I’ve been cooking pretty much my whole life, since I was old enough to stand up reasonably straight and mount a stool next to my father to help chop or mix ingredients. We cooked together until I left home, making most of our meals at home and from scratch—it was extremely rare for us to eat out, although sometimes we ate with friends in their homes.
We also very rarely followed recipes, although we had some cookbooks for reference, especially for baking. My father liked to experiment and he encouraged me to do the same; if I was reading a book and people mentioned some food item or another, for example, he’d suggest that we figure out how to make it, or at least give it a shot. Sometimes this resulted in culinary disasters, and other times in new additions to our repertoire. When I went vegan in college, my father took it in stride and started experimenting with vegan food, making sure that when I was home, I could always eat whatever was on the table, and it would be interesting and tasty.
Both of us have always regarded cooking as fun, and think experimenting is key to that fun, which sets us apart, I’ve noticed, from other people. I love experimenting and think my work is never done because there’s always more food to learn about, and then learn to do well (two different things, I have learned at painful personal cost). Any opportunity to make new and interesting things shall be eagerly seized upon in either smith household, and for me, one of the greatest opportunities is the one most hosts like to complain about, vociferously and at length: Food restrictions.
I have a lot of friends with various dietary restrictions and they don’t believe me when I say I like cooking for them, but it’s true. I like it. It’s genuinely enjoyable to experiment, because I love learning about new ingredients and new dishes and new ways to do things, and for me, food is a cornerstone to fellowship. To building a loving and welcoming home. To making people feel like part of my life. I fail to see how complaining about your guests makes you a good host; to me, the hallmark of flawless and loving hosting is to make it clear that you are excited about all your guests and happy that they are coming, rather than resentful, or dreading them.
And the food experimentation and learning can really explode when you know people with a mixture of dietary restrictions, because there are so many things you might never have thought about. This year, for example, I learned about gluten-free oats, to be differentiated from regular rolled oats, which are processed with wheat flour. Likewise, I learned about a whole slew of gluten-free baking flours, and which were most suitable for which kinds of dishes. I wouldn’t have known any of that if I’d bought commercial gluten-free goods (most of which don’t taste very good) or just given up on hosting people with gluten sensitivities.
When I can set a table for a mixture of, say, vegans, kosher Jews, celiacs, and people allergic to peanuts, knowing that everyone can eat everything and enjoy it, I feel good. Because I have sort of a general household rule about never making food I wouldn’t eat myself, by which I mean food I would both eat and deeply enjoy; no passing off crappy gluten-free bread in this household, nosiree, because where’s the love in that? And I also have a general household rule that if you’re sitting at my table, everything at my table should be safe for you to eat; you should never have to hesitate and wonder (although you’re always welcome to double check).
For me, that sometimes requires a lot of learning behind the scenes. Occasionally I nail a dish on the first try and I take careful notes to make sure I can replicate it. Sometimes there are some disasters before I get into the swing of things, and each one is a learning experience I can apply to the next try. All of this is worth it on its own, of course, because it teaches me more about the chemistry of food and how ingredients behave, but it’s really worth it when people sit down at my table and get to eat things they haven’t had in a while, or have an opportunity to taste something they wouldn’t have otherwise tried and end up liking, or just feel included instead of burdensome.
I credit my father with both teaching me how to be a reasonably good host, and infusing me with a deep love for kitchen experimentation, along with providing me with the tools for doing so. He tolerated endless experiments in the kitchen when I was a kid, many of which turned out absolutely appalling, because he wanted to encourage a budding love of food and cooking. I wish all parents would do the same, so that people with dietary restrictions could grow up in a world where they don’t feel like the world’s biggest pariahs—and so they could grow up in a world where people understand what food restrictions are, how they work, and the importance of respecting them.
Because while I love experiments, I also take them deadly serious when it comes to preventing cross-contamination and ensuring that food is safe to eat, no matter what the reasons behind a restriction are. There’s no such thing as ‘just a little bit is okay’ whether it’s an allergy, a religious stipulation, or an ethical choice, unless someone has specifically told you otherwise.