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Taking it all off!

Nudist colony in San Diego

Taking it all off!

What do a nudist colony, masked ball and a secret restaurant have in common? I’d never considered this question before last night, when I sat down at one of the tables with our diners. I was wondering what made this table so special; they guests were laughing much louder than those at the other tables. And then I overheard a few words that piqued my interest. “Fetish” and “shopping for groceries completely nude.” I turned to the guest on my right and he understood the blank look on my face. He said, “You should hear what she’s been telling us about! It’s hysterical.” After a few minutes I managed to catch up. The dinner guest to my left, a blond, sophisticated, 40-something, New Yorker who’d been living in London since the 70s, was regaling the table with stories of her dating exploits, sex clubs and nudist resorts.

“It’s really extraordinary,” continued the dapper looking gentleman on my right, who’d come with a ravishing young woman, possibly Russian or Eastern European. He went on to say that you could never have a conversation like this at a “normal” dinner party, or in a “normal” restaurant.

This is what is so great about secret restaurants and eating dinner with a bunch of strangers who have purposely come to meet strangers themselves. Last night there were at least six single people, eight if you count the couple that consider themselves singles because they swing. Many people come alone, knowing that they will be warmly welcomed by everyone. “The conversations are so authentic,” he went on to say. And it’s true. It is really extraordinary. I used to host costume parties when I was in my 20s and remember loving them so much, realizing that I liked people much better when they were wearing masks. Or weren’t wearing the masks of their daily routines: banker, tailor, housewife or diplomat. The costumes gave them permission to be more of themselves. It made them so much more honest.

I moved between the two conversations, one an observation of the other and  one an account of all the things you do in the nude in a nudist resort. Her partner, or sometimes partner, recounted their recent trip to Cap D’agde in France. “She turned up with a suitcase smaller than her hand bag!” “Well,” she said, “I only really needed my toothbrush and toiletries as there is nowhere you are even allowed to wear clothes once you’ve check in. “Oh my God,” he said. “It was the first time I packed more than a woman. I thought I’d get away with a swimming suit and some shorts, but no way.”

I haven’t been to a nude beach since I was a kid, and I don’t remember liking it all that much. I was with my hippie mom, in California. But I suspect there is something quite liberating about it. Leave your façade at home and turn up just as you were born, fresh and innocent. Well, maybe that is going a little too far as it doesn’t sound like our swinging singles are all that innocent. Anyway, I can see the attraction to the authenticity and lack of pretensions. Our clothes speak volumes about us. Maybe too much. They also give us something to hide behind. And in a way our friends are like our clothes in that they too tend to be a reflection of our social and economic status. Escaping the predictable conversations that come from being with others like you is refreshing. Seeing yourself reflected in the eyes of strangers is like looking into a sparkling new mirror or suddenly being able to see.

Eating in a secret restaurant is like taking your clothes off in front of strangers, or hiding behind a plumed principessa mask. In taking it all off you’re able to put on your childlike enthusiasm for everything new and different.

The food that remembers me

Today I spent the day cooking. The theme is Viva Cubana! I’ve never even been to Cuba because as an American I’ve never had the right to travel there, or at least not directly. I almost went one time when I was having a little vacation in Jamaica. Apparently they look the other way and don’t stamp your American passport if you fly in from somewhere like Mexico or Jamaica. But I didn’t go. None of my group seemed at all interested .  They were Americans. Here in Europe everyone is curious about Cuba, and many of my friends have been.

I feel like I must have lived there in another life, maybe in the beautiful 40s. There is something in my blood… or at least I wish for there to be! The closest I’ve  been to Cuba is having had a Cuban boyfriend; his parents were  immigrants to New York. They left there with so many others. I remember saying “estoy enamorado con tigo” to him and loving the way it sounded. I loved that he spoke Spanish. I guess we weren’t meant to stay together, but it was so romantic. He was chocolate colored like me, a mix of every race and culture that passed through his parent’s little island. I loved his family too, and he loved mine – me and my little boy. He’d wake up early in the morning to go buy us savory breakfast treats like whitefish and bagels and cream cheese. We ate so well together. And sometimes when I’d come home from work he’d have a lovely meal waiting for me. Bacalao. Platanos. Frijoles negro. This must have been during my last fish phase because I remember the taste of the bacalao like it was yesterday. It has been more than 30 years since then, but today when cooking the bacalao fritters I didn’t need to taste the salt cod to remember what it tastes like.

