Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
This is a blog about cooking and sharing what you’ve made with friends and family. It is, therefore a story about entertaining and doing it in ways that are really satisfying to you and to all your guests.
I’m frequently made aware of how few people invite people over to their homes today and, instead, invite people to meet them in restaurants. Many of today’s restaurants serve really marvelous food and wine and sometimes it is just great to get out of one’s own kitchen.
But much of the time, the experience of being together in the intimacy of someone’s home and sharing the table just beats being anywhere else.
I was reminded of that recently when a young lady I know invited four of her friends to meet each other at dinner in her home. This was a major deal for her: she doesn’t cook, never entertains and always eats in restaurants. Still, she wanted the group to gather in a place where the mood would encourage connecting. Thus she voted for inviting us to her home though she really didn’t know what to do or where to start.
My friend is in her mid-30s, an ambitious and successful professional. Her friends are all cut out of the same cloth. With few exceptions, none of them cook or entertain. They are prone to say they’re too busy, and, for the most part we are all too busy and that includes stay-at-home moms. But something else is also likely: the feminist movement was very successful, very fast, because there were millions of educated women who were very frustrated by their domestic lives and exclusion from the workforce.
Just as society in the 1950s and 60s idealized the life of suburban domesticity, feminism reversed that value and idealized the world of work. The effect was to further devalue women’s domestic skills and responsibilities and, of course, that included cooking and entertaining, which meant that a high percentage of the most educated and ambitious young women never learned those skills.
Today, cooking need not be basic: many home cooks, defined as people without a specialized education in the culinary arts, have developed sophisticated palates as well as skills. I’ve always thought the ability to bring people into your home and make them feel relaxed, welcome and well-fed is equal to being really good at golf or tennis in terms of getting closer to people.
When I started to think about writing this story I realized that if you knew my background you would never have thought I’d become good in the kitchen. I grew up in New York City and as my parents learned to appreciate great food in restaurants, so did my brother and I. But while my mother was a good cook, I never learned anything about cooking from her because she was possessive about her kitchen and didn’t want anyone else to be in it. And I didn’t learn anything about entertaining because she didn’t do it.
By a stroke of great fortune I was rescued from my total ignorance when my best friend from undergraduate days spent a summer with me when I was a graduate student. Sally Ann Moseley was the daughter of an admiral and, in their house, they entertained all the time. So Sally and I started entertaining.
With unbounded arrogance–based solely on ignorance–I insisted on buying the wrong ingredients. My really embarrassing memory was when I went against her advice and bought the leanest, most fat-free steak in the universe for a dinner party and confidently grilled it in the oven until the exterior was a glorious deep brown. Knives couldn’t cut it and teeth couldn’t chew it. That’s when I started learning.
In the 1950s, 2nd Lieutenant John Bardwick and I were married and went to live in Las Vegas as he was in fighter training at Nellis Air Force Base outside of the city. A few months after we were married John came home after a day on the flight line. But – with no warning of any kind he had brought a friend from his training class home with him for dinner! Fortunately I had cooked a large roast so there was more than enough food. The reader may note that in this pre-feminist time neither John nor I questioned the automatic assumption that because I was the female, I was the cook.
Seething with rage, I nonetheless welcomed the unexpected guest and did my best to be hospitable and charming…until he left. Then I turned to John and said, “Don’t you ever do that to me again. You don’t bring someone home for dinner without asking me.” Without anger, but very deliberately John replied, “I will bring people here anytime I want and I want you to be so comfortable with that if all you have is three eggs, you’ll feel fine about it.”
He never did do that again but his message, which I bitterly resented, was right on the mark: relax, be comfortable, welcome people and share what you have.