The original idea'well, maybe not all that original'was to write a column for this City Weekly Holiday Gift Guide about gifts for your favorite foodies. But do you really need me to tell you about the latest Cuisinart food processor that also breast-feeds your baby while you soak in the tub? Or the new and improved George Foreman grill? And you surely don’t need me to tell you how you can turn Grandma’s room in the attic into a wood-fired brick pizza oven for a mere $6,500.
Enough already with the stuff. What people really want from you'except for greedy bastards like Bill Frost (see “Lookin’ Out for No. 1,” p. 56)'is your time. This is true not only during the holidays, but year-round. I’ve often thought'and frequently written'that the single best way to express love and care for someone is to cook for them.
When I say you need to cook for someone this holiday season, I mean you need to cook for them. Get your hands dirty. No instant mixes, canned sauces or frozen foodstuffs are allowed. But that doesn’t mean that cooking for others needs to be done on the scale of a military operation either.
A case in point: Kids are selfish. They want things. But most of all, they want you. For example, my honey'who couldn’t cook a frankfurter if her life depended on it'makes homemade tortillas for her kids (and Max, the black Lab) when she has the time. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: She makes the time. It doesn’t take a Culinary Institute of America graduate to produce tortillas at home. But it does take a helluva lot of time and effort. The kids (and maybe the dog) see that and recognize it as love. Are the tortillas that much better than store-bought? Well, yeah. As a matter of fact they are. But that’s not the point. The point is that by making tortillas by hand for someone, you’ve given of yourself and your time. You’ve really put you into the food you’ll share. That’s not a gift you can purchase.
There are firefighters who help to protect your neighborhood. And of course, firefighters are well known for their cooking skills and firehouse meals. But do you think they look forward to cooking day-in and day-out? I doubt it. So why not cook a meal for your neighborhood fire-people, either at your place or delivered and cooked down at the station? And I don’t mean chili con carne or beef stew. How about cooking up something they don’t eat twice a week? Like risotto. I’ll bet there’s not a firefighter in America who wouldn’t appreciate the effort that goes into making a batch of risotto from scratch, with maybe some beef braciola or chicken Marsala alongside.
If you’ve got kids, you’ve got time issues. I know of no parent who isn’t schedule-impaired, and neither do you. So why not offer to take a bunch of kids you know off their parents’ hands for an afternoon or evening? You could host a holiday cooking party and involve the kids in the kitchen. Kids appreciate being cooked for but they really like being cooked with. Wanna get a kid to eat a salad? Just ask him to tear up the lettuce leaves or to mix up the vinaigrette with a whisk.
It doesn’t have to be fancy food. A pizza party is perfect. But make the pizza from scratch and involve the kids in putting on the sauce and all the toppings. It’s wonderful to see a 9-year-old concentrating on the perfect symmetry of pepperoni placement. The kids will love you for including them in the party-making process, and their parents will owe you one.
It goes without saying that you should volunteer regularly to help in soup kitchens, homeless shelters, churches or anywhere else you can think of to feed the members of our community who can’t always feed themselves. But that also goes for folks in your own neighborhood. Even in the ritziest parts of town, there are people'especially the elderly and handicapped'who would sure appreciate having someone to cook for them and visit with them once a week or even once a month. You can be that person. My father’s cooking skills were limited and became even more limited shortly before he passed away. And although he initially thought it an intrusion, he came to relish the Friday nights when his neighbor from across the street'a Japanese immigrant'would bring him big bowls of udon soup with chicken or fried pork tonkatsu. They’d eat together and reminisce about the years my father was stationed on an Air Force base in her country.
Cook for your family! There are nights in every household where Happy Meals and takeout pizza must suffice. But this holiday season'and not just on the holiday'fill your family’s house with the smell of fresh-baked bread, rich beef daube simmering away on the stove, tamales made by hand or something as simple as handmade tortillas with a little melted butter and salt. Break bread together. Cook with one another. Give the gifts of love to family and strangers'gifts that they can taste.