So as I prepared the food that remembers me from long ago, I remembered an old love from long ago. I thought that it was me that was doing the remembering but then I realized that I’d made the acquaintance of the members of my menu before. We hadn’t seen each other in a very long time, but they remembered me. And in their kindness, reminding me of who they were and how we met, I was able to recall someone I’d long forgotten. I love how food remembers me.

A language of love

Last night I was describing my meal in great detail to my boyfriend who is in France on holiday. We’ve been together for 6 years so our conversations aren’t filled with romantic murmurings. In fact, we’ve never been very romantic. We have a relationship built on doing things together – cycling, swimming in the sea, boxing and now, cooking … He wasn’t a foodie when we first met. He was simply a French man who’d eaten normal French food prepared by his mom and then later, his girlfriends. But I realized last night as I described my dinner, ingredient by ingredient, that he hung on every word.

A couple of days ago a girlfriend came to stay. She arrived with suitcases and bags filled with artifacts of the life she shared with her now ex-boyfriend. I was delighted to have a girlfriend visit me while my boyfriend was away; trying on each other’s clothes and shoes! It took the taxi drive 3 trips from the cab to my hallway to unload. She handed me a bag filled with chocolate and champagne. A little later, after we’d scrunched all of her things into the tiny guest room, I looked into the bag and found, to my delight, something I’d never seen before. Chocolate pasta! Three bags of chocolate penne! She came to my house with a broken heart and some of the ingredients required for mending it.

We drank wine and I cooked. She, like my boyfriend, isn’t a foodie either. But from the coffee and toast to the simple rustic soup (artichoke heart, potato and chick peas) and tortilla chips, she raved over every bite! Then last night, her second night here, I got up my courage to cook the chocolate pasta. There was a proposed recipe on the package, which inspired me to improvise. I don’t eat salmon, one of the suggested ingredients, so I used capers. The sauce included a couple of tablespoons of marscapone, fresh basil from my garden, grated pecorino cheese and capers. The pasta tasted of chocolate, but in such an earthy way, and the creamy cheese pulled it all together. It reminded me of the tiny layer of chocolate in my favorite Oaxacan mole sauce.

So, this morning I realized that even though haven’t been cooking for my boyfriend lately, I was still speaking to him with love as I shared stories of my meals. And even though my visitor doesn’t know how to cook (not even a cup of coffee, she admitted) and doesn’t spend any time thinking about food, she felt bathed in love as I told her my plans for our upcoming meals together. I’ve always known that cooking for others is a way to express my love for them, but I am delighted to find that talking about food has the same effect.

Blue food is not good

We know it is true, because we’ve heard it somewhere and because we have experienced it in someone’s over-creative food styling, like in easter eggs. Blue food is not good. And blue moods are not good either. I would delete my earlier post, but feel that might be dishonest, so instead I will express my revived self, restyle this dish with natural colors. Natural is in at the moment, but not too natural… just enough to feel the comfort. Out with blue… in with, uh, something natural that is not sad, but is not artificially happy either.

So, my slightly edited and elevated self steps back up to the blogging plate, late at night as usual to talk about what? Artificial colors? Well, that is a good start. That is not a good thing in food because it disguises the underlying flavor by distracting us with some flashing false color like E160 or E120 or something. The red dyes are the worst. They make you wired, in addition to numbing or dumbing down your palate. So, in addition to being nature girl, vegetarian (who cooks meat to please others, and because the hunter gene/race runs so strongly in her veins), amateur cook (note I did not say “chef”), I will wax lyrical about how to smarten up your palate… for a split second. I don’t want to become bored… and I really don’t want you to become bored either!

So here is the secret for avoiding blue food and blue moods. All it takes is paying a little bit of attention. If you are trying to impress someone you are more likely to think about how to dress up the occasion, or the food. If you are feeling blue the same is true… no reason to show yourself in all of your natural, teary eyed glory… or tired eyed glory either. So the temptation is to present something that looks like it might come from nature… something that looks beautiful when you can’t really be bothered. So you choose fake, inauthentic. But that only looks good to someone with blurry eyes, someone in your situation who can’t see very well. Dry your eyes (or open them) when you feel like this. And then look into the mirror (or refrigerator)… and try to get a handle on reality. Nature is beautiful in all of its warts. Think of a mushroom, or all of the different varieties of mushrooms. You love their ugliness and their authenticity, their un-pretentiousness, their mushroom-ness. Well, this is exactly the reason to avoid blue or red or yellow dye… or any dye!

