I met my father late in life, but we had a very special connection, over history, food and storytelling. We made up for lost time by traveling together, cooking together, and gathering around tables of fancy and not so fancy destinations. He was also the one who took it upon himself to teach me how to cook a darn good paella with a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It's one of my favorite memories of our time together. He was a History professor, so as he layered ingredients, pinches of this, and not too much of a dash of that, he intermingled Spanish history and family lore.
Still heady from the aromas of saffron, sofrito, wine and beautiful conversation, I was eager to recreate the experience soon after I returned to Seattle, where I now call home. Home, to me, being where my friends are - seemed like a perfect reason to begin a new tradition, a continuation of that memorable paella cooking lesson.
Our house sits on a cliff, with amazing moonscapes—weather permitting, this being Seattle after all… It always seemed unfair when we were the only ones to enjoy it, so I thought full moon Summer evenings would be the ideal setting. I started with a few friends from my restaurant job and other food-loving friends willing to practice along with me since I was very much a novice at this paella business. It was a bit bumpy at the beginning, but everyone enjoyed the ride. Each paella gathering appeared to have a snafu that lead to a better paella the next time around. Nothing that couldn't be overcome with laughter, wine and a story to tell!
I carted with me a paella pan from Spain, that soon became too small. But at that initial paella dinner, guests enjoyed some extra crunchy uncooked rice from the edges of that pan that was too large for my stove. That led to attempting to cook it outside, over an open fire instead. There was the time that when I forgot the salt, and the time I salted it twice. There was the time when, as I added more friends, the dreaded food sensitivities started popping up… That led to the more than one paella solution. There was the time when I thought recruiting a few friends to chop the ingredients was a brilliant idea until I realized how different pace and style people chop. That lead to a calm and cathartic day, for me, before the paella party of chopping, while listening to music and enjoying a glass of wine. The other concern was the time a paella can take, always an unknown. It never seems to go according to expectations, so keeping people fed until it was ready became a great reason to add some of my favorite tapas and friends started trying to outdo each other with ever more amazing dishes.
It was catching on, the first eight people told another eight, I started inviting guests from the restaurant with whom I felt a connection over food, storytelling and all things Spain. It was a great way to say thank you, it was a great way to celebrate anything, it was a wonderful way to enjoy the long days of Summer, and most of all, it was a beautiful way to connect. I would look around in the mild chaos of it all, and notice how people that had never met before found a common thread and made plans to see each other again, and I saw the self-declared "paella heads" reconnect since the last Fool Moon Party. I see friends from all walks of life mingling and discovering each others' worlds and journeys. I hear conversations that question, and solve the world's problems…. It never gets old!
The pan sits over the open fire, bubbling away, and getting a good share of "oohs", and "aahs" as the beautiful colors come together, those who sit nearby and stoke the wood and everyone wonders when the magic moment will arrive when I say, it's finally done. With all those incredible bouquets swirling around, it is a test of people's patience and expectations. When the paella is ready, everyone gets their instructions to aim for the crusty bottom of the rice and to squeeze a lemon, and as people start digging into their bowl of joy, the general noise level appears to just settle into a pleasant hum. As the cook, I can tell you that there is no substitute for that feeling. It's like a holy grail of sorts when people like what you have prepared. The inevitable comparisons sometimes begin after a few minutes, It's your "best ever," "it's less or more smokey than last time," "it's different than any paella I had before," "what did you put into it this time?.
As things dwindle, a few outlast the rest, and my other favorite time begins when we gather around the firepit and discuss the evening with fun memories that domino into others around the group. Laughter abounds along with the lingering scent of saffron. We lose track of time and realize how late it is, and how we have to say goodbye, for now… So much so, that once, after a loud noise, the automatic sprinklers unexpected turned on and got us all soaked. The good-natured, and memorable, response to that from my beloved old boss was, "Geez, you could've just asked us to leave!".
I mentioned that that was one of my favorite parts of the evening, the other one is when friends hang around the paella, while it takes shape, and I step into the shoes of my dad as I layer the ingredients, the history, and the storytelling…. The heady aromas carry me right back to that day he showed me how he made paella.
BY: YOLANDA FERRER