By Celia Barbour
My mom just celebrated a milestone birthday. My younger sister, who lives in Austin, sent her a new TV. My older sister, who lives in Berkeley, flew east for the weekend, and also bought her a stunning (and pricey) Scandinavian weaving. Me, I took a few days off from my summer camp cooking gig to drive home and host a birthday party for her. In other words, I cooked a nice meal for a small gathering of people.
Is a feast equivalent to a TV? Probably not. Does this matter? Of course – at least among sisters.
Literature and history are full of tales of sibling gift-givers who run into painful snags, starting with Cain and Abel – the third and fourth human beings to ever walk this big, nice planet according to the Bible. Clearly, the issue has roots.
But what’s interesting to me about most of these tales is that the dramatic complication isn’t generated by the givers but by the recipients, most of whom are startlingly less-than-gracious in their displays of gratitude. And that includes God – who, hello, could take a lesson from the What to Expect authors about the trouble you’ll start if you show preference for one child’s finger paintings over another’s.
And if the Almighty Himself can’t hide his fondness for a TV – I mean a goat! – over some vegetables, then who can blame my mother for letting slip her enthusiasm for the big, fancy, remote-control-operated gift?
I didn’t mind. In fact, I didn’t even notice at the time – the new TV gave my mom something to talk about at the dinner, and a happy, chatty guest is party gold, as every hostess knows. But my sister felt slighted, and afterwards, I found myself pondering the value of presence versus presents, and of cooking versus stuff.
Hosting a dinner is, on the one hand, an act of great generosity – time, care, thought, and love go into every homemade meal – and on the other, an act so ordinary as to be nearly worthless. After all, I cook for my mother all the time, not only for holidays, but also weekly, when she comes to look after the kids. Making food for her is routine; nothing special.
Still, there is no celebration without a feast. Valuable or not, it is essential.
For her birthday, I tried to come up with a menu that would be impressive but not tortured – which is easy to do at this time of year, what with mother nature cooking up such delectable ingredients in the garden and ocean. Really, all you have to do is shop.
Which is what I did last Saturday morning, at the farmers’ market. I came up with most of the menu on the spot, based on what looked best (because everything looked good).
Here’s what we had: shrimp on the grill; beef tenderloin with two sauces (cilantro lime, and smoked red pepper); lentil-tomato-herb salad; potato salad with green beans and homemade mayonnaise; green salad; and almond tart with raspberries and blueberries. All of it was delicious, and the mix was fortunate, because one of the guests had turned vegan since I last saw her – she could eat everything but the meats and sauces – and another was doing a cleanse.
Best of all, my mother seemed happy, beyond happy, the whole time. And her joy was worth the trip. In other words, it was a great gift to me.
Lentil salad with tomatoes and herbs
This is especially nice with the small, dark lentils sometimes called de Puy or caviar lentils, but another variety would do, too – just make sure they aren’t mushy.
1 cup dried lentils (preferably small French lentils, called de Puy or caviar lentils)
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 to 1 ½ lbs. tomatoes, diced (about 3-4 large tomatoes or 15-20 cherry tomatoes)
4 large scallions, thinly sliced (¾ cup)
3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, or to taste
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
generous pinch black pepper
2/3 cup chopped fresh herbs*
*can include basil, dill, mint, parsley, tarragon, young thyme, chervil – as you like
1. Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a saucepan with lentils, garlic, and ½ teaspoon salt, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, until lentils are just tender, 15 to 25 minutes. Drain in a sieve, then transfer to a large bowl.
2. Toss lentils with tomatoes, scallions, vinegar, oil, and remaining half-teaspoon salt, or to taste. Mix in fresh herbs just before serving.