Around mid-November, my father and I agreed to work together on a Christmas Eve dinner with a twist. Inspired by an interview with Vietnamese restauranteur Diep Tran on the public radio program Good Food, we decided to make dishes that, like Tran’s Vietnamese-style turkey, reinterpreted staples of the traditional American holiday meal with an Asian emphasis. We agreed that the side dishes should involve greens, pumpkin, corn, and cranberry sauce, all surrounding the main attraction: turkey and stuffing.
We spent the next several weeks developing our plan, conferring over phone, email, Gchat, and around the woodblock island in the kitchen. Our first menu item came from a New York Times Magazine story on Indian-style kale, soaked in coconut milk and then grilled, which tastes “as if cut through with blood and fat, as if [it was] steak and fries combined” — and, as legend has it, tasty enough to convince a table of carnivorous Montanans to eat their vegetables. Indian-inspired but with a taste to please the American palette, this dish embodied all of the qualities we were aiming for.
After more research, we agreed upon the other sides. Dad would make habanero cranberry sauce, masala-spiced corn, and a rustic Italian pumpkin soup. I would handle the turkey. For the main dish, we eschewed Tran’s Vietnamese-style turkey since, at the end of the day, it would still be a giant bird roasted in the oven. We decided on turkey-and-stuffing meatballs with parsley, pine nuts, and currants, inspired by the gargantuan Italian meatballs my dad had eaten at Oakland’s Pizziola, and by the soft, savory ones with pine nuts I recall having at Seattle’s Oddfellows Cafe. We experimented with recipes and tested them on our significant others, making sure everything would be just right for the day of the meal.
But the more we planned, the more nervous I became. Without divulging specifics, we had advertised to the rest of the family that an unusual meal would be served to them on Christmas Eve. This piqued everyone’s interest, but I worried whether we were being too cavalier with the American institution that is the holiday feast. Isn’t one of this meal’s greatest traits that it is so traditional and consistent? Now with currants in the meatballs and an Italian-style soup, the ethnic influences were getting muddled – we couldn’t even fall back on the trope of “Asian flair”! More selfishly, I also fretted that since this was my first time cooking an important holiday meal for the rest of the family, I was risking my reputation as a budding cook. As Christmas Eve drew near, I became increasingly concerned that this would be a memorable meal, but for all the wrong reasons.
A second unforeseen challenge soon became apparent: my Dad and I had different visions of how to execute the meal. His goal was to have most of the dishes already made, so that we would only need to heat them in the moments before serving. As a strategy for gracefully entertaining our guests (seven adults and two children) this was a wise plan, and I agreed in principle. But when the day of the meal arrived, I found myself wishing for more spontaneity. Fancying myself more of an off-the-cuff cook, I wanted to prep and cook the meatballs as the guests enjoyed hors d’oeuvres nearby. Yet my parents asked that I rein in the show — the kitchen should be totally clean, all signs of work gone, save for a pan of meatballs ready to be broiled when the guests showed up. It suddenly felt like I was being asked to hide all the work that made my part of the meal special. I had misidentified my anxieties with concerns about excessive planning, fooling with tradition and burnishing my culinary reputation. What really mattered was being visible in the kitchen.
Preparing a meal for others is always in some way a performance. And one needn’t blow away guests with the acrobatic cutlery of a Benihana’s or the in-your-face spectacle of a tableside flambe to qualify as a performer-cook. Just think of the ritual of the traditional turkey carving, or how a barbecue grill becomes the center of gravity at a summer backyard party, or even the decision of which plates to use, and it becomes clear that in very few meals does the food just speak for itself. One can try to keep the focus on the food, to use the kitchen as the backstage is used in theater, but even then the choices of how to set the table, plate the food, and eat it in front of others all contain an element of performance.
At first I was surprised at my own insistence that the meal be assembled so publicly. If I were more cynical, I would chalk it up to the glorification of high-intensity spontaneous cooking seen on popular reality TV cooking shows. Perhaps I was influenced by the quick thinking of celebrity chefs facing challenging ingredients and a strict timeline. While there was indeed a degree of showmanship to which I aspired, it didn’t have to do with proving my cooking prowess through flashy or innovative techniques. The meal was given so much forethought, and was advertised to our family so far in advance, that it was as if I’d been preparing to perform. As the guests arrived, I was ready to be on stage.