The Night I Let Friends Cook For Me

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Psychologically speaking, I’m a Jewish mother. I smother those I love with attention, worry, enthusiasm, judgment and, most of all, food. The food bit is a relatively recent development–I wasn’t smothering my high school friends with food–but now that I do cook and cook quite regularly, I have an almost compulsive need to feed others. I love having people over to dinner. Like you, you look hungry. Have you been eating? You’re too skinny. Can I offer you some leftover pasta? A semi-stale brownie? Let’s put some meat on your bones.

The consequence of this, however, is that I’m rarely eager to have others cook for me. It’s not that I’m ungrateful–the gesture is much appreciated–it’s just that, well, I’m a control freak. When you go to someone’s house for dinner, who knows what they’re going to cook? What if their pasta is gummy, how could I stand it? Or what if their food is undersalted? Can I sprinkle on some salt when they’re not looking? Keep some salt up my sleeve for that very purpose? What if they frisk me at the door?

This problem is amplified now that my food blog is basically my job. People KNOW that I take pictures of food and write about it–that’s my whole M.O.–so will they expect me to photograph what they cook and write about it? Will they be nervous and hushed as I take my first bite? Or will they go overboard, spending way too much time and money on a dinner that I may not even write about?

It’s all very stressful. And so, most of the time, I’m just much much happier eating at home or at a restaurant where no one knows me. Such was the case on Sunday when Craig and I were exploring the awesome Cai Guo-Qiang exhibit at The Guggenheim and my cell phone rang. I saw it was Diana but because we were in a museum, I thought it’d be rude to answer. So I sent her to voicemail.

She didn’t leave one, however. She called Craig and Craig being a heathen answered his phone. “Hey Diana!” I heard him say as a crowded room of men and women in black turtlenecks and reading glasses turned and glared. “Dinner? Tonight? Sure, we’d love to come!”

He hung up and said with great cheer: “Mark and Diana want to have us over tonight for dinner, they’re making short ribs. I said yes.”

I couldn’t hide my reticence. “I was really looking forward to sushi,” I said in a clipped tone like Victoria Beckham might take with David. We were going to go from the museum to Sushi of Gari, a place I’d been hearing tons about but which I’ve never visited.

“Well I’m going to Mark and Diana’s, you can do what you want,” he said, pushing up his reading glasses and readjusting his black turtleneck. He rejoined the throng and I let out a sigh.

But my sigh, dear reader, was for naught. Of course we were destined to have a great time with Mark and Diana. Mark is Craig’s best friend, Diana’s mine. Mark and Diana are dating. They always come over to dinner at our place and this would be our first night at theirs. Why would sushi with a bunch of strangers be better than an intimate dinner with friends?

Plus, Diana’s a great cook. She was before she was my roommate and, even though she rarely cooked when I lived with her, she’s always been an eager student of gastronomy. She reads food books–she’s reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” now–and she’s always very interested to hear how I made a particular dish. Craig was very right, and I was very wrong. This was my JMS (Jewish Mother Syndrome) and I needed to kill my inner Rhoda.

My reward? Take a look: an apple fennel salad with blue cheese…

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And spectacular short ribs and pumpkin orzo from The Babbo Cookbook:

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If that dish looks familiar, that’s because Diana and I made that together more than two years ago (click here). It’s a fantastic recipe: the short ribs come out meaty and tender and the orzo is a lovely sweet complement. We were all mmm-ing and aaah-ing as we ate and Craig kept giving me dirty looks like, “What were you thinking? How could you think this wouldn’t be great?”

I don’t know! That’s JMS for you. You go through your day telling strangers to put on a sweater, informing young schoolchildren they’ve gotta be doctors or lawyers, and cursing Michael Douglas for marrying a shiksa. But the inability to let others cook for you, that need for control, is the worst. I’m working on getting better, and dinner with Mark and Diana was certainly a start (thanks to them, by the way, for a great meal).

Meanwhile, your father and I are very concerned about you, reader. Why aren’t you eating? What are they feeding you where you live now? And, not to nag, but when are you going to get a job? And if you don’t get a job, how are you going to get married? This is my calling, this is my forte. I Jewish mother with the best of them.

21 comments

  1. I enjoy these posts more than your regular food posts, more introspective and thoughtful rather than “I made this, look at this picture, it was delicious. You should try it.” Although, I do enjoy those posts too.

