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.

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