Instead of presents, I asked for… salads

Emma Wilkins

It started with Hetty McKinnon’s Community – a cookbook that brought new meaning to the word “salad”. Recipes called for freekeh and blood orange; pomegranate and sumac; caramelised nuts and wasabi mayonnaise. I wanted to try them all, but not make them all. On social media, I wondered aloud about holding a party where every guest had to make and bring one salad. Some friends responded with enthusiasm, others with ridicule.

I set up a Facebook event and invited the enthusiasts. I warned them from the start that strings were attached: it wouldn’t be a “just bring yourself” dinner party with a gracious host: it would be a dictatorship with a Salad Boss. Guests would make, and bring, a salad of my choosing.

No one rebelled, and the result was a feast. Don’t think wilted lettuce and tasteless tomato;      think goats cheese croutons with baby spinach, figs, and apple-mustard dressing. Don’t think healthy; think calorific. We ended the night with full stomachs and leftovers that would make us the envy of any lunchroom.

I later acquired Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem and curated a similar event, only this time the invitation list was based on friends who also owned the book. They knew me, but not each other. It didn’t matter; they knew Yotam. Recipes were conquered and strangers became comrades, even friends.

Buoyed by the success, I went a step further: I decided to repeat the experiment with a wider circle. The excuse would be my turning thirty-eight. And instead of presents, I would ask for salads.

Knowing this circle would include friends who found the idea of cooking for fun confusing at best, I added an escape clause: they could choose to bring cheese or wine instead. Inspired by a lockdown caper where I had invited friends to wear ridiculous outfits and take turns running an online fitness/dance class (it did little for our fitness but much for our mood), I added that thrift-store outfits were strongly encouraged (“the worse the better”).

My husband joked that I’d find out who my real friends were. I joked about asking them all to make me Hetty’s Brussels sprouts with stir-fried lotus root, black fungus, five-spice tofu and hoisin-sesame sauce.

Thankfully for my guests, I did exercise some restraint. I sent lengthier recipes to seasoned cooks but simple ones to the rest, and I didn’t ask anyone to source black wood ear fungus or frozen lotus root.

In the lead-up to the party I received a flurry of texts. Two friends had just been shopping and couldn’t wait to show off their outfits, while another said she’d had a “salad adventure” and would “tell all tonight.” Another texted: “Soggy salad sorry! Will bring wine to distract”.

Guests arrived with serious salads and hilarious outfits. There was a sheer white dress with pleated wing-like sleeves and there were garish tri-colour plastic sandals worn with socks, there was an off-the-shoulder number with a fluffy fur hem, and there were sequins galore.

One friend claimed her salad had taken two hours to prepare. Another had been smoking eggplants all afternoon and still had to put the thing together. The friend who’d mentioned a “salad adventure” had driven to multiple shops in search of dried chipotle chillies and ended up staring at a spice rack with such disappointment that a fellow customer asked if she was okay. When the customer, who happened to be a chef, said “just use smoked paprika”, my friend almost hugged her.

As stories were exchanged, I cooked and chopped. I’d marinated mushrooms in honey and beer overnight, and now I had to cook lentils and freekah to accompany them. The more I taste-tested, the more I suspected that getting dark ale instead of regular ale was a mistake—either that or Hetty could do wrong and wasn’t the salad goddess I’d made her out to be.

What my contribution lacked in quality, it made up for in quantity. One friend let out an evil laugh as she predicted I’d be eating the leftovers all week. I tried palming it off to someone with chooks, but she didn’t seem to think feeding them beer was a good idea.

Thankfully it was the only disaster; the other creations were delicious. But even if they hadn’t been, it wouldn’t have mattered. The trick was to avoid taking things too seriously which, when combining the words “salad” and “party”, and wearing outrageous second-hand outfits, is easily done.

By the time the last guest left, close to midnight, a team of friends had made the washing-up disappear. The only traces of our wild night were some spinach leaves on the kitchen floor, some herbs between my teeth (the perils of pesto), and some olive pits on the deck.

I went to bed pleased by the meal, and delighted by my friends. Friends who’d slaved over recipes they’d never make again; friends who’d op-shopped for outfits they would never wear again; friends who, after having a good whinge about my strange demands, admitted they had also had a ball.

Fairy lights in a garden at nighttime

Emma Wilkins is a Tasmanian journalist and freelance writer. She enjoys reading, baking, walking, travelling and organising quirky social events. Topics of interest include friendship, parenting, literature, culture, ethics and faith. You can find more of her work at