Almost every Friday night, for the last 6 years, I have cooked Shabbat dinner for my friends in my home and then sat them down to watch a movie. Before that, my mom would cook and most of our family gathered. But since then, wherever I live, and whichever friends are nearby, the constants are that I cook and that I choose the movie. The only change really is that at some point we switched from grape juice to wine, and it began to feature in more than just kiddush.
My table has an open-chair policy. People are told that they are welcome any time, and once they have come they are told not to wait for a formal invitation back. Friends are encouraged to bring a guest. New guests are initiated with gentle teasing and pressure to get straight to the level of intimacy the rest of us share, and are treated like old friends. All I ever ask is that I am told how many to cook for, although I have inherited the cultural tendency to cook for approximately 95 more people than I expect to show up and then still worry that there is not enough food. I never ask anyone to bring anything, but if anyone wants to, and it's usually people who are joining for the first time who most feel compelled to do so, I accept anything offered with a smile and only offer suggestions if they are solicited.
If I have extra time that day, I bake the challah myself. If not, I buy the nicest one I can find. I almost always buy some flowers for the table. More often than not, we eventually move them so we can see each other around the table, or to make room for food, but their presence helps separate the night from the rest of the week. Shabbat is supposed to be elevated and exalted.
I cook kosher-style, meaning that I never cook pork or shellfish and often avoid directly mixing meat and dairy, and lately, as more than one regular guest is gluten-intolerant, I make either entirely gluten-free meals or provide suitable alternatives. I eventually thought to ask if anyone has allergies, and now know never to include peanuts, so I don't kill one of my regular guests.
Some nights, there's a theme. When I was 16, for the first time, we had a chocolate-themed dinner because it was the week of Valentine's Day. While I am morally opposed to the enforced gender roles, commodification of love and commitment, and general crass commercialism of such a Hallmark holiday, I rarely turn down the opportunity to celebrate the existence of chocolate. In high school, my friends and I went through some phases of devotion to Pirates of the Caribbean or Sweeney Todd or various other shows or movies. I made fish and rum cake for our Pirates nights. Nothing besides meat pies felt right for Sweeney Todd. Now, being solidly SHER-locked, we invented drinks called A Study in Pink, which were pretty disgustingly sweet, but served our sense of appropriateness better than our palates and overrode our usual preferences for strong and dry alcohol.
This ritual of mine has prompted several people to tell me that I will "make some Jewish man very happy one day." That, I guess, would be true if I did not more or less agree with Sherlock that God is "a ludicrous fantasy designed to provide a career opportunity for the family idiot" (not you, Rabbi Scheff, but then you DID graduate Harvard and BU Law before seminary school).
I prefer to think of myself as a Muggle version of Professor Slughorn.
"He used to handpick favourites at Hogwarts, sometimes for their ambition or their brains, sometimes for their charm or their talent, and he had an uncanny knack for choosing those who would go on to become outstanding in their various fields. Horace formed a kind of club of his favourites with himself at the centre, making introductions, forging useful contacts between members, and always reaping some kind of benefit in return..."--Albus Dumbledore on the Slug Club, via the Harry Potter wiki
I like to think my motives are a little more altruistic than hoping for tickets to a Quidditch match or a box of crystallized pineapple from someone who goes on to be influential in the future, but there's no denying I get a lot out of these Friday nights. Something very special happens when you get a bunch of people around a table with wine, candles, and fresh bread and homemade food on it. My collection of interesting people, plus or minus a couple if someone is visiting Penn State, or has another obligation that night, is there. There's always too much food. And there's something immeasurable there, too, that appears in the air when all of those elements are present.
I am not really religious, nor am I spiritual. But for me, Shabbat happens when people gather around my table. After I hand out wine glasses and they hush, and I usher in the Sabbath with blessings over the candles, wine, and bread -- sometimes I even sing the long version of the kiddush, if I'm feeling it. It doesn't bother me that I'm the only one who knows the words, or that I don't exactly mean what they say. To me, it's the essence of Shabbat. It's not about going through motions, and if the blessings felt that way, I wouldn't say them. But I am more nearly moved by the softer human emotions at the thought of how many thousands of years before me my ancestors said the same words before drinking wine and breaking bread with their loved ones.
