January 2020: My favorite class in college was Meal Management. Yes that was really a class. I learned how to set the table, plan a menu, and prepare food that was hot and ready to serve when guests (or family) sat down. I got married right out of college, and there was very little money for throwing dinner parties, but I did the best I could. Sometimes I baked potatoes and served them with different toppings. I was best known for my potato salad, and I took it to any events where I was required to take a dish.
Soon after I married, I invited a couple to our house for dinner. They lived in a big house, and I thought they were rich. They were actually very rich compared to me. I cooked one of my favorite dishes from a Chinese cookbook I had received as a wedding present. It was beef with fermented black beans and rice. I didn’t know what fermented black beans were, so I just used black beans from a can. I used every cent I had to buy the ingredients. I set the table with my wedding china and served my guests the dish I had prepared all afternoon. The husband finished his plate and asked for another helping. I told him I didn’t have any more to serve, and he looked at me like I had to be joking. I was so embarrassed. That night was when I decided I would not invite friends over for dinner until I could afford enough food for two helpings. It was a long time until that happened.
When I look back on that time in my life, it makes me sad that I felt so much pressure to present food that would impress. Since that time I have been to many countries and eaten with poor people who are so proud of their food and happy to share it with me. It is from them that I learned to be grateful for everything I have and that it’s not just about the food. It’s more about being surrounded by people who enjoy conversation and common interests. The food is only secondary. It doesn’t matter if I’m eating lentils made in the home of a woman in India, or bread made in a small skillet in Rwanda. It’s about establishing a relationship with a new friend. Or, an old friend.
It’s been many years since that night I couldn’t serve two helpings, and I’ve learned a lot more about cooking and entertaining. I can now afford to make more food, and I’m much more confident to cook for large groups. And, although I spend a lot of time planning my menus and practicing new dishes, I try to be as humble and thoughtful as I can for my guests. I know it doesn’t really matter if there’s enough food for two helpings, but I always make sure there is.
Some friends say they are intimidated to cook for me, and that makes me very uncomfortable. I never want someone to think I am judging them for the food they prepare, or how much food they have. What’s important is that someone is thoughtful enough to invite me into her home and serve from her heart. As we start a new year with new ambitions to be better individuals, I challenge you to start a tradition of inviting people into your home and sharing a meal. It doesn’t even have to be homemade, and you don’t need a class in meal management. It’s all about communing with others and sharing stories, sorrows and ambitions. I wish everyone the very best in 2020, and if you’re up to it, try my potato salad.
Chipotle Potato Salad
Chipotles are dried and smoked jalapeño chiles, and I absolutely love them! This potato salad is a crowd favorite, and I use canned chipotles in adobo sauce (a tomato-vinegar sauce). Be careful how much you add because it can get spicy, which is how I like it!
- 4 pounds red new potatoes
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1 sweet onion, diced
- 1/2 pound bacon, diced and fried
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh tarragon
- 2 cups mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup Dijon mustard
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 lime, juiced
- 1 tbsp. chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced
- Salt and pepper
In a large pot, place potatoes and cover with cold water. Add an abundance of salt, and bring to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork (20-30 minutes, depending on size of potatoes). Meanwhile, in a bowl, combine the mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, garlic, lime juice, chipotle, about 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. black pepper. Stir and taste for additional salt. When potatoes are tender, drain and let cool for 30 minutes. Cut into large chunks and immediately add to the mayonnaise dressing. Stir gently and add onion, celery, bell pepper, bacon and tarragon. Taste for salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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