Ali-Blumenthal for Reader's Digest, Courtesy Andrew Sean Greer
Last year, my mother turned 70, and, in a mood of giddy nostalgia, she brought out an old college-ruled notebook: one of the journals in which she has kept a record of all the dinner parties she has hosted since 1976. Ever my mother’s son, I have a similar journal. But I am a writer, and she is a chemist. Mine features narratives and feelings about the dinners I’ve hosted, whereas hers reads like laboratory notes—just the meal plan and who was invited. No digressions.
“Salmon mousse,” she announced, reading the first entry. “My God, I must have made that a hundred times. For the Kaufmans and Hurleys; do you remember them?” I did not. But I did remember that salmon mousse. Pink, jiggling, molded in the curved shape of a fish.
“How do you plan a meal?” I asked my mother. She considered this, sipping her red wine. “You start with something you want to make, and you round it out with old favorites. Like salmon mousse,” she told me. “Same as a lab experiment: only one variable at a time.”
How fascinating to go over the decades with her, there on the couch. First, the adventurous period of youth: making piroshki by hand in 1977; attempting Peking duck because she saw it on Joyce Chen’s PBS show. Then, the middle-aged period, where ham was the “old favorite,” complemented by variables of crab in phyllo and jockey club salad; a time of simplicity, less showing off. And the recent era of rediscovered adventure: Thai food and mango salad, taken from one of her 200 cookbooks.
Old friends came and went in her journal. New favorites joined the rotation.
My husband’s name first shows up at Christmas in 1997, along with a Christmas Eve meal of just hors d’oeuvres that, because he loved it, we have kept as a tradition. My sister-in-law’s name arrived in 2006, and with it, all shellfish vanished from family menus (she is allergic). There is my mother’s partner, Ruth, who appeared in 1991, heralding almost five years of vegetarian dishes before she succumbed to my mother’s ham. And there is my father, who, despite being her ex-husband, appeared every year or so after their divorce, including on the most recent page: a family lunch of salade Niçoise.
I’ve kept my journal since 1996, but I have never shown it to my mother; I think it would strain her heart. In it, there is no menu planning. Often I get the date wrong. That is because, while my mother has always written in her journal before a dinner party, I write in mine afterward. “MEAL OF DISASTER,” reads one entry, with a drawing of flames. There are almost no repetitions and no salmon mousse of my own. It is all variables.
In my mother’s books, everything is clear. Hers pass from early motherhood through divorce and the deaths of friends without a break. I, on the other hand, have three entire years unaccounted for. Was I too content to put anything down? Too distracted? My journal chronicles the meals of a moody, passionate person; hers are efficient and calm.
I see her journals and am envious: By 45, I should not be winging it at dinner. I should learn to plan a menu. I should practice with old favorites. I should have a salmon mousse.
And so I am putting this resolution into practice at a dinner party for writer friends. The menu is already written in my book—chicken with sunchokes and spinach salad. To start, a favorite of mine already curing in the fridge: salmon gravlax. And for this I must apologize to my mother: It is as close as I can get. I love you; I do. But I have always hated that salmon mousse.