We crowded around the table, our faces glowing under strings of white lights. Only brief introductions revealed that we represented four continents and spoke that many languages or more. It felt like this table, out of all of New York City’s tables, was the one to be sitting at. This is the sensation I strive for when I cook.
A few months earlier, I was living in a co-op community as tightly knit as the sweaters we wore to brave the Wisconsin chill rattling our old glass windows. We savored stone ground mustard, pickles, and local blue cheese that Sally, Eliot, or I hauled back after catering. If the sharp white cheddar from Pleasant Ridge was left over, we ate it plain, savoring the crystallized bits of mineral. At seven, the cook would holler “DINNER” up the three-story staircase, and a vegan dinner would be served out of comically dented mixing bowls or cast iron skillets.
I moved out of the co-op after two and half years to take an internship in upstate New York, where I would gather oral histories of immigrant farmers and cooks who were making their livelihoods through food in the Hudson River Valley. My dream job. After my internship, I headed to New York City, and armed with a short list of phone numbers and a part time job, I decided to stay.
For newcomers to New York City, the housing hunt can take months – the obvious places (Manhattan’s villages and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg) were unaffordable, leaving me dozens of “up and coming” neighborhoods to consider. After a month of living as a house guest in Astoria, Queens, I landed a sublet in a mural-covered apartment in Bushwick; a decision almost entirely based on the bulk cous cous, cornmeal, and spices in the kitchen. The huge dining room table that lived under sketchbooks and paintbrushes held equal promise.
I was eager to settle in. After I unpacked my suitcase and cast iron skillet, I proposed hosting a Thanksgiving dinner party. I hoped the party would represent a coming-out to Brooklyn and a homecoming to the identity I left behind after a long month of couch life, during which a friend described me as a “flower floating in the wind.”
I decided to cook a co-op classic: barbeque black-eyed peas and pan-fried polenta.
I baked day-old bagels into bagel chips, whipped up an herbed feta spread, and made barbeque sauce using a hand blender. What I thought couldn’t be achieved without basic cooking tools like a mixing bowl, measuring cups and baking pans, I mastered with a stockpot, an 8-ounce mason jar, and tin foil. Cooking in this kitchen reminded me of the time I went camping in Devils’ Lake, Wisconsin; like campfire cooking, conquering the “rustic urban” takes intuition over precision.
While I cooked, my housemate, an artist, painted “Give Thanks” in antique lettering on scrapwood, and hung it on the wall. Our guests added wine, a cheesecake, and brownies to the spread. I squinted my eyes, turning the string lights into yellow orbs, and knew that Brooklyn would be home.