Early in our marriage, we became friends with fellow teachers Ron and Jane, a sophisticated older couple who loved gourmet cooking. On Saturday nights, they invited us over for marvelous dinners: showy salads, ethnic entrees at once authentic and nouvelle, garnishes as glamorous as jewelry, soups with six-word names, desserts of mystifying architecture.
I wanted to reciprocate. I, too, knew my way around a kitchen, having grown up on a farm where food preparation came as naturally as, well, eating. But now I was ready - or so I thought - to shun homespun cakes and humble pies for the realm of haute cuisine. I subscribed to fancy food magazines and began scouting specialty stores for elusive ingredients, laboring as arduously over dinner menus as I did over my weekly lesson plans.
I pulled off some impressive spreads. But my emerging specialty was dessert disasters: a rich mousse that contained shards of a wooden spoon nicked by the blender's blades; baked Alaska melted to a puddle the size of its namesake; and a chocolate bombe that took a wholesale plunge into the warm water I was using to loosen it from its mold.
These magnificent flops gave new meaning to the term "entertaining," as Ron and Jane reacted with patient amusement.
The following year, we moved to take new jobs in a neighboring state. We missed our old friends, of course. Sometimes I felt nostalgic about those fancy, photogenic, four-course meals I'd executed with aplomb (give or take a bombe).
Then I'd recall how Herculean my attempts at hosting had been, not only planning and preparing each elegant meal but creating a pretty table and cleaning half the house. By the time Ron and Jane rang the doorbell, I'd felt frazzled, irrationally irked at them for everything I'd "had" to do that day.
Indeed, as the old cannibal joke about "having" friends for dinner unfailingly came to mind, I had to forewarn myself not to bite their metaphorical heads off.
In our new locale, as my husband and I made friends among our co-workers, we convened with them cautiously at first, at casual restaurants, and then at one another's homes over a simple (sometimes even store-bought) dessert.
Eventually, we began inviting people over for simple meals of pot roast, or salmon steaks and salad, flanked by trusty potato side dishes for which I needed neither recipe nor gourmet ingredients nor several days' lead time.
Better yet, my husband convinced me of the illogic of scrubbing the kitchen floor just before serving a company meal. "No one looks at the floor anyway," he declared. He also took over setting the table. To this day, our guests seem perfectly content with our more modest efforts.
Ron and Jane recently reported from afar that they, too, have forsaken fancy cooking for other pursuits. And no one in our current circle spends Saturdays - much less Thursday and Friday evenings - shopping, chopping, and concocting. Instead, someone might say, "Come over tomorrow night, and we'll throw together a big pot of something." Guests almost always contribute salad or dessert.
One couple recently set a new standard for simplicity by phoning to invite us to a spaghetti repast scheduled to commence a mere two hours hence.
My husband and I enjoyed their spontaneous fare all the more for knowing that they hadn't knocked themselves out preparing it, and that when we invited them back, we needn't fuss, either.
I still dabble in the culinary arts on occasion. But the food no longer "makes" the meal, and the cooking no longer consumes me. In fact, not long ago my guests' dinner conversation so engrossed me that I let the apple-crisp burn to, well, a crisp. No matter; plain vanilla ice cream went over just fine.
I'd like to think my more relaxed mindset signifies a different sort of sophistication. But, in fact, it seems I've come full circle, back to the farm, where we prepared hearty but manageable meals to nurture our bodies, then shared them with friends to feed the soul.