Holidays were not fun in my childhood. Among the ghosts from my past is one notorious Christmas Eve when my brother-in-law chain-sawed the tree on the front porch while my brother and I smoked pot in the attic, and my mother stirred the lasagna sauce in the kitchen, screaming, “Some Christmas this is!” Silent night, holy night, not at all.
In my warped and tender youth, Valentine’s Day was of comparable trauma. Being either in a crummy relationship or none at all, I would hunker down as soon as the hearts appeared in the store windows and pray that it would all be over soon, like the angel of death gliding silently past the lamb’s blood on my door.
A few years ago, however, I decided to celebrate the holidays on my own terms and am harvesting sweet results. This Valentine’s Day I’m hosting a dinner party, with my man of four-plus years and three other couples. On the menu is a rose sparkler, chantarelle- and wild rice-stuffed quail with a fig-blood orange glaze, roasted root veggies, heirloom chicory with walnuts and olives, and truffles and tangerines for dessert.
Cooking at home for friends makes me feel very cheffy. It’s part of the play of love, another thing I’m reclaiming in my life.
Last month I heard a spellbinding speech of Martin Luther King’s that included this passage:
“When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”
I found myself digesting these words over several weeks. If love is a force, then, like gravity or inertia, it’s involuntary. If it’s supreme, then nothing can surpass it. If it’s unifying, then nothing can be outside of it. And if it leads to ultimate reality, then it’s certainly much more than cut-out hearts in store windows, though certainly not separate from that, either. The love Dr. King describes has nothing to do with us personally, and yet it’s the very thing we’re made of.
Which leads me back to my party. Why even have a party? Why cook for anyone? For that matter, these days why cook at all? My first Dharma teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, used to say that to express appreciation of any kind furthers civilization. Without it society degenerates into mere function, and the colors of our landscape fade into gray. To dress up, to put flowers on the table, to clean the house and arrange the seating and plate the food–all such gestures are little deposits in the cosmic bank account of Love. They return dividends of kindness and decency and affirm that life, by itself, of itself, is worthy of such offerings.
All chefs know that cooking for others is an act of love, even if they’re too grumpy to admit it. Whether it’s cooking with love or cooking to be loved is irrelevant. In the end, if the love Dr. King describes does reign supreme, then there’s no one cooking, no one being cooked for, and nothing being cooked. All the more reason to celebrate, wouldn’t you say?