Poke into the recesses of my fridge and you'll find the usual: fossilized parsley, a jar with a teaspoon of dried-up mustard, the rubbery pasta my husband swore he'd reheat for lunch.
But you'll also discover, like glamorous, exotic guests at a neighborhood potluck, some Turkish vine leaves and a shapely blue bottle of French orange flower water.
We've got sweet rice wine, Madagascar-style green peppercorns and something darkly mysterious, its label long gone. They're all left over from the days of our Gourmet Group, lovingly nicknamed the GG.
Every few months, for more than 20 years, we and three other couples gathered at each other's homes to cook and eat extraordinary meals. Whoever hosted chose the theme, usually a country or region, and made the entree. The rest of us divided up appetizers, a first course and dessert. Because everyone (except me) loved to cook and everyone (including me) was adventurous, we ate like kings. Or czars. Sultans or emperors or chieftains.
My husband, Paul, grew up in a meat and potatoes household. He didn't even eat pizza until college. But during the GG years, he discovered the city's rich bazaar of ethnic grocery stores. Moong dal, black fungus (soak first), ground Aleppo peppers, asafetida (use sparingly, please) — anything he needed, he found. Part of the pleasure of our meals was comparing notes on the little markets we discovered and the cooking advice the owner or other customers gave. Paul got those ground Aleppo peppers from a chef so delighted to share them, he refused to be paid.
Food led to music and poetry. Ken and Marlene listened to the brassy Spanish Harlem Orchestra while cooking Cuban. When we did the Silk Road, Evelyn read us Rumi, poet of peaches and pomegranates: "The best recipe is hunger!"
The years rolled by. We shopped, cooked, set our tables with flowers and the good glasses. We talked. Some of our careers — education, journalism, medicine — got pounded in the mortar of change. Our assorted kids grew up, sometimes making us proud, sometimes baffling or frightening us. Dishes heavy with butter or eggs began to give us pause, but still we ate them. It was the GG! Calories and cholesterol couldn't touch us as we pulled up our chairs, uncorked the wine.
And then, deep into our run, our turn to host came around yet again. Maybe it was because by now, we'd cooked so many different cuisines it was hard to come up with a new one. Or maybe it was something else. This time, we decided on a different theme. We simply told everyone: Cook a dish with a story attached.
We served eggplant Parmesan. When Paul and I began dating, this was the most gourmet dish I knew. I made it to woo my meat and potatoes boy, who swore it was the best thing he'd ever eaten. Since I rarely cook anymore, he was the one to make it for the GG, another sign of how we've grown, surprising and completing each other over our long marriage.
Frank's appetizer came from the French village, population 100, where his father was born and his aunt still lived. But my favorite story came from Ted and Marybeth, who brought a sponge cake with buttercream frosting.
Marybeth's grandmother, who raised her, was famous for that cake. She made it for birthdays, holidays and the small weddings her friends held in their West Side homes for their children. That night, Marybeth described how her grandparents disapproved of Ted at first. They warned he was 10 years older and wouldn't want children. He'd been married before, and she'd never be first in his heart. (This made us all smile. Ted and Marybeth have two kids. You couldn't find a stronger marriage.) Their resistance wounded Marybeth, but her love only grew deeper. She and Ted moved in together — unmarried, still another strike against them.
It took some courage to invite her grandparents for Sunday lunch, and she was surprised when they accepted. Her grandmother arrived carrying a Tupperware container. Setting it on the buffet, she lifted the lid, and there it was — the cake, the famous, special-occasion sponge cake. On top, her grandmother had carefully set a fresh red rose. Neither woman had to say a word. They both knew what bringing that cake meant. Not long after, they baked it again, together this time, for the wedding.
We all sat back and sighed. For years, we'd served each other dishes we'd never made — some we'd never even heard of — from ingredients we hunted for all over town. We'd checked out new cookbooks, met fellow Clevelanders whose cultures had their roots thousands of miles away. Food had made our worlds so much bigger, and yet tonight, it drew us all in. That night, it brought us closer than we'd ever been. Food, that common language. Food, the simplest form of love.
Soon after, our GG came to its natural end. By then, we'd fed one another, in every sense, for decades. Though time and circumstance scattered us, I'm keeping that elegant bottle of orange water, the stinky can of asafetida, the dark, mysterious, unlabeled jar. Those ingredients sit on my shelf the way memories linger in my mind. I can still taste that sponge cake, the buttercream melting on my tongue.