Monday, February 4, 2013
The first time I met my wife’s family, before we were romantically entwined, it was New Year’s Day. Wait…that was the second time I met them. The first time we were 12 years old, but that’s a story for the book. So it was New Year’s Eve. She explains to me that her family has a huge celebration for New Year’s and it involves a massive, beautiful batch of paella that requires a full day’s work…would I like to come? I have never turned down a feast. Count me in! I arrived in the early afternoon, walked into the kitchen and offered a hand. I didn’t leave the kitchen again until it was time to sit down and eat. Her father put me to work, and as his sous chef we prepared two giant pans of paella for at least 20 people. The table stretched from the kitchen counter, through the dining area into the living room. Prosecco and wine flowed, dogs played and friends caught up and celebrated a new year. I will never forget it. If a home or a meal could have arms that swept people up in gigantic hugs, this family, home and meal would do it. I was smitten by her and her family. The rest shortly became history.
I have been the Paella Day sous chef to my father-in-law ever since and want it no other way. We chop veggies, clean squid and crabs with the kids, de-beard mussels, listen to music, tell stories, drink wine and beer, dance a little, snap a few towels, talk about fascinating things we have heard on NPR, and share food philosophy. He probably stands in the kitchen chopping for four or five hours before we all arrive. The kids and I work with him for another four or five hours before the paella is about ready to eat. Over that time the house fills with friends and family, most of whom wander in and out of the kitchen to prep an appetizer, lend a hand with chopping a veggie, or pour some drinks. If all goes right, the kitchen will be filled with people laughing, hugging and dancing. New invitees will come in lured by the scents and oooooh and aaaahhhh; perennials will comment on what seems new and different. The kids will enthusiastically perform a task for a few minutes before the Wii beckons. My two will always joyfully dissect the crabs. At some point, the kitchen filled with joyful noise, most of the work done, my father in law will look at me, grin, and say, ”Now this is what it’s all about. I don’t even care about the paella. I just want my kitchen filled with all of this. Who needs a quiet day?” I will laugh and tell him some story I just read from Anthony Bourdain about great meals being about far more than just the food.
New Year’s Eve 2013, technically February 2, was no different. The crowd was smaller, but no less jovial. We had a family engagement to celebrate. My brother-in-law is newly engaged and his fiancée and her family were with us. Prosecco was popped, toasts were shared, too much was eaten. We remembered friends and family strewn across the globe who we wished could be with us. We sang along to Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, and Jim Croce. We nibbled on cheese and crackers, cherry tomatoes, carrots and hummus and sampled homemade beer. We put together colorful, beautiful pans of paella, dreamt of living on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, and I mentioned an Anthony Bourdain meal. At least seven different people cut, stirred, arranged, cleaned or blended some part of the paella. We laughed and wept at the romance of an amazing marriage proposal underwater off Catalina. We offered wedding date and site suggestions. We surprised my wife with a birthday cake and serenade, then ate her cake, and the engagement cake, ice cream and had some espresso and after-dinner drinks. Then…oh no!…the forgotten prosciutto e melone appetizer which we had to pay proper respect and eat. Dishes and glasses got washed even if we forgot to turn on The Big Chill soundtrack. The kids decided they had had enough – one went to sleep under a blanket on the couch, not wanting to miss a thing while the other tread dangerously close to meltdown stage before we scooped him up and got him in the car. Amazingly, the day was over. Nine hours went by in a blink.
This is the way many of our family celebrations go. Meals planned or improvised, always a team effort, invariably turn out delicious flavored by the love of family, great company and engaging conversation. Time goes by in a flash, we laugh and cry joyfully and plan the next celebration. We toast to friends and family, not the least of which is, “To Chelsea” while one kid says, “Mom, who is Chelsea?”
Thomas Keller said a recipe has no soul; the soul comes from the chef. A lot of soul goes into each and every family meal, as it does for millions. In all our foodie-ness, let’s not lose sight of that. The food is important and it is nice to taste amazing flavors, fresh ingredients and well-crafted combinations. But when we get down to it, it is about our conversations, our laughter and joy, our love for each other.
Go plan a celebration and fill your house. I need to go plan a birthday celebration.