I taught a couple few classes over the weekend, one of them a group of 14 people how to make empanadas. The group was a bit hesitant at first, but I’ve found that getting them all involved in an activity such as rolling out dough and making the filling is very interactive and gets them all talking to each other (none of them knew any of the others apart from who they came with). Pretty soon I had a chatty crowd going. They all brought wine, so that helped too. Lubrication of the mandibles is always good for conversation.
One of the women, who was having the best time scooping filling into dough circles, announced to me that though she was loving this process, it would be too time consuming to make them for a dinner party. To which I replied, “Why not have an empanada-making party?”. Her face lit up. “That’s a great idea!”, she said. She then invited the couple she was paired up with to come to this future party. Success all around. *
It reminded me of an Editor’s Note I once read in Gourmet Magazine, I want to say at least 12 or 13 years ago (I’m a bit fuzzy on dates, but I had a subscription for about a year during that timeframe). Ruth Reichl wrote that the best dinner party she’d ever been to was one when, upon arrival, the hostess blurted out that nothing was ready and that she needed everyone’s help to get dinner on the table. I remember reading this article and being absolutely horrified. At that time (way back in my culinary youth), I was disgustingly into the whole Martha-Stewart-Everything-Must-Be-Perfect mode, and I couldn’t think of anything worse than not being ready when your guests arrived. I had a very '50s housewife sort of attitude, and attributed dinner party unpreparedness to massive failure. I always ensured my guests were as least inconvenienced as possible, regardless of how I’d worked myself to a tired frenzy and was of absolutely no good conversation-wise later on. Fast forward a decade + a few years, I find that antiquated ideal extremely tiresome and pretty boring.
If I remember correctly (and surprisingly I sometimes I do), I threw the magazine across the room. I had a habit of doing that with articles or books I didn’t agree with. That may have been the reason why I canceled my subscription; who knows. I’m not afraid to say I was a naïve culinarian.
In more recent years, I’m prone to putting people to work as soon as we get together in a kitchen, whether it’s mine or one of my friends’. This is especially useful if one or more people don’t know each other; what better way to get acquainted and break the ice than to bond over setting a table or getting water boiling for pasta? It’s a whole lot better than sitting quietly in a living room trying to come up with Polite and Interesting Things to Say to Strangers while the hostess is busily tiring herself to hair-pulling frustration in the other room.
Perfection is bullshit. As I’m always telling my classes, recipes are a guideline; if you feel like changing things up, you should follow your gut (except for baking, that’s more of a science. But even then I’m prone to carefree wantonness in that department). Most of the people who take the cooking classes are really great. They’re there to learn, or network with others, or both. But every once in a while I get someone in there who is so focused on perfection and trying to follow a recipe exactly, then getting frustrated that their final product took too long and doesn’t appear how they imagined it to be. I try to spend as much time with these kinds of folks as possible to get them to unwind a bit, let their inner cook come out and play. Most of the time it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. I feel badly; I see my old self in them and want to take them by the shoulders and shake them into this century.
Then sometimes I get someone who really doesn’t want to be in class at all, like a couple of weeks ago when a woman in her mid-30s was dragged in by her mom, aunt, and cousins. Her mom wanted her there so her daughter could, as she confided in me, “land herself a husband” (talk about '50s housewife mentality. I tried to alleviate the mood by saying that a man who cooks is sexy, but that didn't appease the mother very much). The daughter looked bored and made it known, out loud, that she’d rather be shopping at the Michael Kors store nearby than be caught dead in a kitchen. At one point, she grabbed a chair out of the corner of the room and sat for most of the rest of the class. Her mom hauled her up to help with chopping up some garlic, but after a few minutes, the daughter gingerly picked up her cutting board and chef knife, handed them to me; the look on her face showing complete disgust. “Can you get me a new one?”, she said. “This one touched food”.
* I’ve been big on impromptu networking lately; see my previous post about Stupid High Tech Toilets