Aside from a few extra pounds and a grocery bill that rivals the Greek national debt, there aren't many downsides to being a good cook. My family eats well, my kids look forward to dinnertime, and passing guests are always welcome at our table.
To be clear, my kitchen skills are of the thoroughly unprofessional sort. I don't debone ducks or smoke my own salmon, but I do have the useful ability to throw together a tasty meal. A comfortable cook might be a better description, at ease in the kitchen, whether cooking for two or cooking for 20.
Yet here lies the one negative: my very comfort in the kitchen makes the occasional friend uncomfortable. They're perfectly at ease eating my food—at least, they dig in with gusto and are generous with praise. The anxiety comes on the other end, at the idea of reciprocating. Some friends, I've come to realize, are afraid to feed me.
This is by no means universal. I have friendships founded on a shared love of food and cooking, a delight in sampling each other's experiments with preserved lemons or an elaborate attempt at a rijsttafel. But there are other friends who are simply paralyzed by the idea of serving me (and my husband, for that matter) a meal.
Anyone who spends time cooking, thinking, or writing about food will be nodding her head in recognition here, but it took a while for this realization to dawn. Some nice couple would come to dinner numerous times, and then, in the natural social progression of such relationships, it would be their "turn" (not that I count). But the invitation would never materialize. I'd casually mull the possibilities—Do they not like us? Is their house smelly? Do they just never entertain?—before dismissing the whole question and turning back to chopping garlic. Yet it would happen once, twice, and finally some friend would confess, half humorously: "Oh, I'd be too nervous to cook for you."
Now in my own mind, I'm a chubby, cheerful, disheveled presence, just about the least threatening dinner guest one could imagine. I enjoy food, both eating and preparing it, but I'm hardly passing judgment on every item that crosses my plate. Well, I am, actually, but not as it relates to my friends. I'm as familiar as anyone with the kind of food snob who behaves as though his palate would be forever sullied by exposure to turkey tettrazini (my own father, for one). But that's not me. Frankly, I eat well at my own house just about every night. I truly don't care what you serve me at yours. If it's good, I'll be highly appreciative. If it's not, I'll live.
Collectively, we food people (and if you frequent this site, I'm talking to you) may have to take ownership of this one. You know what I mean: our endless course-by-course recounts of memorable restaurant meals, our chatter about fennel pollen and pork belly and pimentón. If you're just not a cook, it can be both intimidating and obnoxious (not to mention boring). So you end up with situations where non-foodie friends—whom you genuinely like—invite you to a restaurant to avoid cooking, and then spend the evening worrying that it's not "gourmet" enough for you. Or worse, they invite you home to dinner, and the anxiety the meal preparation has evidently cost them is completely exhausting for both of you.
My husband and I have dear friends who could not cook dinner for a dog. They're both brilliant, creative, quirky people, and I enjoy their company immensely. They share many meals at our table, and once a year or so, issue an invitation for us to join them at theirs. I dread these occasions, not for the food, but for the emotional strain cooking so clearly creates for them. These smart, graceful people flounder about the kitchen, looking overheated and apologetic and harried, while things burn and overflow and the hour grows later and later. At 8:00 pm they're still struggling with a salad dressing; at 9:00 pm they're peering worriedly into the oven; at 10:00 pm they're frantically consulting some obscure recipe, and meanwhile the tension grows and grows until it's as thick as crème fraîche.
The whole thing makes me want to cry: you don't have to do this! Invite me over, buy some beer and order a pizza! We'd all have a much better time.
There's no easy solution to this dilemma. I can't serve bad food to put non-cooks at ease, and it would be unforgivably condescending to suggest Chinese takeout. But perhaps we food people could issue a collective message: we don't care THAT much. Sometimes, it's okay to eat a mediocre meal. Sometimes, it really is about companionship and conversation. Sometimes—just sometimes—even for the pimentón, pork belly, and fennel pollen crowd—the food is not the point.