Why and How to Master One Great Dish
While on a flight to Memphis for a conference about Southern food recently, I met a perky 84-year-old woman named Lucia. Upon learning that I am a food writer, she began to regale me with stories. (My favorite? The first time she cooked for her new husband in her early 20s, she scorched the fried chicken. She wept, and then buried the entire crockpot right in the yard, with the chicken still in it. She never told her husband.)
Lucia’s favorite memory—and a thing she wished still existed—was that in the 1940s and ‘50s everyone had a signature dish to bring to parties. One woman ought to bring that divine icebox cake. Another had better make her Waldorf salad. A third should contribute her famous tomato pie. Lucia mourned the loss of that tradition: a potluck at its finest, when you knew every dish would be of the highest caliber, and every course covered. So-and-so was known for her deviled eggs, the best in all the land. Another’s pimiento cheese was to-die-for good.
What I love about this idea is that everyone’s a hero. No one “just brought chips and salsa” or wine. And, of course, this is not always a viable game plan; new parents, the differently abled, the ill, those who hate cooking, or the very busy should simply bring seltzer, store-bought cakes, wine or beer.
But there’s something glorious about how many stars get to shine in this constellation. How great would it be if all your friends knew you for your tarte tatin or canneles? You can rest a whole reputation as a good cook on one well-executed dish. And shortcuts are fine. The longer I sat with Lucia, sneaky secrets emerged, like how she’d cook her meringues separate from their custards in their ramekins, nestling the meringues on top just so at the end, and making all the guests marvel at how well the whole thing came together.
Pick a dish you love that can travel well and be (ideally) served at room temperature so you’re not a hassle to the host. Perhaps it’s simply well-cleaned, well-dried salad greens fresh from the market or your garden, with plenty of herbs and a pre-made green goddess dressing or tomato vinaigrette in a mason jar your host can keep. Maybe you’re an entrée person, and you’ve got tons of pork shoulder crisped up into carnitas, with fresh guacamole to serve alongside. Bakers can deliver two fat, still-warm loaves with good butter or soft cheese, or a simple sheet cake they know is divine. Cocktail fanatics, play to your strong suit; showing up with a citrusy punch goes a long way, and the host will likely appreciate that a good portion of his or her alcohol budget has been handled.
In an era when so many folks are flaunting their culinary chops, remember that you simply need one dish to start. Pick one thing, get really good at it, and enjoy the compliments. If you’re lucky, you’ll get bitten by the cooking bug, and the rest will follow easily.