I feel like a heartless mutant when I watch the Cooking Channel. Or read a cooking magazine. For they are awash in tender stories of maternal figures and their recipes. The author gushes about the perfection of the dish and the grandmother has a cuddly name like Nana or Nonna or Bammy or Bubka. “A timeless recipe handed down for generations …” intones the narrator, as I take another swig of chardonnay and wonder what it’s like to have a grandmother who cooked.
Mine didn’t. No big welcoming bosom or kitchen filled with homey smells. “Grandmama”–an intimidating name when your five-year-old paws are struggling to write the required post-birthday thank-you note–wore flowing caftans with exotic jewelry and talked politics with my parents in the living room of her well-appointed house in Princeton, as my brothers and I crashed around upstairs, riding her Exercycle at furious speeds and generally beating each other up.
Dinner wasn’t tender pasta or homemade kugel. It was scary. Aspic or consomme to start, followed by fish with interminable bones that we had to pick apart while pretending to listen to the adult conversation. Then I heard the command: “So, Charlotte, scintillate.”
I froze. Then offered something feeble about a book I was reading. I don’t remember what happened next, but I do know that this terrifying command is finally the recipe that I get to pass down for generations. It’s a recipe for keeping the conversational ball rolling during a meal, a topic rarely touched by cooking shows or magazines. You never find out if those beautiful people sitting in a candlelit field eating flawless food have anything to say to each other, or worse, are having any fun at all.
Years later I was working for Nasdaq and sitting at a dinner table with CFOs of high-tech companies. They were gazillionaires who were perfectly ept at making money but remarkably inept at making dinner conversation. “So, scintillate,” I thought, then went to work extracting their extracurricular interests. This meant asking them questions to get them on a comfortable topic (themselves). I quickly got my ingredients–one loved scuba diving in exotic waters and several collected race cars– then sat back and watched a good antler contest about who drove the fastest car or did the deepest dive.
Seeing if you can make people scintillate is my favorite recipe. It’s served me through business dinners, job interviews, classes, parties, and even jury duty. Thanks to my grandmother, strangers to me are oysters that need to be opened to see if there’s an interesting pearl inside. So I’ll never be an adored Nana, hands covered in flour, smiling beatifically as she makes perfect pasta, children looking up with tears of gratitude in their eyes. But I can pass on the recipe for making a good time at a dinner table. So scintillate.