Why do I always cry when I write these? I think cooking, writing, and playing music all converge in a deep place within us, and I hope everyone finds their outlet. Thank you for being here to witness mine.
I wrote today about a very special dinner party this weekend, and I can’t start without thanking my co-host Ryan for making my dreams come true, for setting the table in nearly 100 degrees with humidity while being meteorologist on a rain-tease of a day, and for giving me this opportunity to manifest joy over these last months. Thank you, too, to all the friends who cheered me on near and far - even those who I haven’t met in person but who have made this journey so rich - and to those gracious enough to join me and eat my food. As always, I’ll leave a little plug here to share and subscribe if you haven’t already.
Last Saturday I threw a dinner party with my friend Ryan on his rooftop. I cooked for 10 hours not including grocery shopping and dreaming. There were 10 dishes, 4 appetizers, and 2 desserts. It was my first time cooking a full meal for others, and for a crowd of 10 people no less. It all sounds a bit kooky, but I can’t imagine it any other way because, to me, that evening was a culmination. On the surface, this party was seemingly so small compared to the other mountains I’ve had to surmount in my life – just cooking dinner for a few friends – but actually, it was a celebration of more than 14 months turning inwards, learning to dream bigger.
I’m reminded of one specific late night in college. Deep into the delirium of finals week, one of my best friends and I spiraled into shenanigans, determining that we would throw a Gossip Girl themed joint birthday party at the exact midpoint between our birth dates – 6 months away. It was probably 2 am in our dorm room, and I’m pretty sure we were eating greasy faux-Chinese take out, photoshopping Leighton Meister holding some balloons, and sending out way too many Facebook invites for a party that wasn’t even until next semester. Naturally, we would need people to bring (only nice) gossip on paper slips to gain entry, and all cocktails would be named to theme. Thinking back, it does feel distinctly “college,” but that energy – deciding to embrace fun and leaning fully into the bit – is something so precious. We immediately got messages from friends asking us if we were “alright” and whether we were serious. And truly, we were. Sometimes when you are in the throws of life’s other absurdities, be it 5 exams in a row during the winter or losing an entire sense for 400 days, the best way to face it is to imagine an absurdly joyous thing to match.
In March, Ryan sent me a picture of his gorgeous patio that was still a bit scrappy, and we immediately catapulted into those delightful “we should totally” and “what if we” and “wouldn’t it be awesome if” messages that are best communicated in all caps. Ryan would provide the space and the hosting, and I would make the food and decorations. For the next three months, we forwarded each other reminders of what was to come – a chair stooped from the street was now a charming dining addition, an upscale supper club in Oakland inspired possible tablescapes, and check out this insanely good-looking dessert! I collected mismatching dinner napkins from neighbors and picked up ice cream glasses from an online group and made little name cards for each guest. Amidst a spring that felt like it was clawing itself from each dusk to dawn yet simultaneously tumbling forward, a party on the horizon was like a little golden carrot I could reach my hand towards.
As I planned for the big day, the thought of cooking a simple salad, big pasta, and single dessert never crossed my mind. My year wasn’t about efficiency – what with the 30-day-duck-egg pickling and the single ramekin cake bakes. Rather, I was seeking something endlessly exciting, this asymptotal experience of infinite learning where the distinct joy is in knowing that there is always a way to get closer and closer to a taste that is just so right. I never knew what could be around the corner. Every time in the next few months when something worked really well or I had an idea of a dish, I wrote it down in a phone memo, and soon a menu began taking shape.
The party started at 6 pm on Saturday. At 5:45, I was surrounded by cracked open Tupperwares, overalls glued to my sweaty thighs, and one hand furiously stirring a pot as I yelled out “one more!” Out of my insanely ambitious menu, I only had to mix the spaghetti noodles into its sauce. The front door buzzed, and one guest arrived and then the second who was someone I didn’t know. So I turned around, spatula in hand, and went in for the greeting hug. I am truly giggling as I write this now because the look I saw on the three faces was right out of a sitcom. In my frenzy to taste the sauce – of preserved lemon and cuttlefish ink – I had plopped an entire spoonful into my mouth, and my lips, teeth, and tongue were jet black. Ryan said, “Oh my god, Annie…” I gave a yelp, quickly finished off this last dish, and then bopped to the bathroom, laughing at the fact that after literally 5 straight hours of cooking and completing it all in the nick of time, my first impression was a mouthful of ink. Later when the table was set, the wine poured, and my overalls swapped for my favorite yellow dress, I sat between this new friend and two others, and everyone stuck out their tongues to compare ink stains. I don’t remember the last time I laughed that hard.
