60-21-14. It's not the combination to a high school locker, the call numbers in Bingo or a Quarterback hike cadence. These numbers represent a snapshot of life. A husband and father turning 60 years old; a marriage of 21 years; and a son, 14 years old - and on one particular night a celebration took place, with those exact numbers in play.
I was thrilled to get a message from a friend of mine asking me to help organize the food for her husbands 60th birthday celebration. I couldn't wait to call my sister. As soon as I said the words "party" and "food" she let loose with a steady stream of questions into the phone, "How many people?" "Sit down or buffet?" "China dishes or Eco-plates?" "Appetizers?" "Main Course?" "Dessert?" "Indoors or outdoors?" Oh, the possibilities! I was getting a little dizzy from all her questions. However, suddenly, it dawned on me, this was not just another party. This celebration was about a life, not about food. Whatever we prepared needed to complement the party not be the party. This was 60 years of life! Immediately, the menu came into focus. The food needed to gather people, reflect on the past, embrace life and create a memory. It needed to be savory, yet fresh and sweet, full of texture and experience. My sister and I could not wait to start chopping, wrapping, marinating and creating some dishes.
We quickly decided on marinated lamb grilled over hot coals with its hot savory juice spilling over to the rice pilaf, decorated with pan roasted pine nuts, apricots and currants. The table would be adorned with fresh roasted eggplant blended with fresh spices into baba ganoush. The sweetness of homemade yogurt transformed into tzatziki, (a cool blend of herbs and spices in yogurt), balanced by the spice of mouth-watering aleppo pepper hummus. Of course there would be filo wrapped delights carefully wrapped and brushed with clarified butter. Don’t forget the tabbouleh salad with bundles and bundles of carefully hand-chopped parsley. Additionally, my sister would craft beautiful mini lamajouns (Armenian style pizza) and a completely original dish that remains nameless but it contains the nuttiness of bulghur wheat, tomatoes, mint, parsley and other spices and herbs formed into teaspoon size bites. We contemplated calling them"Tabouli bites". There was even room for Armenian string cheese, lovingly pulled into fine strands, bundled on a dish next to the pita bread.
It was time for the celebration. My friend was such a graceful and relaxed hostess. With calm, and without pretense, it was obvious her intentions were nothing but love for her husband, her son, and their community of friends. The decorations were subtle but meaningful. She organized pictures of her husband from different time periods in a whimsical display on the dinner tables. However, the high point of the evening was a movie slide show set to music through the decades showing images of his life. My sister and I passed out handmade savory infused lollipops to be enjoyed during the movie presentation. There were chuckles and laughs as the pictures faded in and out. There were memories of old haunts and hangout joints, report cards and teacher remarks. It was fun to see the pictures of him as a young man with a full beard and moustache. I don’t know what it is about men and beards but even my own father, brother and husband have grown, or in the case of my husband, attempted to grow the same beard. It struck me that I only knew my neighbor as a friend down the street who happens to have a child the same age as one of my own. But, now he suddenly became someone’s son, someone’s childhood friend, a boyfriend, a student, and maybe a grandfather someday (but not too soon, I hope).
Think of the roles food plays in our lives – it’s more than calories. Have you ever bitten into a ripe mango or watermelon only to have the memories of an afternoon of a long ago summer dripping down your chin? The job of food at this party was to trigger and enhance these memories without anybody paying attention to the food itself. That was a tall order. This is the real joy of cooking – understanding the palette and purpose. Is the food the foreground or the ambient light? The melody, the harmony or the soothing heartbeat…
The food was eaten, memories were shared. The proof of the evening was in the apple cake. For as long as he could remember, an apple cake was always served on his birthday. This cake was so dense and sinfully rich, topped with a toffee glaze. It was more like eating a caramel apple without the stick. Oh was it good and besides, you only turn 60 once. My sister and I were happy and satiated in a different respect. We were just happy to see our hostess relaxed and enjoying the party.
The evening was best summed up when his close friend raised a glass of champagne and simply stated, “You make turning 60 look easy.”
Let's face it, 60 is the new 40. Bring it on!