I have a big, heavy, yellow cookbook. It was put out by Gourmet Magazine, and a copy of it was gifted to my older sister for her birthday or Christmas back when she was in high school. I love it. It is my food bible. Over the years I have tasted more recipes from it than any other cookbook I own. All others pale by comparison.
I wasn’t always a cook. I knew how to make the usual: macaroni and cheese, brownies, Jell-O, biscuits, and French toast—not necessarily from scratch. My older sister, on the other hand, developed a love of cooking and became our resident cinnamon roll maker. She soon branched out into other dishes, and, before I knew it, she had created a Christmas Eve feast for our family. There would be other dinner parties to come. They all came from the yellow cookbook. My food XP shot up at least twelve points thanks to her. Early favorites (which are still favorites) included penne a la vodka and lasagna with ground veal instead of just ground beef or sausage.
When I went to France, there was no shortage of delicious food, but I longed for Burkitt cuisine (deserving of its own sub-genre, Burkitt cuisine overlaps primarily with American cuisine, not lacking in hillbilly, but compensated for by an equally strong tendency toward the cosmopolitan and anything foreign). I had taken a cooking class to fill an elective the year before, becoming familiar with the system of cooking and baking; I knew the difference between a roux and a reduction, how to cook an omelet in sixty seconds, and what constituted a quick bread versus regular bread. I was far from commanding in the kitchen, but during my year abroad, I became proficient in a number of family favorites as well as adopting and creating some of my own recipes. I was practically famous for my tacos (the irony of this acclaim as an Anglo-Saxon American has never escaped me). My friends at school enjoyed the batches of tiny chocolate chip cookies I would bring with me to class—actually, that may have been why I had friends at school. I also experimented with chili, oven-baked chicken (a Burkitt classic), pancakes, and an entire Thanksgiving dinner from scratch (minus the turkey).
I returned from France twenty pounds heavier and with a great deal of knowledge about how to cook as well as a knack for planning a menu. Despite this, I never once practiced any of the classic French dishes I now make routinely while I lived there. I just ate them. I had arrived in France with a knowledge of cooking as a system. The French, as is their custom, taught me the art of cuisine. Food went from being a way to stay alive to a way of life. So it was that the French obsession with dinner parties, really excellently planned and executed dinner parties, wore off on me. I can hardly think of throwing a dinner party without devising a four or five course menu. This has been a somewhat heartbreaking fact of my life, because none of my living situations have had enough space for a proper dining room, let alone a table. If I had the space, I probably would have started a supper club by now, and the only way to get a hold of me would be to show up at one of my dinners.
In all of this, my slight jealousy of my sister’s cooking triumphs, my dedication to baking the perfect chocolate-chip cookie, my ecstasy at observing other people enjoying what I made, lies a story. It is the story of Babette’s Feast (by Isak Dinesen and adapted to film), about a French chef whose grace and beauty and bounty are all perfectly expressed in cooking. She understands how food brings people together, that an artist is never poor, and that sacrificial love can come in the form of a perfectly planned and executed dinner party.
So now, six years after returning from France and twenty pounds lighter, I throw these dinner parties sometimes. I try to throw about one per year. I invite my favorite people and have them bring wine and cheese. I plan a menu. I make place cards and spend hours carefully considering where each person should sit. I ask my best friends—the ones who also understand that food is really about love—to help make things like bread or dessert or salad. I always pick the recipes, though. And we have the best food any of us can remember eating. It takes about three hours to eat everything. Then we all sit around and enjoy each other’s company.
My big, heavy, yellow cookbook has little messages from my guests and fellow cooks. One friend wrote, “You and Babette have become one tonight,” after a particularly colorful dinner. Every time I read this, I am filled with joy. The apostle Paul wrote that there was no greater gift than to lay down your life for another. I doubt I will have many opportunities to die for someone else. So I shall occupy myself with the gift of food in an ever-expanding repertoire of delight.
Some people love to love. I love to cook. I love to cook for people I love.