Last year, sensing the onset of my annual bout of existential distress, I approached my husband in tears. "This is crazy," I said, shaking at him the sheaf of papers—menu, recipes, preparation schedule—I'd been working on for weeks. "The appetizer alone requires three recipes. It's hopeless...right?"
He regarded me calmly. "Are you excited about making all those things?" he said.
"Yes," I whispered.
"Then make them."
"Oh," I said, sniffling once more, just for effect. "Okay."
And so, with a dozen words my husband halted a plunging elevator, pried open the door, and helped me off to safety. Oblivious to his heroism, he turned back to his laptop. I sat on the couch and felt the specter of the Unattainable Ham drift away from me. It dawned on me for the first time in my life that I could prepare the Christmas feast just for the crazy, chaotic joy of it; the six-day process of it; the slowly building, flavor-by-flavor anticipation of it. I decided I was going to have fun.
And so I did. I scrubbed and peeled, cut and scalded, caramelized, pulverized, and generally forced my ingredients into states of self-transcendence. On December 25, I served deep-fried, cheese-filled savory doughnuts over a bed of roasted beets as an appetizer, followed by beef tenderloin wrapped in herbs and pastry, potatoes fried in goose fat, green beans with lemon zest and parsley. For dessert, there was armagnac-prune cake and caramel pots de crème.
The best present I got that year was rediscovering why I'd fallen in love with cooking in the first place. See, every creative act demands that you work hard, push yourself beyond your limits, and risk at least a little bit of your heart. But most such endeavors result in something that sits on a shelf, or hangs on a wall, or is otherwise meant to be displayed, preserved, admired. Not food! Food disappears. For years I'd been trying to make something as eternal as Mummo's ham, something that would be preserved forever in the glass case of memory. But in the end a dinner, no matter how dazzling, marks a moment, nothing more. Which fills my heart with a kind of bright, singing joy, because it means that, with cooking, the act of creation is the whole gift, and a Christmas feast is the finest thing I can give the people I love: a way to celebrate the rare and wonderful act of sitting down together, right here, right now.