On my 25th Birthday, one of my best friends – who lives outside New York – came for an overnight visit. We planned to take a walk through Chinatown and buy up whatever unusual and fascinating food things we could find, and then come back to my apartment and cook it all; I’d put the word out to my other friends that “if you turn up in the afternoon, you will get fed”. My then-roommate somehow forgot the date and invited his table-top gaming club over for a game that same afternoon, but when they offered to leave I told them “no, you can stay and help us eat all this!” Ultimately, we had 20 people crammed into my tiny living room, perched on folding chairs and huddled onto the sofa, and one person even had to sit on a step stool because we ran out of anything else. But I will never forget the sight of all 20 of us, all engaged in the same lively, cross-the-room conversation, plates balanced on all our laps and eating homemade shrimp shumai and mung bean noodles and stir-fried chicken with peppers.
My 47th Birthday was yesterday, and I sought to recreate that birthday a little. I have a bunch of friends I know from all different contexts, and have wanted to introduce them to each other to see what would happen. It’s also the weekend before Mardi Gras, so I put the word out that anyone showing up at my place that afternoon would be fed, and then I got up at about 6 in the morning and started cooking. I went Cajun rather than Chinese this time – jambalaya, corn maque choux, two kinds of red beans and rice, a huge pot of gumbo. By the time the first guest showed up, I’d made the choice to abandon the shrimp etouffe, literally because there was no more room on the buffet table.
I even mail-ordered a King Cake from Gambino’s Bakery in New Orleans, and found a silly bejewelled pair of sunglasses to give to the person who got the baby in the cake.
My friends are the sort to also ask to bring things, but knowing how much food I was making I tried to steer them into simple things, like a spare bottle of soda or a bag of chips. But – rather than getting a single bottle of Sprite, they mail-ordered things – one friend found a web site offering local Louisiana things, and shipped me half a cases’ worth of stuff, including Abita root beer and Bananas Foster soda, and another couple brought a sampler case of different flavor Zapps’ Chips. Sue couldn’t make it herself (our lives are both a little different than they were when we were 25), but earlier in the week she’d sent me a delightfully silly gift – a five-pound Hershey bar.
I actually wasn’t completely finished cooking by the time the first guests showed up, so I threw them in the living room with the chips and a bowl of peanuts I’d seasoned with a spice blend I’d picked up at a great little shop in New Orleans. I popped out of the kitchen to make basic introductions for people who hadn’t yet met (“So, Jonathan I know from kayaking, and Ian and Gabby I know through a play I did in 2005 – and there’s E, we were on a pub quiz team in the 90s and she just got a job with the library…”) and then just stood back.
And just as I hoped, there was lots of boisterous talk around the room. Jonathan and Gabby compared notes on kayak clubs. Niki asked E for book recommendations. After an hour Ian begged us to keep him away from the peanuts because he’d just eaten half a pounds’ worth. Colin learned several of the guests hadn’t ever been to New Orleans and made travel recommendations. We passed around shared bottles of the fig soda, but were less brave about the bananas foster soda. Niki got the King Cake baby. Everyone left well-fed, but there was still an enormous amount of uneaten food, which E blessedly helped me pack away into the fridge before she took off.
I took a closer look at the damage this morning after sleeping late. There’s still an awful lot of the gumbo, which E had thoughtfully doled into smaller ziploc baggies so they could be frozen. It’s a basic greens gumbo, which I can easily add leftover chicken or sausage too; the okra and tomatoes will also work there. There’s easily enough jambalaya and red beans to see me through two weeks of brown-bag lunches, and the little bags of Zapps’ are perfect for snacks as well. I did as many of the dishes that my drying rack can hold, and then made a breakfast of shrimp grits before tucking the rest of the shrimp into the freezer too.
I’ve also spent the morning browsing for recipes that use a lot of milk chocolate – I’ll definitely eat some of that huge Hershey bar, but probably not fast enough, and will definitely need to get through some of it by baking. After only an hour of looking, though, I was already starting to get the idea that maybe another party would be just the thing – only make it all sweets, lots of cupcakes and tarts and cookies and puddings and…and more people in the house, more of the laughter and talking.
When you feed people, I discovered, you also feed yourself.