I walk into Jenna and Bradley's apartment and hug them hello. I hand a bottle of wine to Jenna and a covered pan of dessert bars to Bradley. I wave hello to the handful of college friends who have arrived before me as I walk through the living room to my standard post: the table with the snacks.
Bradley joins me as I dip a shrimp from a seafood platter into cocktail sauce.
"Where's this from?" I barely make eye contact as I dress an oyster.
"I picked it up at Chelsea Market today."
"Oh, wow. Must've cost a fortune."
He lets out a small laugh, but I can't discern whether his expression is a slight smile or a grimace.
"I'm really proud of that cheese plate," Robyn gestures to it as she approaches. "Isn't it pretty?"
We have wine until it's late. Then we have dinner until it's later. Dinner is eclectic. Bradley is from New Orleans and made jambalaya. We supplement it with Domino's. New York pizza is great and this is far from it, but that's part of its charm. The Domino's is delicious, but it's also nostalgic from college, and there's something New York in that — eating a worse alternative because it's familiar. Before we eat, Lauren takes a picture for her Instagram.
We finish the night with my dessert bars, which I made after climbing out of a Pinterest blackhole. Funfetti mix is transformed into something denser and sweeter than cake thanks to a generous helping of shortening. There's a thick, gaudy layer of sprinkles on top. Lauren takes another picture.
As I come up on my 12th anniversary of living in New York next week, I'm reflecting on how it's different than Dubuque, Iowa, where I grew up. But I'm also doing a lot of thinking on how New York City has changed me.
In land-locked Iowa there were never seafood platters. Sometimes there was shrimp, but it was always frozen and it was often too expensive to be a dinner party staple. The first time I had a tuna steak, I was 16 and ordered it because I thought myself cosmopolitan. I wasn't aware of how it was meant to be prepared and neither were my parents. It arrived medium-rare (as appropriate), and we sent it back three times before it was fully cooked through.
We had meat and cheese platters growing up, but they were either bought from Hy-Vee, our local grocery store, or they comprised local flavors like venison jerky in place of jamón serrano. They were never curated by Brooklyn-based cheesemongers, and the concept of a smear of jam on the platter was foreign to me until my 20s. The meat and cheese platters of Iowa wouldn't have gotten many likes on Instagram.
An even more striking difference was the energy of Iowa dinner parties. They always turned out a little like The Great British Bake Off. Everyone was lovely to each other, but whenever the dinner party was a potluck, it seemed as if everyone was competing.
It's because of what was at stake. Iowa kitchens are bigger than New York kitchens; the expectation was that everyone cooked. But more than that, in Iowa, recipes were currency.
We placed more value on recipes that had been published and republished in church or community cookbooks. There were dozens of variations of the cheesy hashbrown, an Iowa staple. A thousand ways to make corn. I grew accustomed to neighborhood families bringing the same dishes to picnics, for better (scotcheroos) or for worse (green bean salad).
In high school it was normal to receive a call from a friend that went, "Come over. My mom made Oreo fluff."
I always felt that my mom cooked better than most of my friends' parents. Reflecting back, I think it was because of the cookbooks in her arsenal. She grew up in a small Iowa town with fewer than 500 people called New Vienna (aptly nicknamed the eNVy of Iowa). There, my grandma collected recipes from friends and cookbooks, which she transcribed onto lined note cards: sour cream coffee cake, sugar cookies baked with secret ingredients (nutmeg and sour cream), and of course, cheesy hashbrowns. On the recipe cards, my grandma called for imprecise measurements: "a little salt," "sugar to taste," "just enough baking soda."
I grew up on those recipes.
My mom's cookbooks, from New Vienna and beyond, still live in her kitchen. One is called The Settlement Cookbook. Its faded parchment cover alleges it's "the way to a man's heart," and is laughably illustrated with a line of women in aprons reading it.
