First Person

A madeleine. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The other day, I graduated from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone 15. The iPhone 6 needed to be plugged in all the time, same as me. The next day, when I woke up with the iPhone 15, I didn’t recognize the house where I lived, or the room where I was sleeping, or the person beside me in the bed. Richard said, “I think you should get the wireless earpods. You’ll like them.” I said, “How do you know?” He laughed.

The difference between learning a person and learning an iPhone is that, eventually, you learn the iPhone. You even forget the learning part. Once human beings know something, we think we’ve always known it—like the discovery of irony by a child, it’s a one-way door.

Going back to 2007—it was Richard’s and my second Christmas together—and the way I got the catering job was the chef who usually cooked dinner for the Murphys got sick. Or maybe it was that the catering company I worked for had overbooked the chefs, and suddenly there weren’t enough to go around. Alice, the booker, called me and said, “You do private parties, right? Can you please do Christmas dinner for the Murphys?” I said, “Sure.” It was the thing where you’re a movie actor, and they say, “You know how to gallop on a horse, right?” Or, “You know how to do a triple axel on ice skates, right?”

In the past, I’d worked as a server at the Murphys’ apartment on Park Avenue. They were a warm, easygoing couple, and they tipped well. At their holiday events, there were lots of kids and adults, a mix of Catholics and Jews. Lots of wrapping paper piled up on the living room floor, and each year, Ted Murphy made an appearance as Santa.

The Christmas before this one, our first as a couple, Richard had found himself alone—he was in Arizona and I was in New York and he’d tossed his life into the air. He found himself feeling so alone that he spent the day missing the marriage he’d left, all the friends he’d ever known, his family back in England, and even England itself.

Not to kill the suspense, Christmas dinner for the Murphys came off—and I mean a sit-down dinner for twenty-six preceded by two hours of drinks and passed hors d’oeuvres, and followed by a showstopper dessert and hot madeleines served as the guests opened presents. Christmas dinner for the Murphys came off with the help of my friend Patrick and with the help of Richard. We’ll get back to Richard in a moment, but just to say, for the record, whatever else Richard is or is not in terms of a comrade, I once had a boyfriend who wouldn’t play tennis with me because he thought I wouldn’t be good enough to make it fun for him.

Patrick had gone to culinary school in Switzerland. He was young, gorgeous, European, and headed to the world of fashion. Before that, we were mates in the world of catering, and for the Murphys’ dinner we basically copied menus we’d served in the catering branch of Daniel Boulud’s restaurant empire, centering the main course around braised boneless short ribs that took two days to prepare. For the hors d’oeuvres trays, we even designed our own versions of Boulud’s trademark topiaries—little parks and forests in which to set down, let’s say, a fried wonton crisp filled with fresh crabmeat salad and finished with a frond of chervil.

Richard was spending a few weeks with me during his winter break from Arizona State University. I had a shopping list as long as our childhood memories, and together we pushed a cart through the shark-infested aisles of Fairway, schlepped to Chinatown for shrimp, crab, and vegetables, and visited five shops in the Flower District.

He was okay with all this, or he pretended to be. After seventeen years together, I still can’t read what lurks beneath the charming, English, usually affable home screen of the iPhone 15 of him. Who knew he cared about Christmas? He’s an atheist, so it’s not a Jesus thing or even a family thing. It’s a Labour Party thing. Christmas Day, no matter what, you’re supposed to have off work! Also, he dislikes being where he feels he doesn’t belong. I said to him, “Well, you have two choices: you can either stay in my apartment and feel as lonely as you did last year, or you can hang out with us in the kitchen and help with the meal. Those are your choices.”

He said, “It’s not my ideal sense of Christmas to be considered a servant in the home of strangers.” I said, “The Murphys don’t see us as servants, and even if they do, who cares?” He said, “I care. I’m not a princess of the bourgeoisie who can disregard the markers of class whenever she wants.” I said, “The people I come from are closer to the shtetl than to the crown, but I take your meaning. Also, I’ll need you to make the madeleines. There’s no way Patrick or I will be able to mix the batter and bake them in time to serve them warm.”

In Albany the other day, when we were buying the iPhone 15, it felt like stepping off a pier into water where I could drown. The store was pretty quiet. We’d just missed the Black Friday sales, damn it. My iPhone 6 was an ex-parrot, lying limply on the counter, and my sense of having a phone—I mean of the way I live with a phone—is the same as having a body and a brain. How would life be with the iPhone 15?

Who knew that once Richard assumed a responsibility—or had one thrust on him—he would just kill it? I can cook, but I’m not a baker. Susan Murphy bakes, and she had tins for the madeleines. Richard researched recipes, decided on one, followed the instructions carefully (a reason I don’t bake), and voilà, his madeleines, dusted with confectioners’ sugar, were crispy on the outside, beautifully shell-shaped, and meltingly sweet and tender on the inside.

Have you ever prepared a dinner for twenty-six people that had to look professional? There were two servers, in addition to Patrick, Richard, and me. You have to lay out the plates and move around them, each person following the person ahead with a different meal component, setting down the protein and the veg and the carb in exactly the same place on each plate, wiping off drips and making sure that everything is hot and ready at the same time.

It’s a deep joy to bring pleasure to other people with food. That night, we gave the Murphys what they expected as well as a few surprises. And there was Richard in the middle of it, sleeves rolled up, circling the plates behind me with mashed potatoes or wiping crumbs off the dessert plates. After the desserts were set down—slices of Maida Heatter’s flourless chocolate cake with raspberries and a dollop of whipped cream and mascarpone on the side—he began preparing the madeleines. No sooner were they plated and passed than the guests wanted more. Did he ever sit down to have his Christmas meal? He did not. Cooks eat standing up during a job, and he was one of us.

I felt exhilarated. I loved the days of planning and inventing things on the spot. I loved not knowing how it would come together, because how could I know? I loved falling into a life with Richard, who, I could see, would jump with me off all the piers we came to. If you ask for his memory of that night, he’ll tell you he’s glad he’ll never have to do that again, knowing full well another time will come when he’ll bake perfect madeleines.


Laurie Stone is the author of six books, most recently Streaming Now: Postcards from the Thing that is Happening, which was long-listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She writes a column for Oldster Magazine, and the Everything Is Personal Substack.