Chances are that if you love to cook, you love to cook for someone. To be sure, eating alone can be very restorative and there are many nights that I’m entirely content to stir up a pot of a spicy Asian noodle soup and curl up in my favorite armchair, legs dangling over one of the arms, watching TV and slurping as noisily as I want. Generally speaking, though, I prefer to cook for other people and I tend to go to far more effort for them than I do for myself. Between Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, I’ve got lots of opportunities to cook up dishes I don’t get to the rest of the year—whether because they’re too expensive, too labor intensive, too time consuming, or too fattening. But on New Year’s Eve, you can throw caution to the wind.
Although I don’t fully understand why, my thoughts often turn to a classic French bistro meal for New Year’s Eve. Something about a great big bowl of mussels steamed in white wine screams celebration to me. A gigot rôti (that’s French for roast leg of lamb) is definitively not something I make on a regular basis, nor is a Pommes Anna, that thinly sliced and layered-with-vast-quantities-of-butter masterpiece that most potatoes can only dream of becoming. With its brittle burnt sugar crust, a crème brulée is the perfect way to close a meal that has paid scant regard to time, money, or calorie content.
All this said, you can imagine my chagrin last New Year’s Eve. We’d invited friends over for what I imagined would be a feast for the senses, at once intimate and refined. I knew that one of them had her issues with food, but I didn't know exactly how many issues she had—nor how deep-seated they were. As I stood in the kitchen, about to empty the string bag of mussels into an enormous pot of garlicky-winey broth, her husband commented matter-of-factly, “Oh, she’ll never touch that. She doesn’t eat shellfish. Most cases of food poisoning involve shellfish.”
My bubble burst. Oh well. There’s always the main course, I thought. A large platter of perfectly pink slices of lamb crusted with rosemary and garlic. The smell alone was worth the price of admission. “Just a small piece from the end. One of the browner ones. I don’t eat meat unless it’s over 140 degrees. The salmonella might not have been killed off.” Strike two.
She'd just have to fill up on the potatoes. What possible objection could she have to them? Little did I know. “Were they cooked in butter? I’m avoiding dairy products. No matter what they say, you never know if the cows were given recombinant bovine growth hormones.” Strike three. Strike four too when you take my dessert into account: there’s simply no way to make crème brulée without the crème.
I do not think she gained an ounce that night. Thankfully, the other couple we’d invited relished everything. Not a mussel was left, nor did a drop of the briny broth remain at the bottom of the bowl. No lamb sandwiches were to be had for New Year’s Day lunch, and as I recall, there was some fast and furious spoon action surrounding that unaccounted-for crème brulée.
So why is it, I wondered, that some people are vigilant to the point of phobia about what they put in their mouths while others don’t give a fig? Why do some people go through life mouth wide open while others purse their lips shut at the merest thought of shellfish, raw fish, raw eggs, rare meat, and dairy products? I’m not talking about allergies or intolerances here; I’m talking about fear of food. I know as well as anyone that it’s a big scary world out there with no end of germs, bacteria, and viruses, each and every one a potential killer. But even so, I long for the days of a bona fide Caesar salad prepared tableside, raw egg and all.
This year for New Year’s Eve, we’ve invited the same friends over, but we’re taking no chances. It’s coq au vin on the menu. The chicken will be cooked to a safe internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. We’ve still to resolve on the starter, side dishes, and dessert, but of one thing, we’ll be as confident as it’s possible to be in this day and age. There’ll be no shellfish, no red meat, and no cheese on the menu, and, consequently, our guests will have the greatest possible chance of starting the new year off intact, free of e. coli, mad cow disease, salmonellosis, or any other garden variety food poisoning.
My very best wishes for a happy and healthy new year!