be sensitive to their needs. And then there are the local folks. For weeks they’ve eagerly been asking me what I’m going to serve. It’s hard to tell them that I don’t have a clue.
Because I spend so much time working with and thinking about food, the possibilities seem endless. It’s not just a matter of pulling out my tried-and-true dishes. In fact, are there any recipes I always make for special occasions? It has suddenly occurred to me that there are very few things I always make; since I’m continually trying new dishes, I never have a chance to fix the reliable standbys anymore. I sit here and wonder whether it was easier for our mothers and grandmothers, who had a limited, but confident, repertoire at hand. In the past, cooks were known for their signature dishes, the ones guests and family clamored for. Until foreign influences on American cooking became so strong in the 1960s, women were largely contained (some would say constrained) by the foods they had grown up with in their families and communities. But now the world is our oyster, and there’s no red tide stemming it. We are free to pick and choose from any culinary tradition, from any era. Now we can do Chinese—and not just generic, but Szechuan or Hunan-style. Or what about Cambodian? And let’s not forget Mexico and all its regional cuisines. Or Spanish, or Catalan, or Basque. We can isolate flavors or fuse them in a comestible free-for-all. And with Internet shopping, even small-town isolation is no longer an obstacle. There’s nothing to stop us but a reasonable lack of time.
Food writers argue that this is a wonderful development, that food introduces us to different cultures, that it is liberating not to have to repeat the same tired workhorses all the time. And of course they’re right. But at the moment, this freedom of choice doesn’t feel like liberation at all, but a new form of bondage. How can I possibly choose from among all the fabulous flavors in the world? How can I know which combination of foods will be right for this discerning group of people? And how will I figure out which ones I can manage to produce in a hot kitchen and still appear at my own gathering feeling fresh and ready to have fun?
Unless we have forsworn cooking entirely, many women of my generation carry the expectation that in addition to everything else, we will be able to do what our mothers did before us, including orchestrate great feasts with seeming effortlessness. And it’s true that I could pull something together pretty easily. I could cut up vegetables for crudités and serve them with a sour-cream dip, freshened with tarragon and dill from the garden. I could cook up a big pot of black-bean chili—after all, they eat chili year-round in Texas. With enough champagne, my guests would undoubtedly be happy. The problem is me. I’d be thinking of all the wonderful things that I hadn’t made and that I personally crave: my favorite roasted beet and walnut puree from the Republic of Georgia (but how can I chop beets and walnuts for so many people?); Barbara Tropp’s wonderful “Strange Flavor Eggplant” (again, too much mincing for this crowd); osetra caviar from the Caspian (way too expensive when you do the multiplying); Moroccan lamb kefta (but do we really want to stand over the grill all night?).
So here I sit, blank menu in hand, pondering the irony of free choice and global ingredients. Our ability to summon the world is not without its downside. Our predecessors had it easy; they knew exactly what to make. Inspiration occurred in the margins of the recipe: a little basil in the filling, fresh corn in the three-bean salad, maple syrup instead of honey. Limitations give rise to creativity, and only with constraints can we find definition. Eating locally and in season seems more crucial than ever.