posted by guest blogger Jessica Conant-Park

I admit it: I’m driven by food. I’m married to a chef, I write culinary mysteries, and nothing delights me more than a visit to Russo’s upscale market in Watertown, MA. The heroine in my Gourmet Girl mysteries, Chloe Carter, jokingly theorizes that she operates under Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, fulfilling basic physiological needs (food, , sleep, breathing) before she can move on to other needs, like love, in order to reach the goal of Self-Actualization. Chloe believes she has a drive for gourmet food as a means to reaching her full potential. And what better way to self-actualize than to get involved with a chef?

I’ll go along with that theory if it means pleasing my taste buds has a higher purpose.

Another confession: I mark social gatherings and events by the food I eat. When people ask how the wedding was that I attended, I respond with what food was served. It was okay, but the lamb was overcooked and flavorless. How was my visit with my long lost friend? She’s wonderful and we ate at the most fabulous Tapas restaurant! This is not to say that I don’t adore my family and friends, or that I don’t value entertaining company even in the context of unpleasant food, but for me, tasty treats always heighten a good time.

Cherry_soup_4 For years my family and I always attended a giant potluck Christmas party and every year a giant bowl of cold cherry soup would appear on the buffet table. We never knew which guest brought this delectable soup, but each year there was a flurry of discussion on the way to the party about whether or not the yummy soup would make a showing. The creamy, pink soup was perfectly sweet, with dark cherries floating throughout and was unlike anything I have tasted before or since. This party was enormous, but over the years the guest list was whittled down to a more manageable number and one year the cherry soup was noticeably and horrifically absent. This caused quite a stir among my parents and I. Was the mystery guest knocked off the list? Had something nefarious happened to the soup maker? (A thought that was evidently a pre-curser to my becoming a mystery writer.) Did she know we wanted her there for her soup and this was some kind of protest? Perhaps this year she brought the overcooked lasagna instead just to spite us? Well, the party was never the same after that. I’m kidding. But the soup was decidedly missed.

Another Christmas party my family and I adore is the one given by Armenian friends of ours. Aside from the true pleasure of seeing this wonderful family, there is the undeniable lure of the food served. My friend’s grandmother —a charming, elderly woman with a full head of white hair she pinned in a loose bun at the nape of her neck—would cook up a storm! Each year she made trays of wonderful pastries and cookies, bowls of cabbage Lahmajoon salad, and fresh lahmajoon (Armenian pizza), and I would faithfully pile my plate high with her cooking. I remember the first party held after she died; my friend and her family recreated her cooking with such love that I was honored to sample their efforts.

There is a down side of this food-social event connection. While bad food won’t necessarily ruin an otherwise joyful gathering, it can exacerbate an already unpleasant one. One summer when I was home from college, I had a friend from school come to visit. My parents were away for a few weeks in Maine, and Beatrice, an extremely eccentric neighbor, insisted that we must come to her house for lunch since we had been “abandoned” by my family. (You can imagine the excitement two twenty-year-olds felt at the prospect of eating with the slightly insane neighbor.) But, my friend, Sue, and I were both brought up with very good manners and so we accepted this invitation to eat with Beatrice and her sister, Ellen.

We arrived for lunch and were greeted by Beatrice and Ellen, who were both dolled up to the nines in full, brightly colored makeup, oversize dresses in electric patterns, and chunky gold and pearl jewelry. The dining room was set with china and real silver and this was clearly considered quite an event for the two sisters. Sue and I managed to remain polite and gracious during the entire meal, which consisted of (what I believe was) water soup with barley, followed by near freeze-dried chicken and frozen mixed vegetables. I will never forget the look on Sue’s face as she bit into a chunk of icy broccoli. Broccolifloretsonionsmushroomspeppe Priceless! Aside from the wretched meal and conversation driven by the sisters’ bizarre non-sequiturs, I still think that the two were thrilled to have our company. Sue and I left and returned to my house to release out built up laughter at the lunch, starving, but feeling we had done a good deed. The truth is, had we been served a fantastic spread of food, the situation might have been less ridiculous and we might have gotten past Beatrice’s dyed, purple hair and Ellen’s outrageous dress. As it was, frozen vegetables mark the memory of that visit.

But wonderful food memories abound: The evening in France when our dear friend Michel poured the juices from the roasted meat into the salad and used that as dressing (genius!); the night out with my parents when I tasted the magical truffled-egg appetizer at Rialto restaurant; the first meal my husband served me that nearly sent me into tears of joy. The list goes on and on.

So while I may mark my life by meals, those meals would mean nothing were it not for the company of cherished loved ones. As much as I crave a gourmet meal, I’ll take my husband and son with a side of frozen broccoli any day.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * Simmerdown Jessica Conant-Park and (and her mother) Susan Conant, write the Chloe Carter series of Gourmet Girl mysteries, the latest of which is SIMMER DOWN. Check out their website at http://conantpark.typepad.com/

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