Monday, March 9, 2015

Better living through communal cooking

I agreed, just the other day, to cook a big dinner for about 75 people or so at my church. It had originally been planned as a potluck (or what I was brought up to call a 'covered dish supper'). I am not a fan of covered dish suppers or potlucks or any other such meal which lacks central planning. I had told my husband that I did not plan to attend, because it was a potluck, but somehow, in the course of a conversation with the new rector of our parish, I ended up agreeing to cook for the supper.

It was very well played of her, I must say. She did it by agreeing with me about the importance of just giving people a gift, of not expecting them to do anything, of the need to feed the people as a love offering, and how potlucks contravene all those principles. She did it by asking me about other meals I have cooked for large groups, and how, really, it’s not that complicated or time-consuming or difficult. I think she may have done it by appealing to my pride.

In any case, after a wide-ranging conversation about the work I do in the parish and what I consider to be important, she asked me whether I would be willing to cook for a meal which had been planned for a Friday night for some indeterminate number of guests. I said yes, of course, and immediately began thinking about what I would cook. I first thought of lasagna, one vegetarian and one not, but too many people are gluten-free. Then I thought about a dish involving ground lamb and thinly sliced potatoes, but lamb is rather expensive and slicing all those potatoes, even with a mandolin, is troublesome.

Eventually I settled on Indian, as I often do when cooking for a crowd. It’s easy to scale up, it’s delicious, and it accommodates the gluten-free, the vegetarian, the vegan, and the dairy-free.

Meantime, since I was a little worried about who and how many might show up (I had a vision of me, the MIL, the husband, and maybe six vestry members rattling around in the parish hall with food for 75), and because part of the point of the meal was simply to gather for our own amusement, nothing to do with  church business, I started invited any random person whom I thought might enjoy the event. I invited some nice people whom I don’t know at all well, but who are regulars at the community supper I cook for once a week. I invited some non-churchy friends. I tried to inveigle a daughter into coming home. And I took a big risk and invited a woman I’ll call Isobel.

I had met Isobel almost a year ago, when she came to a planning board hearing to promote a change to the town’s zoning ordinance to allow farms to hold events and run B&Bs and have little restaurants. These were things the board favored but we thought the proposed ordinance was problematic in the extreme and very badly written. We said we would promise to address the issues in the next planning cycle but we really could not recommend that the town approve the proposed ordinance. Well, the town meeting did approve it. And now we were stuck with it.

In my role as planning board chairman I scheduled a workshop last June to address some of the issues with the now-approved ordinance. I set up tables, and gathered materials, and planned my strategy. We had about 35 people at the meeting and one of them was Isobel. She arrived just as we were about to begin, declined to join the table I gestured her to, and radiated as much hostility and impatience and dislike of me personally as I have seen in quite a while.

After the public workshop we set up a subcommittee to try to rewrite this foul ordinance which had been wished on us. There were four of us on the subcommittee, and one of them was Isobel. We started meeting regularly. Hostility continued to pour off her. In spite of this, I liked her. She was smart, she was committed, she cared deeply about the town and about the farmers. She’s a woman about my age, clearly well-educated and well-traveled. From my perspective, we had a lot in common, and I thought she was a woman I would like to know better.

The subcommittee continued to meet, and Isobel’s hostility eventually began to lessen. She actually laughed at my planning jokes. Well, she laughed once. I continued to think she was a woman I would like to know. We discussed the fact that I keep bees and chickens on my in-town lot, something of which she approved. She was less chilly but I wouldn’t say she was warm toward me.

The subcommittee and the planning board eventually created an amendment to the ordinance that we could all live with. The final meeting before we went public was about ten days before this Friday night dinner I had agreed to cook. I was sitting next to Isobel, and on an impulse, I leaned over and said,

“I’m cooking a big dinner next Friday at All Saints’ and I wonder if—“

She interrupted me and said,

“Do you want me to come and help you cook?”

Now that I was not expecting, but I took a leap and said,

“Yes. Yes, I do. That would be lovely, thank you so much!”

She asked me what I was going to cook and I told her Indian.

“Oh, I love Indian food! I’ve been traveling to India since I was in my early 20s, and now my daughter is married to an Indian. I would love to help you cook an Indian dinner.”

I have never been to India. I have never studied Indian cooking with an actual Indian cook. I gulped. This could be really great, or just terrible. I decided to focus on really great.

On the Friday in question I went to the big grocery and bought all the ingredients for 75 persons’ worth of red lentils and basmati rice and yogurt and cucumbers and onions and garlic and chicken thighs and cabbages and frozen peas and sweet onions and regular onions and limeade and tortillas to take the role of chapatis. I got started cooking about noon, and Isobel arrived about 2 p.m. She tied on an apron and said “What do you want me to do first?”  Chop things for a chopped salad, I said.

She chopped like a champ. She worked hard and did whatever I asked. She did not tell me I was doing things wrong, in fact she told me I was doing things absolutely the way an Indian housewife would do it.

We had a blast. We cooked, we washed dishes, we set up the dining room. We talked about our children and how we came to be in Grover’s Corners.

Sometime along about 5 p.m. Isobel said, I have lived here seven years and I do not have a single friend.

Well, I said, you have a friend now.  Yes, she said, I do.

As for the dinner? It was magnificent. And truly authentic, according to my new friend Isobel. I’ll tell you about the dinner another day, maybe.

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