Dinner parties always seem like a good idea at the outset. The thought always arrives on a quiet night at home. You’ve thrown together some unexpectedly delicious grub from leftover odds and ends in the fridge, which you eat while sipping beers, elbows on the table. There’s good music playing. The light is flattering. Then one of you says to the other, “We should have people over for dinner one night soon.” And the other of you nods in agreement. The two of you sit back, visions of giggling, satisfied revelers filling the room like happy, partying ghosts.
Anybody else out there feel like they occasionally suffer from temporary amnesia?
There is a moment in one of my favorite books of all time—The Boys of My Youth, a memoir by Jo Ann Beard—in which she recalls spending the weekend at her grandparents’ house as a kid, left to fend off the stupefying boredom until her parents come to collect her again: “I ate sugar cubes from the sugar bowl, one every hour or so. They were actually too sugary and each time I ate one I swore I wouldn’t do it again. But another hour later would find me creeping sock-footed out to the kitchen, lifting the plastic lid of the sugar bowl, and selecting another.”
Every time I have a dinner party—when everyone’s gone—I swear to myself I’ll never do it again. “That was the last time we are ever doing that,” I’ll say, or perhaps slur, into the seat cushion of the couch, from the spot I’ve collapsed in, face down, like a dead thing on the beach, the kind everybody sees and goes, “What is that thing?” before scurrying quickly past. Dinner parties can take a lot out of a girl.
I always believe that this time—really, this time—I’ll get it right. I’ll plan ahead. I’ll make something simple and elegant. We’ll be finished cooking and cleaning by 4 o’clock, ample time left to relax with a glass of wine, maybe even play a game of cards. “I wish it was time for them to get here already,” we’d say, smiling, nibbling on crackers, reshuffling the deck.
So when John and I invited my aunt, who was visiting NYC from California, and her good friend out to Brooklyn last weekend (see above re: temporary amnesia), you would probably wonder what I was thinking when I decided to make homemade flatbread, purple potato chips, salmon with spinach baked in a packet of phyllo dough, with sides of roasted carrots and a salad of sunflower shoots with Brussels sprouts and butternut squash, followed by carrot cake ice cream for dessert. And you would be justified in wondering, because this is a menu that would be a little overambitious even for Mario Batali.
Though a gathering of four people hardly even qualifies as a dinner party, I spent the entire day in the kitchen, and made way too much food. I was just noticing a hole in the toe of my tights when the doorbell rang.
In the end, I know I’m my own worst critic (having mentally noted that the salmon was decent but underseasoned; that I had forgotten napkins; that in hindsight the carrot cake ice cream was totally overkill) though I maintain that it’s good to have high standards, and to strive for them.
The bottom line, though, is that dinner parties are a chance to do something nice for other people, to show them a good time, preferably without making it obvious how much effort and sweat went into it. People are merely flattered that you’re willing to go to the trouble for them. I still remember our friend Emily coming for dinner once. The table was set with little cabbages I had hollowed out and put tea lights in, a la Martha Stewart. “Guys, if this is what you do when I come over, I really can’t wait to see what your wedding is like.”
Ah, the wedding. The ultimate dinner party. But the nice thing about that? I can confidently predict it will only happen once, and there will be no more going back, sock-footed, for more.