This shattering of formality is such a wonderful foil to my desire to cook a really gosh-darn good meal. The little doubt monster on my shoulder whispered, “What if what you make actually is trash, and you just have no idea?” or “What if you hate cooking for more people than just yourself?” Months ahead of time I asked my dinner-party-experienced friends for their tips and tricks and was told to make lists, prep in advance, be open to save-the-day pivots, and ultimately put knives down when guests arrive so I can actually enjoy myself. But even as I checked off all the boxes, I realized that the butterflies that remained came less from worrying about what guests would think, and more from this act of sharing something still tender, something I loved and held so dear. It was knowing that by putting the plate on the table, I was giving a part of myself I still didn’t quite know how to encapsulate.
When I was preparing for the party and posting little triumphant updates on my Instagram story, a friend reached out and expressed her excitement for me, saying, “Everything is so distinctly you!!!” It took me aback, this message. Because while I had developed a bit of confidence in the kitchen, I had not realized that what took shape over 800 plus meals had meandered into a personal voice – a flavor profile that was “Annie.” It even makes me emotional thinking about it now, that someone a coast away was able to follow this journey, see a pattern, and cheer me on in this moment. Right before we began the meal, Ryan asked me to share a little bit about each dish. As I spoke, I felt myself glowing with both bashfulness and joy. Reciting what was in each plate was like revealing both a timeline of how long each one took - in one dish, I grew nasturtium buds for a month and pressed them in a giant book, and in another, I marinated cherries in bourbon for two weeks - as well as an archive of myself, a year in the making. Months ago when I started this newsletter, I began with a musing on a mythological menu. What a striking thing to now have a real one in my hands.
I called this dinner “A Little Something,” and it is definitely with a wink when you look at the scroll of a menu, but I like that phrase. “A Little Something” makes me think of that wave of the hand when you show up to a party saying, oh it’s nothing, I just brought a little something. But really it’s a symbol of the love and the care and the thoughtfulness you extend from one human to another. This isn’t little at all. Cooking for this group of friends, old and new, was a form of gratitude and an offering – I give this to you as a part of me, a record of the time and tastes that live within, and I hope it will do something to you, and whatever germinates might someday radiate back to me. I want to cook for everyone and for everyone to cook for me and for life to be a giant table of decadence and gathering and celebration. My high school flute teacher once told me over lunch, “Why would I only use my nice silver once a year?” and what an amazing way to live a life.
This dinner taught me to do things that feel crazy and absurd. And that something crazy and absurd to you may not be crazy and absurd to someone else, but that knot in your gut and that flutter in your heart will lead the way. At one point in the meal, as the sun was setting and forks were clicking, one new friend spoke about coming back to violin playing as an adult. He said that it felt a little absurd to say out loud but playing the violin again made him the happiest he’s ever been. It was a way to see himself improve, learn, understand, and very consciously grow, and I think that’s how I feel now too. Life is amazing and full, and even though this year has felt ugly in so many ways, I can come back to the simple thought that plates and lights and flowers and place cards and napkin holders and laughter and friends and fifteen tastes I love can support some of the weight of being on this earth.
Exactly one year ago, I sat at the kitchen island at my parents’ place in California filling out a mind-map of my goals. The planner I was using asked me to answer the question, “If I could be anything, do anything, or have anything, what would it be?” In the quadrant for “1 year later,” I wrote, have an Annie event that brings people together. Today, I held that page in my hands and shed a few tears because without even realizing it, my fifteen dishes on Saturday night were fermenting and bubbling all along.
I am proud of myself. I am so darn proud that I never let loss set me in the negative, that I have lived and resolve to live the rest of my life in abundance. It is so difficult for me to hear the words let alone say them to myself, but I did it. And the pride I feel comes both from the fact that I pulled this off and that I pulled myself up.
Yesterday I taped the handwritten menu to my bedroom wall amidst postcards from my favorite New York food establishments, and it will be a little something to remind me of all that is still yet on the horizon.
As always, I love to hear your thoughts. Leave me a comment if you would like. I’m sharing more photos and background and all the dishes on my Instagram too, and here’s wishing everyone so much abundance and good food this summer.