Blue food is not good because it is not natural. But maybe blue people are ok, because being blue is natural from time to time? Maybe we need to be left in our own mushroomy, mis-shapen selves? And then we won’t feel so tempted to add artificial colors, to fake it. I’m pretty sure that feeling the blues brings out tremendous creativity, whereas blue-ing the food kills our taste buds. Its been about 25 years since I used any dye in food (well, except for the red velvet cupcakes I made for the 4th of July lunch here)… but only hours since I was blue. I’m thinking that it’s ok to go with the blues if it inspires me to dig down into my soul to cook food that is happy, or at least makes other people happy.

Drinking whiskey

I don’t know why this week was harder than any other, but I was very aware of the difference. Waking up too slowly. The coffee didn’t kick in. I went back to sleep. Going to sleep too slowly each night, wishing the day would just end and wondering why my body would even want to stay awake knowing that if I get too tired I wouldn’t be able to hold back the floodgates of tears that have been storing up for nearly 2 years. And getting to know whiskey, my new best friend. I wanted to throw the whole week away, but especially today. Today is no different than those other seven days that came before, but it is what I am living now. Of course the feelings are more intense today than were yesterday’s feelings. Those I have already forgotten… well, not exactly forgotten… they’ve just became part of the gray cloud that has engulfed me.

Even spices don’t revive me. I made a great red curry last night and it bored me. That scared me. Have I lost my ability to take myself out of my pain by burning my mouth? Or by searing my nostrils with the steam and smoke that flame up when I throw the hot things into the oil, before adding the soft and sweet tamarind water and coconut cream? Oh god, what would that mean? Long, gray days with no interruption? An English summer, one like last year when the sun came out for 5 days, but it was too little too late. I am the worst of English summers today.

I don’t mind the gray days with clouds and rain in London weather. But to have an internally gray day that even the hot peppers can’t wake up? Well, that is just worse than the coffee that doesn’t do its job. I’d have to go back to bed forever. Except for my new friend. Even Oddbins conspired with my new friend, trying to make me fall in love. Oh that I could fall in love with whiskey, but its intensity is not as great as my emptiness. I can’t drink enough of it to become blinded by its beauty. But there was a whiskey tasting at Oddbins tonight, a degustation, and I’d stopped by there on my way home from renting a video. He served me 5 different sips of whiskey and showed me the chart in which each fell into a certain category… sweet, delicate, smokey… Some were missing, like my favorites Laphroig and Macallan. But others were there … and I chose a new stranger this time to keep me company tonight. I started sipping it during the video. It was a film about a man who flirted with death, until he died: Manolete, the Spanish bullfighter. His girlfriend couldn’t understand his love affair with death. My boyfriend can’t understand how I’m trying to find a new best friend, something that will help me escape from death – not my own, or maybe my own, since I still can’t seem to see who I am as anyone other than my son’s mother… and he is not here anymore.

Whiskey has its own vocabulary. Learning to listen to it did distract me. I opened my almost empty bottle of Macallan, and did my own little tasting. The new one, proposed by the Oddbins guy, is still nearly full. I don’t add water or ice. First I finished off the other one and then started on Aberlour, my new friend, a highland single malt. It might just take me through the rest of this week, to sunnier days… if I drink it slowly enough… if the sun comes out… if my taste buds wake up and the coffee starts doing its job again… if I can stop remembering what it is that hurts so much. No dilution there either. While I was comparing the subtle differences in these two friends, learning to speak to them, to savour their differences, for a few moments I forgot why I’d had such a gray and cloudy week. In a few weeks it will be the second anniversary of the original Nomad Chef’s death, my son. I might have to find a few distractions to get me through this. Cooking helps. Spices usually help. Conversations with complete strangers who come to my dinners, who take me for who I am now, who accept me in my cloudier moments… well, that is the best for what ails me. In the meantime, I’ll drink a little more whiskey.

My house is a mess

And what a glorious mess! Wine glasses, corks, half empty bottles of wine, piles of dishes and a fridge filled with leftovers. These are the artifacts that attest to the lively conversations, the stimulating guests, the connections and the pure pleasure of dinner parties.

Last night at the Nomad Chef we had a great group of 23 people from all over the place at the Nomad Chef.  As the chef there is little time to talk, but lots of time for eye contact and smiling. I even got some great hugs, something I don’t get nearly enough of and something that must be in the genes of all Californians.