I wish the recipe my mom became lauded for came from that cookbook. But it's from a church cookbook from my Aunt Kathy's parish in Barrington, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago). It's for mushroom cheese bread. Every time my mom made it, people asked her for the recipe. She'd copy it down for them on a lined notecard, and though I never detected smugness, she knew the power the recipe held.
The recipe calls for an excessive amount of butter that's mixed with dry mustard, minced onion, poppy seeds, seasoned salt, lemon juice, and canned mushrooms (editor's note: we used fresh). The mix is poured into French bread that's been meticulously sliced diagonally and stuffed with packaged Swiss cheese.
I'd stand next to my mom while she assembled it, which took longer than one might expect, sneaking slices of Swiss into my mouth. She'd complain that if I didn't stop, the bread wouldn't be cheesy enough. (It was always cheesy enough.)
My very first exposure to dinner parties in Iowa was on my 6th birthday. For as long as I can remember, it was a family tradition. Anything they wanted. It was like a death row inmate's last meal, but infinitely happier.
My sister Sarah always choose filet mignon; my sister Iman's choices were as inconsistent as mine, which included everything from chicken Parmigiana to veal (I went through a phase when I thought it was very funny to say "Wiener schnitzel").
No matter what we chose as our main, mushroom cheese bread was always on the menu. Despite how it left your hands greasy from butter and planted poppy seeds in between every tooth, something about it felt elegant.
In my first month in New York, years later, I decided to cook for friends who let me crash on their couch while I found a place to live. I had not yet been deterred by the small kitchens and impossible-to-navigate New York grocery stores, and didn't yet know about cheese plates with jam and figs.
I made mushroom cheese bread, of course. Since then I've only made it a handful of times, and in some ways it's reflective of how New York has changed me. Today, for instance, I find excuses not to make it: the small kitchens, gourmet French bread is too crusty (as it should be, I think), poppy seeds cost a fortune ($10 sometimes!), and the amount of butter in the recipe is enough to make anyone on Keto blush.
But I also make or buy other things to bring: fancy cheese from obscure Brooklyn I found in subscription newsletters; elaborate Ina Garten recipes that mostly serve to name-dropping Ina Garten; and recipes from the internet made for Instagram.
What went missing is the core of how I once approached dinner parties: to focus not just on how good something tastes, but on how good something has always tasted — to bring whomever I was feeding back home with me.
One of the things that makes New York City great is that it has everything. One of the things that makes it tough is how tempting it is to grab something that was once foreign to you (from fancy cheese to crab claws) and pretend it was always yours.
It's easy to forget who I was; it's hard to remember that I was once mushroom cheese bread and all that butter.
When I first moved here, I visited my home in Iowa more frequently. Every time I did, a neighbor or high school friend would ask some variation of the same question, "Isn't New York City so different from Iowa?"
"Yes, of course."
I'd talk about not having a car or never being alone on the streets. I'd talk about eating dinner (not supper as we called it) at 10 p.m. I'd tell them horror stories about expensive apartments and how no matter how much it cost, there'd be pests. Regarding the pests, I'd outline the hierarchy of horrors: cockroaches, mice, rats, and then bed bugs.
Five years ago, on New Year's Eve, I made my mom's mushroom cheese bread at a friend's country house where I had access to a large kitchen and a suburban grocery store.
After we were back in the city, my friend Katie texted me, "Can you send me the recipe for that bread?"
"Sure," I replied. I typed it into an email and hit send.
Instead, I wish I had sent back: "I'll write it on an index card for the next time I see you."
Recipes used to be physical objects. I wish that I had honored my mom by writing her recipe down in cursive on a note card that would inevitably fade and grow to be stained by butter mixed with powdered mustard. I wish that I had honored my grandma by amending the recipe slightly so that the measurements reflected "a little of this" and "more of that."
Even though my mother's mushroom cheese bread now floats through my friends' inboxes (and now yours), I'd like to think that it's still currency — even if a recipe like that may buy you less in New York than it does in Dubuque.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: I live in the city now, but cheesy bread will always have my small-town heart