Don't be shy.
It was a constant refrain of my childhood. Stand up straight. Comb your hair. Don't be shy. Still, I remained someone who slouched in my chair and wore my hair in a messy ponytail scrunched up at the back of my head. Most of all, I remained shy, blushing when strangers spoke to me, hiding behind potted plants at parties, dry-heaving in the bathroom before class presentations. I elected to study electronic music so I wouldn't have to be in the choir and stagecraft so I wouldn't have to take drama. I was the girl who never raised her hand, who hid behind a curtain of hair, wearing all black, trying to be invisible. I still hate the sound of my own voice, saying my own name aloud.
The year I turned twenty-five changed everything. My parents and I went to Italy; despite my stammers and protestations I was the one dispatched for directions, to order sandwiches and buy mineral water. (Don't be shy, they said, again and again). Somehow I managed to find hotels and navigate menus. Several months later I found myself in Portugal, conversing in French (which, by the way, I don't speak) with a beautiful kind woman at a crossroads and chatting (in Portuguese, which I understand even less than French) with an old man on the flight home, who had recognized me from the flight to Lisbon two weeks before. I came home and starting going to restaurants alone, talking to people at the next table, talking to the servers who went out of their way to make me feel at home.
A lot more changed in the next few years when I started dining at Lark, alone. One night I told K., one of the owners, about the time Thierry Rautereau served us lamb testicles; she suggested that I try their Whole Beast dinner in the spring. I was nervous about dining with strangers - none of my friends wanted to come along - but there was no need; I sat with nine other people, and they were all warm and friendly, sharing wine and stories. I talked all night, until my voice was nearly gone, and it left me wanting more. Months later I was back, for a cookbook dinner for David Tanis (A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes), and this time it was easier, both because I was seated next to a couple I had met at the earlier dinner, and because I was becoming more at ease with the idea of talking to strangers.
When you have a love for something - in my case, food - you find it opens all kinds of doors. I began shopping at farmer's markets, talking to people who were producing all the wonderful things spread before me. People will make time for you, if they sense you are truly interested in what they have to offer. They will welcome you, into their restaurants and homes and lives. They will answer your questions, and encourage you to do things like learn how to butcher a pig or make rillettes or chocolate coconut curry ice cream and apple crisp and suggest that you buy something called a refractometer (in this case, a device that measures the amount of sugar in fruit). Wonderful things can happen. Don't be shy.