If only I could be a guest and the chef at the same time. I’m not sure which is better. As chef (a kind of glorified title!) I do get to share my love with everyone; my food is my love. But I want to know everyone more, to talk with every single person who came last night (or to any other of the dinners here). There was the group of 5 that included 3 Americans. How did they even find us? One was visiting from San Francisco, a cake chef no less, and the two others have lived here for a year and a half. That shouldn’t seem so strange, but in the 30 or so dinners at the Nomad Chef, I can think of maybe a total of 10 Americans who have come into our glass walled den of delight. One of them was celebrating her birthday and this was her birthday wish – to eat at a secret restaurant. And how lucky we were to be her hosts. There was a 6 foot 4 inch gorgeous young man, the main giver of hugs (although many others later took his lead), who I now know (after finding him on the internet) is a model, converse tennis shoe graffiti artist, visual cowboy and other things. And the musician who sang for his supper, Alex Berger, brought, in addition to his guitar and wonderful voice, 3 friends I am sure I want to stay in touch with. One of these friends is a man after my own heart and founded Wok + Wine. Their secret formula is: 40 people, 40 pounds of jumbo shrimp and 40 bottles of delicious wine! Not sure whether vegetarians are welcome, but it’s all about stimulating conversation – my favorite thing!

So, today I am loving the mess because I feel sorted. It is a reminder of what can happen when you fill a house with great food and great people. The menu was as eclectic as the guests; the fusion of flavor was mirrored in the fusion of personalities and passion. Today I am lucky girl, albeit tired and writing this post to put off the inevitable washing up. No, I think I am writing to preserve this delicious morning-after-a-great night feeling. If only every day could start with this kind of mess.

Life without spice

Life without spice is an oxymoron…. Life just wouldn’t exist without spice, and lots of it. I’ve been remiss in writing for this blog the last few weeks. No excuses. I’ve just been caught up in other writing, especially for and a screenplay and a book, and well…. But the really big excuse is that I wanted to write about spices and kept thinking that I would just go to my spice cabinet and find inspiration.; that I would list the spices here and that somehow that would be a kind of auto-biography. But the drawers are such a mess! I wanted to organize them, take pictures of them and do a kind of show and tell. Their particular kind of chaos is a perfect representation of me. I guess I didn’t like what I saw there. So, struggling between changing what is there and accepting what is there, I opted for the latter. My spice drawers contain a part of my missing son; his spices are now mine. Both of our spices live in happy chaos in my cabinet.

I group my spices into savory and sweet. I used to sort them by color, grouping the green ones (oregano, thyme, marjoram, etc) and the red ones (paprika, smoked paprika, cayenne, schezuan flakes). You get the picture. But I am not alone in my castle and my sous-chef boyfriend doesn’t like to follow those rules. He doesn’t see the point. So, I had to give up on my one little obsession (or do all of the cleaning and putting away of shopping myself). Compromise for peace in the kitchen. I’m trying to visualize the 10 drawers and shelves as I write. Top left: savory spices. 2nd left: oils (truffle, virgin olive, black olive from France, soy sauce, plum sauce, hot pepper oil, mirin, rice vinegar, raspberry vinegar, figue balsamic vinegar, champagne vinegar, red wine vinegar (I never use that one; it belongs to the boyfriend), palm sugar, peanut butter (why here?) and more. 3rd left (a shelf, not a drawer): my favorite vegetarian bullion that works for any soup, cans of treacle and other weird miscellaneous. 4th left: large sacks of spices (curry leaves, cardamon, black cardamon, dried mushrooms, Mexican oregano, epazote and the odd rice noodle package) and tons of asian and Mexican spices. Bottom left: dried peppers like pasilla, ancho, chipotle, small red, large hot red (Chinese), birdseye; by far the fullest drawer. I love my peppers! Top right: flours (plain and self rising, corn, rice), sugars (caster, vanilla, brown, dark brown), sweet spices (clove, cinnamon, 5 spice, allspice, nutmeg) used for Christmas and asian meals. 2nd right: rices, more flour, pasta and some herbal teas. 3rd right: cans of corn, jalapeno peppers, corn, chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, tomato sauce; and doubtless some spillover from the other side. The light goes on! This is more than chaos! It is a mutiny. The savory cans are on the right side and should be on the left where the treacle and… I’ll save that for another day. 4th right: grains like red lentils, green lentils, urad dal, moong dal and others I’ve used once but left spilling out. Bottom right: seaweed, more grains, rice and pasta and 6 large jars of spices unlabelled. They were my son’s. He knew them simply by smelling. They are savory and sweet. His mom is not as gifted. I used to ask him for help, but he is not here anymore. They are a part of his legacy. In his absence, I need a more conventional system, like names on the jars. He cooked purely by inspiration. I need more structure. I use a lot of recipes and improvise a little less than he did.

