The other night in Brunswick, late in the evening, after we’d all drunk a lot of wine and the conversation had turned free-form and far-ranging, my friend Genevieve posited that the movie “Terminator 2” is to blame for the female hard-body phenomenon of the 1990s, which persists to this day.
“If you watch ‘Seinfeld’ through the years,” she said, “you can see it happen. Pre-‘Terminator 2,’ Jerry’s girlfriends all look like normal women, like us. Post ‘Terminator 2,’ after 1991, when Linda Hamilton got all buff, they’re suddenly all ripped. It’s James Cameron’s fault.”
We had just eaten a decadent and lavish feast; I was not feeling particularly muscular, to put it mildly, even though I have been to exactly two Pilates classes this year. Our hostess, Mary, had made cod and shrimp poached in olive oil, with piperade, a slow-cooking stew of peppers, tomatoes, and onions, over polenta, and chard steamed in garlic. While dinner cooked, we guests all crowded into the kitchen with wineglasses and chatter and offers to help. It was a crowd of ten writers and painters, equal numbers of men and women.
As I poured myself more wine and jumped into a conversation about the deliciousness and seasonal ephemerality of fried shad roe, I was thinking about what makes a successful dinner party: this obviously was one, from its first moment, when we parked and got out of our car, and Mary’s son, who was outside playing with Brock and Lane’s son, told us we could go straight through the barn into the kitchen.
We wandered through the barn and found a door. When we came into a comfy big kitchen with a sunroom though an arch, Mary handed us cocktails of Campari, grapefruit juice, and lime. (I had forgotten all about Campari; now I remembered how much I’ve always liked its herbaceous bitterness.) After eating some cheese, crackers, and dates while kibitzing a bit in the sunroom, I wandered into the kitchen and was handed a small cutting board, a head of garlic, and a knife. I started crushing and peeling garlic cloves while Brock washed chard and Mark did something else. Mary was monitoring an inch of so of olive oil with garlic and herbs in a shallow wide pot. I looked at the table where other ingredients awaited their fate and espied a cookbook. Peering at the recipe, I blurted out without thinking, “Wow, you use cookbooks!”
“You really don’t?” said Mary, surprised, and I had to admit that I really don’t, not usually, except for the cardamom chicken with rice and caramelized onions from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem and a couple of other standby favorites. Although I poke around the Internet when I want to learn new dishes and methods, I am singularly and habitually unadventurous when it comes to trying actual recipes from actual books.
After I handed off the minced garlic and before I began chopping chard stems, I pawed through this one, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, which was beautiful and expertly laid out and looked like it might be a lot of fun to cook with. The piperade, I noticed, began with a soffrito of diced onion and grated tomato flesh, which is apparently meant to cook slowly for up to five hours…
“Five hours,” I said admiringly. “You’ve been cooking all day.”
“Not really,” said Mary.
When the food was ready, we all moved into the candlelit dining room and took our places around the long table, which exactly seated the ten of us. After Mary finished lighting all the candles and sat down, we lifted our wineglasses and toasted her and toasted her again, and then we began eating. The food was superb: the shrimp and cod were tenderly poached, the piperade was dense and savory-sweet, and the polenta was luscious.
I vowed to start using cookbooks more often, right then and there, because being a monkey, I am imitative, not unlike all the hordes of female moviegoers in 1991 who copied Linda Hamilton and started lifting weights and possibly taking steroids, although that’s just idle speculation. I imitate other people constantly, unconsciously, simply because it’s human nature to do so. During dinner, I admired everyone, especially all the other women, their diction, ideas, and gestures, their hair, their expressions. In groups, when I’m feeling happy and relaxed, I often find myself melding with everyone else, a willful deviation to a better norm. It’s a pleasant feeling, a kind of melting of boundaries, the sharp edges of identity blurred.
By the end of the night, many hours after the party had begun, the wine was gone and the individual ramekins of caramelized butterscotch pudding with crème fraiche had been scraped clean. Moving a little slowly, we cleared the table and put the food away and washed enough dishes so we wouldn’t have to worry that Mary would spend the entire next day at the sink, and then we dispersed cheerfully into the night, heading home in our various cars.
The next morning, I woke up still laughing at many of the things that had been said the night before, still tasting the cod, still determined to cook more with actual cookbooks.
And then, yesterday, serendipitously, a gorgeous and lavish new cookbook arrived in the mail out of the blue from Ben, a magazine editor I’ve worked with frequently over the years. It’s called Yucatan. I’ve traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico more times than I can count; it’s one of my favorite places, and I am mad about the food there, but I’ve never learned how to make any of it.
I opened it at random to a recipe, which coincidentally involves poached seafood and a Mexican sofrito, and which I am going to make tomorrow night, unless hell or high water prevents me. It’s called Langosta con Leche de Coco, or Lobster Tails Poached in Sweet Coconut Milk; you can use frozen lobster tails, and its sofrito includes shallots, garlic, and chiles and only takes three minutes as opposed to five hours. But the photo alongside the recipe looks amazing. Tomorrow, I’m going to buy all the ingredients and lay in some Campari. I’ll shake a couple of ounces over ice with a dash each of grapefruit and lime juice and start chopping.