Recently, I entered Bumbershoot.org’s Food for Thought competition. The task was to write, in 500 words or less, about a food memory. And the winning entry was a poem! That’s pretty cool.
Branching out in my writing genres, I submitted my entry as an essay. Without further adieu:
A good family dinner means we must plan ahead to avoid running out of dishes, and at some point during that meal I’ll laugh so hard I’ll start to weep. That Saturday in February was my birthday dinner—two weeks late, but finally the whole family could come.
Because I’m not an Italian mother, but want to cook like one, pasta was a must. I started by peeling butternut squash for ravioli. The bright orange flesh stuck to my hands, but I persevered with a sharp knife, chopped the squash, tossed it with olive oil, salt, and herbs de Provence. That pan went into the oven, and I toasted fennel seeds and coriander for the rub.
For birthdays, dessert is key. I heated half-and-half, cream, sugar, and honey. Then I tossed in dried lavender to steep (and a splash of vanilla). I grated lemon and orange rind for the cake, mixed up the batter, put those pans into the oven, and crossed my fingers.
People drifted in and out of the kitchen. I made the pasta dough, rolled out the long sheets and draped them over the ravioli pans. This was the risk, because raviolis take some time to make, and any rips can stretch the process out for hours. When all the small pillows were chilling on a platter, I made a meringue frosting.
I kept prepping: a flurry of root vegetables, hazelnuts, garlic, and shallots. I baked prosciutto slices until they were crunchy. I crisped pancetta, added balsamic and molasses to make a sauce.
I set out a plate of cheeses to soften, added crackers and a bowl of olives. I washed the greens and sliced the soft pears thinly. I then turned my attention to the pork tenderloin, slathering it with the fennel rub.
Guests arrived. Flutes were filled with Champagne while I seared the meat and slid it into the oven.
Finally, we sat down to bowls of carrot and beet soup with chives and sour cream. The greens were tossed in a fig-balsamic vinaigrette and served with the pears, the prosciutto, and chevre. The ravioli were nestled in melted butter with sage, hazelnuts, crumbled amoretti cookies, and Parmesan cheese.
Before I knew it, I was jumping up to serve the next course. Wine was poured. Stories were told. I placed wilted spinach on the plates, topped it with slices of pork and the pancetta sauce, ringed by potatoes and carrots roasted with thyme. I remember my mother saying the servings were too large. I remember laughter—and I’m sure at some point I had to dry my eyes with my napkin.
We took a breath before the cake and homemade lavender ice cream.
We’ve been fortunate to gather for many dinners like this one, our family around the table, course after course, even if we aren’t Italian. But I remember this one especially for the luxury of waking in the morning with a whole day to cook for the people I love.