Ritual is important. The process of ending the week and compartmentalizing my enormous stress begins, for me, when I get in my car after my last Friday class and drive to the supermarket. Sometimes I plan my meals, sometimes with my mother's help so we stay connected in the most important way, but often I like to stroll the aisles of a nice store and wait for something to catch my eye. Sometimes it's kosher stew meat that appeals to me, and then I know my main course will be my family's beef stew recipe, which has no concrete measures and lives in no book, and then I will match sides, appetizers, and desserts to it. Sometimes I see a vegetable I feel like eating (rare; I only like 3 vegetables and one of them is technically a fruit), and I build from there. Sometimes it's dessert, and I move backwards. I do not like to rush or force this process. I want the food to seduce me. Sometimes, if I have no ideas, I ask for requests to repeat something I've made before that people like. Cooking is usually a joy, but forcing or rushing it can change that right quick.
I lay out and admire my ingredients when I get home, and then I tidy my workspace. Once I have lots of clean, open counter space, I grab my laptop primarily for something to listen to while I cook, and occasionally to look something cooking-related up. I like to listen to Cabin Pressure a lot, though I've heard all the episodes that have been released so far, especially when what I'm making requires more mental energy and attention so that I can tune in and out of the radio as needed. I also like the back catalogue of This American Life. Other times, I'm engrossed in a show like House of Cards, and can't interrupt my marathon with any other entertainment, so I set the laptop in front of me while I peel and chop, looking down often enough not to cut myself and rarely enough to follow the story.
I like company on the rare occasion that I have it while I'm cooking, but I also enjoy the alone time, and my ability to be slow and deliberate about my cooking, savoring the process and tasting things as often as I want, without anyone offering to help or getting underfoot (aside from my dog, who specializes in being where my feet need to be with an expectant tilt to his head and a preponderance of paws). One of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received was a little speaker so that I can supplement my MacBook's atrocious volume and hear what I'm listening to over running water and knives against cutting boards. I clean as I go, rinsing and stacking tools as I finish using them and keeping my space clean and clear as much as possible. I begin setting the table when everything is simmering or baking, and I clean and put away everything possible by 15 minutes before I am picking up friends from campus. Then I get them all from our meeting place and bring them home, direct them toward whatever I've put out to eat and drink while I put the finishing touches on dinner and we wait for everyone in the house to join us.
Last Friday, for our chocolate-themed Valentine's Day dinner, I floated the idea of dressing 'smart casual' for dinner, although I readily admit I'm not entirely certain what that means. Being the smart, fun, compatible people my friends are, they loved the idea and in some cases were actually already planning on it. One was excited to wear his dress shoes. One wore a beautiful blouse and chain necklace and brought am equally well-dressed Parisian friend who came with a nice bottle of French wine and took it in stride when I told him "You're welcome for WWII, by the way" (inevitable) and demonstrated a selective knowledge of French language (swearing) and customs (the silly ones, like eating salad and cheese at stupid times), despite having 5 years of French study and 3 visits to France under my belt. We ate, drank, and laughed for 4 hours, mostly about our Parisian guest's embodiment of every American's caricature of a Frenchman, right down to his moustache. I teased my movie selection, Wild Target, having fun with the fact that I knew my description of it as "a movie I consider to be romantic," "an unconventional love story," and "containing murder" would mislead my friends into thinking I had characteristically chosen a cynical movie to demonstrate my feelings about the fake holiday. They loved the movie, and were shocked to find out that it was, in fact, an unconventional but romantic and charming British comedy about a hitman who falls in love with his target.
Around 2am, after much food, wine, and chatter, I drive my friends to their respective homes. After 3 years at school, I have stopped wondering if I'm missing something when I look at the partygoers stumbling and smoking on College Ave, loud and boisterous in contrast to our content and comfortable quiet in the car. I know I'm not. I just settled into myself a long time ago, and got lucky enough to have friends everywhere I've been since who felt the same way.