Perhaps because of my unremarkable childhood diet of meat and potatoes, I am always fascinated by how much thought other people devote to food.
For example, some local friends recently invited me and my two sons to dinner. These people were perfectly ordinary folks, hard-working and of modest means. But the wife had set a table fit for the most discerning palate: baked Atlantic salmon with lemon-pepper sauce, vine-ripened tomatoes with chopped fresh basil, just-baked rosemary-olive bread, and gently steamed pole beans.
I glanced up at my sons and witnessed the gusto with which they were indulging themselves. Then my older boy threw me a look that said, "Why can't you cook like this?"
Well, I do my best, but I am so middling at it that any time I venture beyond the basics, the result is, almost invariably, disappointing. Even the homemade Greek pizza I once attempted devolved into a sticky, primordial mess that had to be eaten with a spoon.
As a result, I don't try to do anything even remotely exotic in the kitchen, convinced that such gambits are doomed to failure.
Perhaps because of this, I am drawn to the tables of those who do place a lot of emphasis on good food, and I can remember every notable meal. Here's an exotic sampler:
In Germany I once visited a large family where a lively, 70-year-old hausfrau gravely informed me, "In our family, food is No. 1!" Then she hauled out a magnificent sauerbraten about the size of a doormat. It wrung my salivary glands dry.
In Costa Rica, I stayed with a family headed by an animated abuela who rose at 4 a.m., tied on her apron, lit the stove, and began to chop! chop! chop! a panoply of beans, chiles, root vegetables, and fresh tropical fruits. By 8 a.m., the table was steaming with delicacies.
As I ate and smacked my lips, the abuela patted my back and told me I was giving her great joy. It was, of course, my pleasure to do so.
In Iceland I ate a meal with close friends who served lamb as sweet as dew, the result of the animals grazing on the most tender boreal grasses and wildflowers. After every bite I emitted a low, guttural moan, which brought only smiles of approbation from my Viking hosts.
Here in Maine, a friend of mine specializes in bread. No matter what time of day I visit, she always seems to have several loaves on the rise. "I have nothing to give but bread," she once remarked to me, to which I replied that I was happy to be the recipient of such largesse.
Once, when I entered her home, she immediately handed me a loaf of pumpernickel right out of the oven. I broke off a chunk, slathered it with butter, and nearly swooned. "You like it?" my friend asked by way of understatement.
All I could do was nod and utter one word: "Ambrosia."
Even my own mother, 40 years removed from my childhood heyday of pork chops and mashed potatoes, retains food at the forefront of her thoughts.
A few years back, I decided to pay her a surprise visit. After a 10-hour journey from Maine to New Jersey, I burst through the door and announced, "Here I am!"
My mother, not missing a beat, exclaimed, "And I've got such a nice ham. It's fresh. From Pagano's. Sit down and eat!"
One would think that all this culinary exposure would have endowed me with at least the desire to be fancy once in a while. But with the collapse of my Greek pizza, the pilot light of hope flickered out.
I prepare simple, wholesome meals; in other words, nothing that would bring the TV cameras to my kitchen. My sons dutifully sit, eat, and seem to enjoy the uncomplicated repasts (chicken and rice, spaghetti, franks and beans, spaghetti). But I take pains to bring them to restaurants and the homes of friends where the cuisine is a little more "haute," so that they are privy to the technicolor world of cookery as opposed to my grainy black-and-white version.
My older boy has a more cynical sense of how I measure up as a cook. Recently, toward suppertime, he remarked, "Janet's mom is making spanakopita tonight." Then, with a sense of foreboding, he asked, "What are we having?"
As I took the pot from the stove I answered, "Roast breast of hummingbird in champagne sauce."
My son's eyebrows took flight. "Really?"
"Yes," I said as I placed a dish before him, "but here in Maine we call it macaroni and cheese. Eat up." And he, being a ravenous teen, sat down and ate. Then he continued on to Janet's house for spanakopita.