My life as a spice cabinet. I’ve moved so many times in my life and even when I was young and didn’t move with furniture, I boxed and carried my spices on the plane. My little son. A few black garments for me, clothes and toys for him, toothbrushes, a few photos and my spices; whatever would fit in a car or on the plane. Then later when moving companies moved my things, I carried my spices with me separately, or in one rare case, I fedexed them ahead of my arrival.

When I went to California in January for a one-month trip I brought a few recipes, cookbooks being to heavy to carry, and just trusted that I could find the ingredients I needed for my comfort food. Never again. In the land of plenty, I never did find lime leaves, even in the large Asian grocer. It was a hard month for me. I was going home to empty out one of my storage units; the one I’d filled about 10 years before with my son, the one that housed my son’s childhood toys and all of the artifacts of our life together until he graduated from college. This trip was to sell or dump all of it. I only kept few small things that would fit in my suitcase. I’d saved it all for him: the furniture, the kitchen appliances (that wouldn’t work in Europe) in case he wanted to start a home in the US. Next time I leave home for more than a few days I am going to pack an emergency spice box, like those little plastic pill boxes. I never know when I will need the comfort that only spice can provide. Life without spice is not worth contemplating.

A table for one

I was feeling really lonely today. So I filled my time with stuffing peppers. I found some long, green peppers on Portobello Road. They didn’t seem to know what they were called or whether they were hot or not. I bought them thinking they might be fun to stuff. The vendor, my favorite for vegetables in the market, asked me what I was going to do with them and when I said, stuff ‘em she said “I have a customer who buys these; she’s a chef.” Well, hmmmm… I’m just an ordinary human, not a real chef. She continued, “She puts them into one of those caeke things…” I struggled to understand what she said. She noticed my blank look and repeated it. Eventually, after 3 tries and a little pantomiming I got it! Oh, she was talking about one of those pastry things for doing frosting or decorating cakes! A tiny funnel on the end of a pastry sack. Oh yeah! “I have one of those. Good idea.” She looked at me as if she didn’t believe it. Every Wednesday and Saturday I go to her stall. Each time I tell her I’m doing a dinner for 15 or 25. Not sure she hears me, or if she does maybe she thinks I am buying the

quantities for a very large and hungry family. Of course I have one of those little thingamajigs. I do! Honestly!

But I never use the chef toys (or rarely)! I cut the peppers down the side so I can indelicately scoop the filling into the peppers. I hate little fidgety food and delicate decoration. I fail at presentation (aka-pretension). I was thrilled with my messy mixture. And the choreography of flavor was enough to take me away from my dangerous musings. Two years ago my life was perfect. Hard, and stressful but filled with so much fun. My son was still alive. My family of two – my son and me – is now a family of one. I can’t bear to be such a small unit. Sunday is my recently deceased son’s birthday. He won’t be here to celebrate it. But I’m going to celebrate it for him, to cook all day, breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and midnight snack. For all of his friends, for my friends, for me and for him I’m going to cook like he did on Sundays – in his honor!

This week has been hard. I miss him so much. I didn’t know what to do to escape the intensity of my missing him today. I alternated between working fiendishly (for my clients), writing (feverishly for myself and maybe, one day, for an unknown agent or publisher), lying down (reading a trashy thriller to take me away from the pain that rose in higher waves than usual, precipitated by the birthday/anniversary that everyone warns of as being the most difficult for the newly bereaved), bursting into floods of tears when each little frustration in the day threatened to drown me …. and cooking!

Today I invited my friends, the peppers, to join me at my table for one. In fact, today, they were such welcome visitors. I had so much fun with them that for at least an hour and a half I didn’t notice the time passing… or my sadness. The reprieve of busy-ness. Phew! And I took pictures of each beautiful step in the dance of food and flavor. For once I remember the ingredients. I have a beautiful table that looks out onto a beautiful garden. There was no one sitting there when I cooked today. But I could easily imagine my son raving about the farcie (filling) in the peppers. I raved too as I later relished them. Filling: coriander, mint, greek yogurt, small hot red peppers, lime juice, garlic and ginger – all blended up in the food processor. Cooked basmati rice, crumbled feta, chopped vine ripened red tomatoes, chopped yellow heirloom tomatoes, mint/coriander sauce, salt and pepper – all mixed together with hands and fingers. I scooped the filling into the peppers, closed the seams with my fingers (no stitchhes required), laid them in a baking tray with olive oil under and all over. Baked them at 350 F or 180 C for ½ hour or until the peppers were tender. They were good by themselves, all alone. But they were better drizzled them with a spicy sauce: roasted garlic, roasted tomatoes and chipotle peppers. I am kind of OK by myself, alone. But I am much better if I fill my time with stuffing peppers.

