November 24, 2010

Sitting in cookware

My mother is an amazing hostess. For as long as I can remember, having company over meant a picture perfect table setting, an abundance of made-from-scratch dishes served on crystal plates and bowls, and layered cakes that could grace magazine covers. In the summer, the fruit salad was garnished with fresh mint from the garden. On Christmas Eve, we'd share holy wafers blessed by the Pope himself in Poland.

I was often sad for my mother, because she didn't seem to enjoy entertaining. Hours before the guests arrived, she'd already be frantic, chopping vegetables while pots bubbled and pans sizzled on the stove. I'd ask her what she was doing, and she'd reply, "Siedze w garkach" - literally translated, "I'm sitting inside cookware." It was just a Polish idiom, but it sounded like she was in a prison.

When the guests arrived, we'd crowd into the dining room - the one that was off-limits except when company was over - and dinner would be served. Plates were passed, wine was poured, and a chorus of "Oh, Jolanta! You've outdone yourself!" would erupt.

I wanted to see my mother as the happy, proud hostess enjoying a glass of wine and laughing exuberantly with her guests. But while the guests dished out accolades, she dished out more food, disappearing into the kitchen to prepare desserts, wash dishes, or do other non-festive activities. She always seated herself closest to the kitchen, so she could sneak out almost unnoticed. I noticed. I remember some meals where she didn't sit down at all.

After my father passed away, and the guest list for these events began to dwindle, the production values did not. My brother and I would come over for a "casual" Christmas Eve lunch, to find our mother putting the finishing touches on a spread that would make Martha Stewart look lazy. We'd tell her to take it easy next time, to reduce her own stress level, that the holiday was really about being together and we'd be just as happy with take-out. The message never seemed to get through.

When I moved out on my own, I was determined to entertain differently. I was ambitious with some dishes and took store-bought shortcuts with others. I poured myself wine and went for seconds and graciously accepted when guests offered to wash the dishes. I tried to be the kind of hostess I wished my mom had been: the one who has fun at her own party.

This year, I opted to host Thanksgiving, the first holiday meal I have ever prepared for my own family. I took three days' vacation from work, visited four different grocery stores, and started setting the table on Tuesday. I ordered a fresh, free range turkey from the co-op and learned Alton Brown's brine recipe by heart.

As I plotted the feverish multi-tasking of the 24 hours prior to the meal, the baking dishes going in and out of the oven, I began to feel exhilarated. It's such a powerful connection, reaching out to another person and saying "Here. Let me feed you." Feeding someone taps into the essence of our humanity and draws a connecting line between us. To share that with a group, and to have the result be something new and amazing and unforgettable, makes it worth all the effort.

I understand why my mother balks at the idea of celebrating Christmas Eve without the formal dinner. Entertaining is an act of creation. A good homemade dinner is not just a meal; it is an emotional, social, and sensory experience. "Siedze w garkach" isn't about being trapped, but is about putting a (figurative) piece of oneself into everything that's prepared and served. When someone says "I'd be just as happy with takeout," it discredits the whole notion and dumps out the part of oneself that was sitting in that soup pot.

Unfortunately, the weather conspired against us, and my family won't be coming tomorrow. I wasn't able to hide my disappointment when my mother called. I wanted to impress her, I wanted to feed her a great meal, and I wanted to show that I understood her a little bit better than I did last week.

She called back a few minutes later to say that maybe they'll be able to come for dinner on Friday instead. I'll keep my fingers crossed and my pots bubbling.

1 comment:

Billi Bierle said...

You are an amazing writer! When i read your Thanksgiving story i was taken over! You are awesome :) Billi