Every week, as Shabbat approaches, I feel I have been plopped down into the middle of a food show. I open the refrigerator and spot sea bass, fennel, Asian pears. I look at the clock and shake my head. There’s not much time. The challenge? To make food so spectacular that it honors the holy Shabbat. I gulp. I grab a spatula. Ready, set, go.
Usually somewhere in the chopping, frying mess that follows, it occurs to me: We are an inspired people. But festive meals-which can be our calling-can also be our kryptonite and a place we disappear.
Back in the day, extraordinary hosting may have meant wrestling a carp out of the bathtub to boil, and mince into homemade gefilte fish. Today, however, with pop-culture momentum, it is far more sinister. Celebrity chefs and movements like the newest new Israeli cuisine leave me feeling like I can–and should–be making my own eggplant sauce, hunting for just the right arak, and plating avant-garde designs all meal long.
Now, if you’re one of those people who work a full day, come back to scramble after the kids and a household, and then enjoy churning out something gourmet, God bless.
But for those of us who are not, meals can mean an archetypal odyssey in which we wander the grocery aisle lost, in which we weep over onions, and at last, are crushed by the whim of fallen soufflés. Eventually we must look inwards and ask: Well, have you got the grit or not?
OK, maybe some of this is just me and my self-imposed torment, which does not even elicit results. In any case, I’m not saying everything has to be easy; after all, there is real joy from a meal that’s been made with sweat and soul.
But when I first got married and started hosting festive meals, I was fierce for the trying. I made lamb curry and fragrant rice with threads of saffron. I made lots of exotic side dishes, each with 10 plus ingredients and 10 plus steps. Every meal ended with an elaborate Bundt cake crowned by whipped cream and berries. And, to top it off, I wore high heels the whole time. My body was there, but the rest of me was merely motions and absent.
One, two, three children later, I have come to rely on slow-cookers and rice-cookers. I roast all my vegetables in a big anonymous batch with olive oil and kosher salt. And while I sing the praises of broiling, in truth I just like its speed and simplicity. Yes, I regret that I don’t make challah myself–even in my heyday I didn’t. But I’ve become a connoisseur of the store-bought babka brands, and, it seems, I’m rather shameless about it.
These days, Shabbat will find me barefoot as I chat with my guests or play cards with my kids, picking at the last of the salad and sipping on a punch I like to serve (OK, it’s not punch, really, just one part soda, two parts vodka).
But the calling is in this, too. Food is not a show at all. Food that honors holiness is delicious, sure. But more importantly, I’ve come to realize it makes you present.