Artifacts of identity

It’s hard to know who you are when all of your references have disappeared – your family, your job, your roles. It’s hard for me to know who I am. And yet, I must be someone because I’m still here, right?

I am a meal composed of many recipes and even more ingredients. I am a multi-layered thing, constructed of texture and flavor, hot and cold, sweet and savory. Hours of preparation and years of experience, with a little sprinkles of accidental creativity, are part of my makeup. I am the meal because I am complex, filled with contrast, and so necessary for survival. I am more than a single dish because I am filled with such variety. But it is the spices that make me fabulous. My spices are bitter, sharp, tart, sweet, and salty. They are the result of having been torn apart and put back together again. They are the smoky residue of the nearly burned bits which, when skillfully handled, add depth. I am beaten, bruised, battered and seared. Kahlil Gibran has eaten meals like me: “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

The recipes used in my meal aren’t particularly original. Whose life is constituted of unique experiences? But the meal, a composition of many influences and experiences, is totally unique. The individual dishes, while sometimes extraordinary, are less so. A meal can be a work of art or a thrown together mess of easily accessible items, pulled from closets and cupboards. I have been carefully constructed if only by a divine hand that I cannot see or feel. I am a rich and satisfying meal fit for queens, kings and gastronomes. Those with simple tastes are not likely to appreciate me. In true nomad fashion, I have gained something from everywhere I’ve been and left behind a part of myself.

I am the mother who no longer has a son. I am the CEO who no longer has a company. I am the friend who no longer has a community. But in my aching emptiness, I am full of flavor, worthy of being devoured, appreciated, savored, applauded, cherished, delighted in, gulped and even guzzled. I am still here with all of the artifacts of my identity.

In the comfort of strangers

We all feel lonely sometimes. Sometimes we feel lonely even we are not really alone, when we are surrounded by our friends. Loneliness is something I know very intimately these days, and yet it is a relatively new experience. But in the months since I opened the door to the Nomad Chef Secret Restaurant I have learned something very important. For those few hours when I am surrounded by strangers as I plate and chatter, engage in the duties of chef, hostess, waitress, activities that often prevent deep conversations, all of the loneliness disappears and I feel part of a community. My new friends for the night, are complete strangers. And they really are my friends. I don’t get to know them very well, but they give themselves in the way that real friends do. They take the risk. They stretch themselves out of their comfort zones. They meet me on my own terrain. What more could I ask for from a friend? Isn’t this the measure of a strong bond, a friendship that can endure the test of time?

And yet, these are complete strangers. Often this is their first visit to a secret restaurant. Sometimes they come alone. Sometimes they come as a couple. And once in awhile they come as a group for 5, 6 or 7. But it always requires a kind of courage, the willingness to roll with the punches, to show up without knowing what is in store for them. When they come here they don’t even know what is on the menu, other than the fact that there is usually a theme and sometimes that theme is cuisine related. But it could just as easily be a theme like the one coming up in a couple of week, “Shake it up with hula.”

So what do strangers offer that friends don’t? They bring their passion and their curiosity. They come with open hearts and empty bellies. They bring their higher selves, the selves that know that they will be listened to with fresh ears. They bring their stories and their aspirations. They come to share. And I want to eat them up!

I get to just show up and do my best, hostess with the mostest. I don’t have to pretend to be any other than I am. And these days, that is the biggest relief, the greatest gift. With my friends and those who know me I have to edit my words for fear I might say something that reminds them of how sad life can be, how hard it can be, of the greatest loss a person can endure, the loss of my son, my only child. Then when, just as quickly, a new wave of emotion approaches my shoreline and I want to share my enthusiasm for something new, my old friends and acquaintances can’t quite adjust to the speed at which I can go from sad to happy, grief stricken to happy hostess. My “new” friends don’t know me any differently from how I am. What they see is what they get. And while I don’t tend to talk about my personal life (the demands of hostessing and waitressing make that a big challenge to someone who loves to talk but can’t cook and talk at the same time) they listen to my stories just as I listen to theirs – for the first time and with real attention.

There may be no antidote to the pain of life, but there is an antidote to isolation. Being in the company of strangers, sharing food and stories, is like having the family we all dream of having, a little like the one I once had.