“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
There is a difference between dining and eating.
Eating is shoving the beautiful avocado-veg sandwich with whole grain mustard slathered on thick chewy bread in your mouth as you hover over the keyboard, typing with tomato-slick fingers because you’re on deadline. Dining is sitting outside with the same Sam on the first warm day of spring listening to birds. Eating is stuffing your face with popcorn in a darken movie theater, dining is sharing it with someone you love as you cuddle on the couch in front of the TV. Eating is fueling the machine, dining is taking it out on the road to see what it can do. Sometimes eating means not really tasting and dining isn’t limited to what happens to be on the tongue.
Instead, it’s all about context.
My grandmother Barbara, a Smith from Kansas, whom I always knew to be an elegant woman with long Betty Grable-like legs and terrific red hair, knew the difference. When I was a child she laid picnics for my family at Lake Tahoe complete with wine glasses, table cloth, linens, and silver. The matching red and white wine decanters were probably cut glass, but in my memory they were crystal. Onto the beautifully arranged silver-lined plates went what we called “deli lunch”—a collection of prosciutto, cappocolo, mortadella and peppery hard salami paired with creamy gorgonzola, hard aged fontina and soft gouda. There would be olives and pickles—the relish tray—along with sliced tomatoes from my grandfather Pete’s garden, crusty bread and an assortment of crackers. It was a simple meal, one made more beautiful by my grandmother’s hands. Dining need not involve expensive ingredients or 5-star menus, though occasionally Barbara managed to bring intact, a still frozen grasshopper pie, and what a treat that was.
Barbara instilled in me the idea of beauty along with food shared are just about as good as it gets. From her, I learned a meal, no matter what or where, could be memorable. To dine, meant to give oneself over to the experience and to pleasure. In those days, we dined on a wooden picnic table in the woods, the scent of pine filtering the air, but Barbara, after her own style, made us feel as if we’d eaten at the most expensive restaurant in Nevada. I grew up unafraid of my appetite not only for the taste of good things on my tongue, but for making rituals around meals to share with those I love.
Of all things culinary, my grandmother loved lamb and champagne most. And over the years, we bonded over our mutual exclusive appreciation of such delicacies in a family that preferred Hamburger Helper and Carlo Rossi wine. I flew 1000 miles to bring her a bottle of Perrier Jouet when she turned 85 and each Easter, I’d make lamb. Then I’d call Barbara. She loved hearing my menu for one and of the experience of dining in my mountain cabin.
Once my grandfather died, Barbara no longer cooked at all—her freezer stocked with Lean Cuisines and Healthy Choice meals, lovely fresh asparagus in the vegetable keeper and along with some fresh poached salmon. I think there was a bit of thrill for her, the woman who now ate so minimally and never cooked, when I described making creamy polenta or mushroom risotto and bordelaise or pomegranate glaze with whatever cut of lamb I had.
“Oh that food is too rich for me,” she’d say. But I could hear her smiling over the phone line.
This year, I will spend Easter without Barbara. She took her final bow in January, at the age of 93.
Still, I am dedicating the day to her along with everything I learned about the pleasure of dining from her. I have cut up a deboned leg of lamb that’s been marinating overnight in garlic and rosemary, olive oil and kosher salt, that I will later skewer and grill along with Barbara’s favorite, asparagus. Then I will set my table with a flowered print from Indian and hand-thrown Vietri pottery imported from Italy. The last addition to the table will be my grandmother’s silver, a pattern that must be almost 100 years old and the Perrier Jouet glasses she kept on the cut out wall between her kitchen and dining room. I will light candles set in her silver candle sticks and use her silver-lined glass plates to serve.
Then I will make a toast. Not to Easter. To Barbara. The woman who taught me to dine well.