    I think I like this post especially because many people equate “I love cooking” and “I’m hard to impress.” I know that’s how it was when I first started culinary school. When I returned home for family gatherings, my family asked whether the food had pleased my mightily honed taste buds.

    I knew I definitely felt a bit jaded when I first started getting into cookigng. I was watching cooking shows and I thought my culinary knowledge put me above and beyond the average eater. But a love of cooking for yourself really makes you appreciate when people cook for you, whether it is perfect or sloppy. This is because if you can truly say you love cooking, I can guarantee you’ve failed many many times yourself and know how hard it is to cook for an audience, let alone for a famous food blogger. haha

  2. They say that everyone in Spain has a Jewish ancestor somewhere, even though our track record on not being exactly nice to them. I must have lots of JGGGGM (Jewish greatgreatgreatgranmothers), as I suffer the exct same ailment you describe. Some friends have invited me to a barbecue this Sunday, and I’m only ready planning on bringing a salad and a cake. This week my mum is petsitting while I’m at work because I just had my cat spayed and she picks on the stitches (the cat, not my mum!), and I feel bad because I resent her for cooking instead of letting me do it. Then again, she’s my mother, so I suppose her Jewish blood runs yet stronger in her veins… Conflict is served.

  3. Re: “this problem is amplified now that my food blog is basically my job. People KNOW that I take pictures of food and write about it–that’s my whole M.O.”

    I can empathize with you, my friend. Now that I’ve started a food blog where I post my “bad food made healthy” recipes, people at work are now asking me to convert their favorite desserts and such into good-tasting, healthy foods. Not that I mind; I love to test recipes. But what if it doesn’t make the cut? What if they don’t like my changes?

    Eh, here’s to experimenting anyway :-)

  4. At the end of the day, good food is really just a catalyst for people getting together and enjoying each other. There’s really nothing more annoying than a food snob who makes his friends feel insecure about cooking for him. Or refuses to eat at someone’s house because they are less than adept in the kitchen. So, I think it’s great, Adam, that you let Diana make a wonderful meal for you. (and yes, the salad looks divine!)

    That she wanted to cook for you means that you made her feel comfortable, even though you’re really not an “amateur” anymore. I think that’s pretty cool.

    Kim

  5. Haha, the funny thing is I think all Jewish mothers take pride in acting like a “typical Jewish mother,” in fact I think they strive to be just like that.

  6. Great post-I can totally relate! Im’ either thinking about food when someone’s over (will they like it?) or afraid to go to someone else’s house(what if I don’t like it?)but it looks like you got lucky!

  7. Great post-I can totally relate! Im’ either thinking about food when someone’s over (will they like it?) or afraid to go to someone else’s house(what if I don’t like it?)but it looks like you got lucky!

  8. I’m exactly the same about eating other people’s food – unless I know they’re better cooks than me – and I don’t even have the excuse of being Jewish. :)

  9. Another culinary control freak checking in. I like going to friends’ places to eat, but if they’re still preparing food when I arrive, I have a tendency to backseat cook.

    It’s a good thing I have forgiving friends.

  10. i’m a jewish mother too. even though i have no kids…and aren’t even jewish. i push lots and lots of food on my friends and but am hesistant to eat anything they cook me. i think it’s cause i’m uber-controlling. or just crazy.

  11. I am just like this! I love to cook for other people, and go all out for my guests, and people feel like they need to reciprocate. In most cases, I really wish they wouldn’t, since they’re usually nervous, thinking I’ll be judgmental (OK, they may have a point there), and often they don’t really know what they’re doing. I’d really just as soon just go out for a quiet meal somewhere if they feel a need to thank me rather than subject them to such pressure.

  12. Oy! If only all of my friends cooked like your friends…Luckily, I do have one very talented friend/fellow food blogger (SpicySaltySweet) that cooks so well we constantly battle to see who can make the better dinner for each other. Here’s to raising the bar!

  13. Adam, you’re pretty cool. I love reading your blog. I made these shortribs and orzo myself. After reading “Heat” and the many page description of cooking short ribs at Babbo, I had to make this. Keep it up.

  14. Adam, As hard as it is for you to eat at someone else’s house, it’s harder still for them to entertain you, the coolest food blogger in NYC. The anxiety of wondering…what should I make? will he like it? will it be any good? Have some pity!

  15. Wow, that meal looks so good. I wish I had friends that would have me over for dinner. The last time I was at a friend’s place for dinner, I ended up backseat cooking–maybe that’s why I was never invited back.

    Jewish mothers rock!