cooking and conviviality

An essay by Leigh Belanger

I am a feeder. I learned to cook in high school and it’s been both my favorite hobby and a way I make my living ever since. For years before kids, one of my best friends and I threw an annual holiday party. We started planning the menu before Thanksgiving, and in the days leading up to the big event, we cooked our brains out, making multiple types of fancy cookies, tarts and cheese puffs, big roasts and homemade punch. Every year, the room swelled and warmed with people drinking, eating, laughing, being ridiculous – these parties got woven into the DNA of our friendship and became the stuff of lore among our friends. It was pure conviviality, and it was the best. 

Of course, parties changed when kids came into the picture, but my urge to cook for others – to offer my craft up for consumption – has never waned. Whether it’s a few friends over for dinner and a movie, or a pack of 9-year-old boys galloping through the house, only slowing down for a fistful of cookies and a juice box, sharing food with people is a big part of what makes life so sweet.

These day though, I’m only cooking for my built-in audience – you know, the kids who may or may not know how good they have it (you’re eating homemade layer cake, for crying out loud, don’t complain about the color of the frosting); and who are unbothered by telling me exactly how disgusting the soup looks, smells, and tastes. 

As someone for whom cooking has been an act of expression, being a cook and a parent has been about balancing needs: my need to cook with ingredients and techniques I’m curious about; their need to eat a limited and very straightforward set of foods. That’s why as a parent, it’s been just as important for me to have people over as it was when I was making bespoke cookies for dozens of punch-drunk 20-and-30-somethings – I get to cook for someone besides my kids. 

But not during quarantine! So in the absence of a receptive audience (and to share the grind of making so many meals), I’ve been delegating more dinner prep to my spouse. And when it’s my night in the kitchen, I’ve been staving off the culinary boredom by being extra-intentional about my time there.

The other night I made pizza – I’d made dough earlier in the week and stashed a ball in the freezer. It thawed on the counter while we did housework, and when it was time to make dinner, I had a nice clean kitchen with late-afternoon light filtering through the windows above the sink. I stretched the dough out onto the pan and let it rest while I pulled out ingredients for toppings, then I stretched it again and popped it in the oven to par-bake. I seared mushrooms, sautéed wild onions, and thinly sliced some salami for the toppings. The kitchen smelled so good. Dough came out, toppings went on, mozzarella over the top, and the pie went back into the oven.

I was in the zone – a state of flow, as they say, where I was just focused on doing the work with intention and attention. And reader – and I can’t always say this about pizza, because making pizza is hard – I nailed it. 

Maybe it was a weekend thing, maybe it was a pizza thing.  Maybe it was a weekend and pizza thing, but dinner that night had a flicker of the conviviality I’ve been missing so much these long quarantine days and evenings. No one complained, kids were lively, we laughed and gobbled and relaxed. It was yet another reminder to enjoy cooking for its own sake, no matter the size or quality of the audience.  That said, the moment this lifts, I’m having people over for pizza.

Leigh Belanger is a writer and editor based in Jamaica Plain. You can read more of her writing in her weekly newsletter, Care & Feeding.

Spring Rain, by Carol Palmer Brilliant