I was putting together my list of favorite holiday gifts, when I found myself in a situation that made me pause and reconsider the entire endeavor. Now, to be clear, this is not hating on gift guides. I ADORE perusing holiday gift-buying lists. The really good ones (like THIS one and THIS one and THIS one) are just fun to read, total retail brain candy, and can actually help you find a special something for that nitpicky loved one. But in the midst of sorting through favorite cookbooks, gadgets, mail order products, etc. I had an experience at a friend’s house that made me realize something (and a warning, this is going to get a little hokey): It truly dawned on me that the best gift to give someone you love and care about is something we all already have in our possession…it’s free, it’s perfect even when it’s imperfect, it’s unforgettable, and it’s always from the heart…the best gift of all is to cook someone a meal.
The situation I’m referring to occurred last weekend while I was visiting my oldest best friend (we met in 1st grade!) in Wisconsin, in the midst of some family health concerns. One night, one of her girlfriends arrived with her family and proceeded to cook for all of us. Now first off, this was a major treat for me because NO ONE cooks for me anymore. With the exception of the occasional barbecue, dinner party invite, or when my wonderful Korean friend Sujin has me over for lunch to devour her homemade kimchi and jigae, I can’t remember the last time anyone made me a homecooked meal. Part of the reason for this is because I’m the go-to cook in my home, and not only is making food part of my work, I love it, and it’s what I do. But honestly I think a lot of people don’t want to cook for me anymore because now that I’ve written a cookbook, they think I’ll be judgey. So let me just put it out there right now: I LOVE WHEN PEOPLE COOK FOR ME!!!! As long as you don’t serve me Hamburger Helper, I’m yours.
Back to Wisconsin…
What made this homecooked meal by my friend’s friend particularly special wasn’t that it was ultra-gourmet, or took all day to prepare, or required the dirtying of every pot in the kitchen (by the way, doing the dishes is also part of cooking for someone, or at least helping a bit). It was special and kind because she put her entire love and care into it. She roasted eggplant and garlic for a dip, made corn (not seasonal but who the heck cares!?), baked chicken, and all the while we just got to sit and talk and play with the kids. It was bliss.
Now I do want to distinguish showing up and cooking a meal in someone’s home from the Tupperware drop-off variety. Making and then leaving food for someone is also super kind, but it’s different. You’re not together for the preparing or the eating, so an element of sharing goes missing. Even if you’re whirling around the stove, you’re still spending time together, and best of all, you get to thank the friend who cooked for you in person at the table.
Now those of you who do not consider yourselves cooks, then I say, “so what!”. I don’t care what your skill or confidence level is, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, has one dish they can bang out of the park. It may be your grandmother’s meatballs, a recipe for chickpea salad you ripped out of a magazine years ago, a perfectly medium-rare steak, or killer egg salad. No matter what, chances are you’ve at least got a wonderful grilled cheese in your culinary repertoire and you know how to pour a glass of wine. Chances also are that you have a friend, neighbor, or family-member who is perhaps under the weather, having a tough holiday season, having a tough year, or just seemed plain overwhelmed the last time you saw them, and that this person would love for you to come on by and make them something to eat.
As far as any rules to follow I’d suggest the following:
-Bring all the ingredients. Unless you’re very familiar with their kitchen, don’t assume they’ll have everything that you need.
-Keep the meal simple. One-pot, not too many courses, and fun.
-Just like a dinner party—make sure it’s something you’ve made a million times before. This is not the time to experiment with osso buco.
-Bring the wine.
-Go with delicious. Meaning a comforting chicken pot pie over a raw 10-grain salad…unless your friend and their family are really into 10-grain salads.
-Do not leave them with a sink full of dirty dishes.
-Don’t let them see you sweat. If you look like you’re about to have a full-on anxiety attack or complain that it’s not going to be good then that defeats the purpose of this being a gesture that’s not about you.
So go forth and cook for someone you love! It will be the best gift you’ve ever given.
*And I do still want to share my favorite cookbooks of the year so I promise to get that on the blog in time for any last minute shopping!