Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lunch. the birthday party.

I work for a small, tightly-knit company, and for each employee's birthday we have a potluck lunch. The birthday girl (we're all women) tells everyone else what she wants them to bring, and they cook her favorite dishes. It is an excuse for us to all take a break from the craziness of the day, sit down together (which wouldn't happen otherwise), eat, relax, enjoy ourselves. There are main dishes and side dishes and hors d'oeurves and desserts and bowls of fruit and salads and rice and bread. The lazy-susan spinning slowly in the middle of the huge table is nearly invisible beneath the platters and dishes and bowls covering its surface.

Everyone has their own specialties. We look to one woman for her desserts, cheesecakes of every flavor, chocolate layer cakes, pies, anything you can imagine. I might make a lasagne, or a rum-soaked croissant bread pudding filled with raisins, depending on the whim of the birthday girl. One person usually brings a meat dish, grilled flank steak or chicken stew or on occasion, a prime rib. Another coworker brings noodles, yet another brings some kind of vegetable dish. Others bring salads and breads and dips and beautiful fruit. Most of us love to cook; certainly all of us love to eat. Cooking for each other is a way to experiment, or have a chance to eat something you would never make yourself. (I wait all year to demand a Kahlua chocolate cheesecake for my own birthday).

I've made lasagne this time. I woke up early to put it together, layering the sauce I made the night before with noodles and ricotta cheese mixed with egg and parmeggiano-reggiano and shreds of basil, and grated mozzarella cheese. It takes half an hour, and the unbaked dish will sit in our fully-equipped kitchen (did I mention that we love to eat?) until about an hour before lunch. I've got the timing down, the result of much practice. It is better this time, more richly flavored; the sauce seems thicker and more cohesive, perhaps the result of using a different brand of canned tomatoes. The cheese is creamier; the grated Parmeggiano-reggiano sprinkled over the top has baked to a crisp golden crust.

Besides lasagne there is a chicken stew, heady with white wine, sweet with dried prunes and carrots, sharpened with briny olives and the tang of tomatoes. Pale sweet taro mingles with chicken; thick noodles nestle in a deep dish, twined with vegetables. There are thick slices of crusty bread and artichoke dip, and chewy, salty-sweet pieces of roast pork. The co-worker with the organic garden has arranged slices of home-grown tomatoes with white coins of fresh mozzarella and basil leaves; adorned with more herbs and flowers it is like a bit of summer in the middle of October. And when we cannot eat any more, there is dessert, a Kahlua chocolate cheesecake and a pumpkin chiffon pie. And we start talking about the next birthday party, in November.

I love cooking for the people I care about, and I love other people cooking for me. Sure, we could go out, drink too many margaritas, eat overpriced food in noisy restaurants, and go home regretting that last margarita or that one extra piece of calamari. But this is better.

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