True Confessions: I am very shy; I am a control freak – I love checking off boxes on a to-do list; I believe that, “Food is love;” doing anything creative connects us with God, the ultimate Creator; and connecting with other people minimizes loneliness. I figured all this out in the four years after I graduated from college. I had gotten used to being a wallflower in high school, but college had given me a different perspective of myself. That, and a student tour of Europe in the middle of grad school (eight weeks of “if this is Tuesday, this must be Belgium,”) had given me a chance to try to recreate myself. I was still living at home, but my career was starting to evolve after graduate school, and I was beginning to make a few other acquaintances through my church’s young adult group. I was still shy, and I was still a wallflower, but I was also very goal-directed about being “well-rounded.” That meant I had to have a social life, and if I wasn’t going to get invited to parties, then I was going to have to give them.
So, for my first party, I hosted a barbecue for about 30 people. I included the few friends I had made at work or kept from college; all my graduate school group; and every family friend my age I could think of. I purchased invitations and made all the food myself; my dad chose some music to pipe in to our backyard (that was a last-minute detail that I had forgotten, so I couldn’t be choosy at that point!), and I tried to juggle party-hosting with party-attending. Actually, it went better than I thought, and I realized that I forgot my shyness while I was coordinating food production and guest mingling. And, so I was hooked.
I can still remember reading Southern Living’s Party Cookbook during my graduate school class on Course Curriculum; it was a serendipitous find from the bargain table at UCLA’s Student Store. An unknown classmate commented that I had a mouth that always looked like I was smiling; well, I was – I was reading cookbooks on the sly during lecture.
I already had some experience with family recipes and cooking. My mom’s mom had learned French cooking techniques in finishing school, but she never taught my mom to cook. Nonetheless, when my mom married, she hosted dinner parties anyway, learning as she went, with a very high bar set by her mom. (I still remember the tangerine sorbet she made for one dinner party – to fill the tangerine cups she had hollowed out, as a starter dish to cleanse the palette, of course, doesn’t everybody?) My mom, fortunately, recruited me to help her in the kitchen when I was young, so I learned how to help; putting on my own party, however, was a higher level of learning (Course Curriculum in action).
I also had (and have) a sister who was newly married and had started family traditions of her own. Her husband was (and is) totally out-going and gregarious, and loved inviting dinner guests at the last-minute. So, my sister, being the social butterfly in our family, accommodated him with great, spontaneous dinners. She gave me my second cookbook that she used like a Bible: Marlene Sorosky’s Cookery for Entertaining. My best grad-school-friend also knew what I was doing, and was happy to feed my obsession. She added to my cookbook collection: Martha Stewart’s classic Entertaining, Country Desserts by Lee Bailey, and her old issues of The COOK’S Magazine. Two books published by Larousse added more fuel to my fire: Best Recipes Ever and The Best of French Cooking, the latter of which really got me drooling with one recipe per page, one colored photo per recipe.
One reasonably positive party production and all those cookbooks got me, well, cooking. When I realized that invitations eliminated the scary need for a phone call (remember, I was shy), invitations became a part of the production. And when I couldn’t find the perfect invitation, I began making them. Personal computers were in style by the time my kids were born, so the party invitations became easier and also more elaborate.
The more planning I did, the more control I had, the more comfortable I was at parties, the more welcome my guests felt… the more parties I planned. I found that parties at home gave me the most control, and also allowed me the most creative domain. And so, food, and celebrations, and creativity all come together… and make me happy. It’s a recipe that can work for anyone.