Every professional writer who makes his or her career gathering other people’s stories should be on the opposite end of that equation at some point. Sure, we write about ourselves and our experiences from time to time, but it is very different when someone else decides to take on your story, whatever it may be.
So last month, when Edible East End asked my husband if he would consider inviting a writer and photographer into our house to talk with him about his work and join us while we cooked a meal, I was equal parts excited and nervous. For nearly 20 years I’ve been making that same sort of phone call myself, contacting people I barely know and essentially asking for an invitation into their lives.
Our first response to the query was: Us? They must be desperate. Then we decided it could be fun. Then I backpedaled, wondering how we could ever make our house and ourselves presentable enough for pictures. In the end, we agreed, because . . . why not? Whatever it was, it would be set against a backdrop of food.
The question then was what to cook. My husband has his specialties, and they’re very good, but I’m the one who does most of the cooking, trying recipes I’ve seen in magazines, reinventing dishes I’ve tasted at restaurants, and borrowing ideas from friends who are far better cooks than I. There’s a lot of experimentation, some overworked flops, and a few shining stars.
Sometimes when I’m anxious, I cook. I made granola and tomatillo salsa. I roasted chilies, made hot sauce and hot pepper jelly and carrot-top pesto, and baked muffins with the kids (from a box), all the while wondering what I would cook for the Edible people when they came for dinner.
At the same time, I was tracking down a story of my own, a food piece for The Star’s holiday section on Christmas specialties in Latin America. With a list of local home cooks from some of the 21 countries of Central and South America plus Mexico, I started making calls and sending e-mails and researching customs, traditions, and the food that went with them. For someone who likes to cook and enjoys trying new food, it was the best kind of story.
The lines between the story I was writing and the story I would be in began to blur. We’re always told as journalists not to be part of the story, but in this case, the story was becoming a part of me.
Sharing food, after all, is about sharing something of yourself. When you share a recipe or cook with someone, when they let you taste their food or invite you in for dinner, they are, in the most basic sense, inviting you in. It’s an honor and a treat.
At a birthday party last spring for one of my daughter’s friends, I got to talking with her very young grandmother, who is from Mexico and probably only a smidgen older than I am, about the food she’d put out for the adults — a fabulous spread that I still rave about at the slightest prompting. She brought me into her kitchen, showed me the combination of chilies she used, and told me the basic ingredients.
When this holiday story came up, she was the first person I thought of. This woman can cook! The morning after contacting her, I was at her dining room table talking food and tradition, begging again for the recipe for that dish from the birthday party. Tamales, I noticed, had gotten mention in almost everyone’s rundown of typical Christmas fare, whether they were from Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, or Mexico. Where, I asked, could you get truly great tamales on the South Fork?
“We go to Queens,” she said. As luck would have it, she was headed there that afternoon and could get me some from the woman she said had the very best tamales in the borough. Along with that offer came an invitation to her birthday party that Saturday night.
The next morning at 6:30, I had a text: “Can you come before 9? I have tamales for you, and corn drink.” Could I ever! After sending my daughter off on the bus and dropping my son at day care, I was back in her kitchen, now filled with the intoxicating scent of cinnamon and just-warmed tamales.
A pot of horchata — a rice drink with cinnamon, a touch of sugar, and other spices — simmered on the stove and there were red and green chicken tamales, sweet ones with raisins, others with molé or hot chilies. She packed a Tupperware full of them for me, then filled a pitcher with horchata to share with my co-workers and again invited me to her party. At this point nothing could have kept me away.
It was an easy sell to the rest of the family, so we dressed up and headed out into the unknown on Saturday. My two kids were quickly swept up in a game of hide-and-seek with the other children, while my husband and I chatted with each other and a few of the other guests, all friends or part of our hostess’s extended family. We relaxed a little more when the food came out — much of it from our favorite Montauk takeout spot, El Vaquero.
And then from the kitchen, the sound of a guitar. Just a single chord at first, followed by the beginnings of a song. Not just one musician, but a full mariachi band dressed in all black, its singer in full white, stepped around the corner into the dining room, filling the cozy house with music. The birthday girl beckoned for me to come sit next to her at the table. Out came the shot glasses. Around went the bottles of tequila and soon half the house was singing along.
This was her story, but that night, it was my story, too, and it all started with a recipe, as so many good stories do.
As for that other story, the one that took place in my own kitchen, I can safely say that the music wasn’t nearly as good. We had cheeses from Mecox Bay Dairy, my own pepper jelly, local scallops from the Lesters, greens and squash from Quail Hill Farm, roasted Quail Hill carrots with carrot-top pesto I almost forgot to serve, a North Fork wine. If the food didn’t measure up, I blame the chef, not the ingredients.
Carissa Katz is The Star’s managing editor.