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Give and Take

The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work. — Émile Zola

I wrenched myself from the espresso-machine demo and joined David by the cookbooks. “You sure about this?” I asked. David nodded, but I required more convincing. “We’re not being transparent or presumptuous? Like, ‘Hey, happy birthday, for your gift we’d like to put you to work’?” David remained silent, knowing that if he left me on my own I would continue rationalizing this thing until I worked it all out. “Well, maybe not,” I said. “I mean, Josue does enjoy creative ventures. He’d have fun with this, right?” David’s face was inscrutable, but I read it as encouragement to continue in the same vein. “Yeah, I mean, it’s not like it’s selfish to give pigment to a painter just because you might enjoy what he creates with it. You know what? Now that I think about it, it’s a great idea.” David nodded again and proceeded to the checkout counter.

I fancy myself a thoughtful person. But I also recognize that by reason of humanity, every deed sprouts from a selfish seed. Even acts of alleged altruism — such as volunteering at a homeless shelter or mentoring a troubled teen — are rooted in one’s selfish desire to feel good. I don’t see this as a bad thing, especially when I think of all the beneficiaries of charity — it’s safe to assume recipients of benevolent acts are not as concerned with the giver’s motivation as they are thankful for the help.

Despite my aspirations to altruism, when it comes to gift giving, my motivations are often more Gates than Gandhi. For example, last year, David and I insisted on getting his mother an iMac for her birthday because we knew it would be easier for us to help her with technological issues from 3000 miles away if she was on the same team (and we also believe the Mac is a sexier machine than that antiquated PC she had been using).

When I give the gift of a spa treatment, it is always under the condition that I come along. It’s not “Here’s a certificate, go to the spa,” it’s “Guess what? I’m taking you to the spa!” That way, while the birthday girl is receiving her massage in one room, I can be indulging in an aromatherapy facial in another; afterward, I insist on taking her to Chloe’s for champagne and small bites. I convince myself that my company makes the day more enjoyable for the giftee, as if my time is a bonus appended to the present. Part of me really believes that. But on another, darker level, I know that I’m merely rationalizing how my being pampered for a day is a selfless endeavor and therefore guilt-free. Everybody wins.

And now there I was at Williams-Sonoma, aiding and abetting in the purchase of a pasta maker for my friend Josue while secretly harboring a supposition that I would end up partaking in the fruits of his labor.

A painter and photographer by trade, Josue brings passion to everything he approaches. The man doesn’t have “hobbies.” Rather, each interest becomes an obsession, each pastime a peak he must conquer. Whether he is designing and manufacturing jeans in Mexico City or providing commission paintings to collectors in Beverly Hills, Josue’s diversions tend to be appreciated by others.

In recent months, Josue has been applying his inexhaustible zeal to the art of cooking. Like a composer spawning variations on a theme, once Josue had been introduced to the salty-sweet combo of a pizza blanketed with bacon, grapes, and fontina cheese, he experimented with ways to intensify and diversify the toppings — spicy and sweet jalapeño and strawberry-serrano jellies, exotic meats and imported cheeses. Because Josue was producing so much fare in his pursuit of the perfect pizza, David and I (conveniently located a few floors away in the same building) were repeatedly called upon to volunteer our tasting services.

We were giving this pasta maker to Josue with explicit expectancy, like the time we gave Hungarian sausage to Hanis, the chef at Kensington Grill. We knew Josue would put things in that shiny red machine that we would never think to try; it was his trial and our pleasure, and we stood to profit from the investment.

The evening of Josue’s birthday party, we watched him unwrap the pasta maker and pasta-making cookbook with no small amount of anticipation. We told ourselves our intentions were pure, and I’m sure at the time we believed it. The following week, I feigned surprise when Josue invited us to dinner. He said that Rosa would be making one of her inventive salads and that for the main course, he would proffer the contraption’s inaugural pasta. I danced my way to the elevator with David, smiling beside me, a bottle of wine in each hand.

I should have known Josue wouldn’t play it simple the first time. When starting out, most amateur cooks would try a few batches of basic pasta first. Then, if things go well, they might hazard adding some black pepper or a few fresh herbs. Before attempting record-breaking feats of derring-do, even high-wire tightrope walkers first practice their art just a few inches off the ground. For his first walk, Josue had stretched his tightrope between two mountaintops. Then again, I must have known this would happen. Isn’t that what I’d been counting on?

As soon as I entered his kitchen, I was assaulted by the smell of green: spinach, serrano chilis, parsley, fennel, Granny Smith apples, and mint, all of it commingling with the pungent beige of garlic, flour, tequila, and eggs. The apples and fennel made up Rosa’s salad, and the rest contributed to the jade lump of dough on the granite counter. I stifled a squeal of excitement.

Like a surgeon’s assistant, David fed Josue the dough to squeeze and flatten in the machine until long ribbons of fettuccine were ready to be placed into the pot of boiling water. Minutes later, I had in my bowl a serving of pasta so spicy and flavorful it required no sauce, just a pat of butter to keep the green strips from sticking together. “Wow,” I said. “And this is only your first attempt!” Taking in my friend’s proud smile, I left unsaid my speculation as to what unknown delights lay ahead as the result of the triumphant birthday present.

Hours later, as David and I made our way upstairs, buzzed from good food, wine, and the company of our friends, I was struck by a brilliant idea. “Hey, beh beh, hold up.” David paused in the hallway and waited for me to catch up. “Josue’s into holidays, right? What say, as, like, an ‘Easter gift,’ we get him a book on how to make cheese?”

David thought about it for a minute and then his face broke into a smile. “You know what?” he said. “I bet he’d really like that.”

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